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The Promise of Mediation in Ukraine: Cease-Fire and a Road Map to a Peace Treaty

  • American mediators are not involved – but need to be
  • A cease-fire need not lead to a long-term “frozen conflict”

America, for all its foreign wars, is the home of the peace movement. It also gave the world the mediation movement, and the mediation profession. Mediators would do well to offer their insights – and their services – to the extremely dangerous conflict in Ukraine.

This is the first of a series of articles meant to explain why mediation is appropriate right now, and what the broad contours of a mediation process would be. I will also argue for mediators to assume a role in our country’s many foreign conflicts, initially turning their attention to the big life-on-earth-threatening conflicts like the one going on in Ukraine now.

Stop the Killing

Ukraine is being wrecked. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers have been killed or wounded.  Watch the film Twenty Days in Mariupol to see the tragedy that has befallen the unfortunate people of Ukraine. But even beyond this humanitarian catastrophe, the chances of nuclear escalation increase the longer the war drags on. 

Retired U.S. brigadier general Kevin Ryan, former Defense Attaché to Moscow, warned in May that Russia will use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine in the event that overwhelming Ukrainian battlefield success requires a Russian escalation. In October of 2022 retired general David Petraeus had predicted that if Russia used nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the United States would destroy all Russian forces in Ukraine and take out the Russia Black Sea Fleet in Crimea.  The unthinkable, a nuclear war, could follow.

Mediation could be the key to saving Ukraine from total ruin – and maybe, after a period of time and a lengthy negotiation process, and multiple plebiscites and elections in the southern and eastern provinces and throughout Ukraine – maybe it could eventually give Ukraine back its eastern and southern regions, now occupied by Russian forces.

Call for a Cease-Fire and Immediate Talks

The war must be ended not with a “Ukrainian victory” that leads to Russia deciding it needs to destroy Ukrainian forces with a handful of low-yield “tactical” nuclear weapons, but with the U.S./Ukraine announcing a cease-fire, or with Ukraine and Russia and the U.S. responding positively to a call for a cease-fire, whether from the Vatican, the United Nations, or even from Russia.

For this to happen, the parties in this war would first need to formally accept the idea of starter conversations – preliminary, highly-choreographed talks between West Ukrainian nationalists, on the one hand, and Russia-oriented and Russian-speaking Eastern Ukrainians, on the other. At play will be cultural, linguistic, political, and national identity conflicts dating back several generations but gaining more intensity once Ukraine declared its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1989.

Of course, addressing this internal conflict is key to achieving long-term peace. To that end, I will provide, in a subsequent post, an analysis of the issues and problems that these two internal actors need to discuss and resolve. But a cease-fire comes first, as Russia/Ukraine scholar Nicolai Petro so penetratingly explains in his recent book The Tragedy of Ukraine.

Talks with the Bad Guys

It seems clear that, once talks are underway between Ukrainians and Ukrainians, an international leader with standing must coax Kyiv and Moscow into beginning bi-lateral talks. At issue will be the nature of the relationship between the two countries, for many generations one and the same country.

Moscow had negotiated key issues with Kyiv for decades before the “Euromaidan” revolt that violently toppled the sitting, democratically elected president in 2014. That’s when the war began. Kyiv sent troops and militia battalions to the breakaway provinces. It systematically shelled rebel cities and towns. Thousands died. Russia annexed the strongly Russian-speaking Crimean peninsula and after much hesitation, began to participate militarily in eastern Ukraine.

Now, in late 2023, after almost two years of bloody warfare, Russia seems unlikely to accept any talks with Ukrainian officials unless the United States is also at the negotiation table, primarily because of the breadth of American military and financial support for Ukraine.

Assuming these conditions are satisfied, Russia is likely to say ‘yes’ to mediation, as I will explain in coming submissions.

A central item in the first few weeks after a cease-fire will be how to monitor the announced cessation of hostilities (and which international body will enforce such an agreement).  Mediators could assist the multiple players decide on how to react to and deal with outbreaks of fighting that might occur in different places.

Subsequent negotiations will attempt to formalize the truce with an armistice that outlines or previews the terms that the parties are discussing and hope to reach agreement on. 

The whole process could result, with much effort and with international financing and teams of the worlds’ best mediators, in a full-fledged peace treaty, conceivably in one or two years.

Russia’s Role in Europe and the World

Once talks have begun on these two levels, perhaps six months or a year after the end of major combat, teams of international mediators, hopefully including some of the leading American mediators, could begin multi-tiered mediation about a) what Russia’s relationship with Europe should be, and b) whether the U.S., whose leaders like to see it as the “indispensable nation”, can abide a prosperous, happy, and secure Russian Federation.

In coming submissions, I will offer a rudimentary blueprint for how three roughly concomitant three-level processes could occur, and what the issues are at each level:

  • internal conflict between Ukrainians
  • conflict between the Ukrainian state and the Russian Federation
  • the conflict over what Russia’s role in Europe should be as well as how Russia and the U.S. should relate

“Sure we’ll mediate–after we’ve defeated them”

Is the conflict, after almost two years of killing and destruction, not ripe for mediation?

As mediators, we are familiar with disputes that attorneys say are not “ripe” for mediation. It can seem that the parties want to prolong the legal process so that when they do negotiate with the other side, they will be able to negotiate from a better position. 

The government in Kyiv, reliant on support from the U.S. and the European Union to keep fighting and to keep functioning as a government, says it will mediate – once it has expelled the Russian forces. This seems extremely unlikely.  As stated above, a sound defeat of Russia’s (not very impressive) conventional army could very well lead to the Russian leadership electing to launch “tactical” nuclear weapons to eliminate the successful Ukrainian forces. Pray that Ukraine’s army does not succeed, is one’s take-away from analysis on social media by experts such as Scott Ritter, Douglas McGregor, Noam Chomsky, retired U.S. intelligence analyst Paul Pillar, and exiled Russian journalist Andrei Petsev.

But might mediation reward the Russians for their aggression? This point of view, while understandable, fundamentally discounts key tenets of mediation.

The U.S. officials such as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and U.S. senator Joe Manchin declare that there should be no talk of negotiation with the Russian invaders. The possibility is taboo in our mainstream media, never to be brought up.  Such negotiation would be tantamount to “rewarding the Russians for their aggression”. The assumption is that to begin such talks would require Ukraine to recognize Russia’s supposed annexation of vast portions of Ukraine’s southeastern territory.

A mediator’s response to that claim is, that’s not how mediation works. If you come to the table, everything is on the table.

Furthermore, as I will show in subsequent posts, Russian control of the conquered eastern provinces is partial, tenuous, and very weak (except for Crimea). Russia will be looking at indefinite armed conflict, for years to come, if it continues to promote a fictitious “annexation”. It is barely able to hold on to towns just outside the Donbass separatists’ stronghold of Donetsk. Thus, under the correct circumstances, Russia has a true incentive to negotiate in good faith.

That’s why it seems likely that negotiations will certainly include the status of the eastern and southern provinces and whether or not, and how soon, and with what political conditions, they could return to Ukrainian sovereignty. 

Is This Rewarding the Invaders?

Far from rewarding the Russian invaders, mediation will save Ukraine from further destruction and might even lead to resolutions that would allow a unified Ukraine to exist again, free of armed conflict. All of this is possible in conditions that would allow the country to be rebuilt with support from Europe, the United States, and even from the country that has always influenced Ukraine far more than any other, Russia.  

Mediators need to Assume a Role in U.S. International Politics

Broadly speaking, mediators seem to be excluded from helping resolve the big, important conflicts of our time –like war.

Bernie Mayer lamented and denounced this when he published Beyond Neutrality: Confronting the Crisis in Conflict Resolution (2004).

Negotiation theorists are allowed to influence U.S. diplomatic efforts.  However as Jay Rothman argued in Resolving Identity-Based Conflict in Nations, Organizations, and Communities (1997), our culture of negotiation tends to be secretive, manipulative, and often devious.  Mediators are needed to set up interactive dialogue processes to uncover and make clear for all parties in Ukraine’s internal conflict what each side’s high-stakes but intangible needs are for identity, recognition, safety, and survival.  Without these essential goals and motivations being fully articulated, with the help of mediators, through interactive dialogue, the search for mutually acceptable settlement options will not lead to peace.

America, after all, is the home of the mediation profession. The best mediators in the world are American. But our expertise is absent, from national disputes as well as from major world disputes.

Given our unique perspectives as dispute resolution professionals, readers of could benefit from reading about the internal conflict in Ukraine and between Ukraine and Russia out of which this war has arisen.

The threat of nuclear war has unfortunately never been greater than in this war in Ukraine.  Mediators–U.S. mediators–far more than negotiators, have a vital role they could and should be playing.


John Cabral

John Cabral came to the mediation profession from urban planning and peace and justice activism. His training is from the Chicago Center for Conflict Resolution, with additional training received from Richard Blackburn, John Kinyon, and Gary J. Friedman. His favorite mediation authors are Kenneth Cloke, Bernard Mayer, William Ury, Gary… MORE >

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