Nearly 40 days ago, Russia launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine in violation of international law and its security assurances under the Budapest Memorandum, 1994. And, there are no winners in sight. Despite peace talks held on March 29, in Istanbul (Turkey), direct negotiations between the conflicting parties have failed to make much progress: a ceasefire is yet to be achieved, and the Russian attacks on the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine continue. As a result, there have been 3,455 civilian casualties recorded in Ukraine (1,417 killed and 2,038 injured) while more than four million people have fled seeking protection, safety and assistance.
Similarly, in addition to casualties on the Russian side, financial and economic sanctions imposed by the European Union and the G7 have impacted the Russian economy. Despite artificial measures to prop up the rouble, the economy is tanking, annual inflation has jumped to 15.6%, the Russian Central Bank’s forex reserves remain frozen and it cannot access financing and loans from multilateral institutions. At the global level, this war is disrupting supply chains and is causing the fuel and food prices to surge. This begs the question — if this unnecessary war has resulted in a no-win situation, why have negotiations failed to end it?
Positions versus interests
Past negotiations, by video conferencing or as peace talks (held in Belarus and Turkey) have failed to make much progress because the parties have been negotiating over ‘positions’ rather than ‘interests’. A ‘position’ is a surface statement of what a party wants; for example, Russia’s demand that Ukraine recognises the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states. Whereas, ‘interests’ are the underlying reasons behind those positions; for instance, why is Russia focused on the independence of these separatist areas? Therefore, mediation as a conflict resolution tool can assist the parties in identifying these hidden ‘interests’ and facilitate them in working towards crafting a solution that each of the parties would value — a Europe of common security and prosperity where the sovereignty of all nations (Ukraine, Russia and the West) are guaranteed.
Mediation (or assisted negotiation) is a flexible conflict resolution tool facilitated by a neutral third party. Depending on the choice of parties, it can be facilitative or evaluative and can be conducted in joint sessions or caucuses (i.e., private meetings). Additionally, its focus on collaborative bargaining producing a win-win outcome (in contrast to adversarial proceedings such as arbitration or litigation that result in a win-loss outcome) equips it to handle conflicts of all kinds: from workplace disputes to broken contracts to international conflicts. International mediation follows this process of “assisting two or more contending parties to find a solution without resorting to force”. Due to its immense potential, the Charter of the United Nations under Article 33 recognises the promise of international mediation for peaceful resolution of international disputes.
Throughout history, individuals, countries and organisations (such as the International Committee of the Red Cross) have acted as third parties and have brokered peace between conflicting nations. Described by theorists as a form of power brokerage or a political problem solving process, international mediation has been used to resolve conflicts for hundreds of years. The best known example is of U.S. President Jimmy Carter who mediated peace between Israel and Egypt (known as the Camp David Accords of 1978) that has resulted in 44 years of peace.
Scholarship on neuroscience proves that emotions have a significant influence on cognitive processes (Kragel and LaBar 2016). If emotions are running high between conflicting parties it is very likely that either or both parties get re-active (i.e., to act without thinking). Ambrose Bierce wrote: “speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret’. This is where a neutral third party can act as a ‘go-between’ (termed: shuttle diplomacy) to gather more information and help the parties identify their hidden interests. This helps in ensuring that conflicting parties keep their eyes on the prize. More importantly, the mediator shuttling between parties helps in limiting or reducing re-active devaluation — a cognitive barrier where the disputants wrongfully construe the conflict as a zero sum game. As a result, even the value of a genuine offer coming directly from an adversary is automatically reduced in the eyes of the receiver. Therefore, subject to context and the consent of parties, the mediator can either play a passive role to facilitate communication or a more active role and exert more influence on the content of the discussion and the final solution.
Focusing on the priority
Certainly, international mediation has a lot to offer. But is it the right choice in the Russia-Ukraine conflict?
Despite bilateral peace talks, Russian air strikes continue on Ukrainian cities resulting in civilian casualties. The voice against dictatorships will want to hold the Russian President Vladimir Putin guilty of violating the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their additional protocols. It may appear that opting for mediation legitimises past violations of international law and civilian killings. Or does it even amount to trading justice for peace? The answer is a bit more complicated. Mediation is a tool that avoids ‘being re-active’. More importantly, it helps focus on the number one priority, i.e., the safety of the Ukrainian people through a complete ceasefire. Furthermore, a mediator’s skill of strategic empathy (also a tool of statecraft) will further help understand Mr. Putin’s underlying drivers and constraints.
Furthermore, scholars like Zartman (1981) have argued that power parity between disputing parties is pivotal to the success of international mediation. Indeed, there exists a huge power imbalance between Russia and Ukraine — Russia commands the world’s second most powerful military, whereas Ukraine, a nation of roughly 44 million people, was relying on the pinky promises (or security assurances) made by Russia in the Budapest Memorandum. However, U.S. President Joe Biden’s strategy of making American intelligence (about Russia’s intention to invade Ukraine under false pretexts) publicly accessible, equipped Ukraine with the ‘power of solidarity’ which balanced or even tipped the scale in its favour. As a result, Russia is cornered, Ukraine has the solidarity of the world, Germany shed its pacifism and took a harsher stand against Russia by halting the Nord Stream 2 project, and Finland and Sweden are being pushed closer to NATO membership. Thus, opting for mediation is the only way left for Russia to save face and escape the sanctions that have crippled its economy.
For the West, going ahead with mediation presents itself as an opportunity to build a Europe of common security, common prosperity and peace. Simply put, this could be a starting point to include Russia in the security infrastructure of Europe (like it did with East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989) — an opportunity that was missed after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.
India fits the bill
Mediation is certainly feasible between Russia and Ukraine because there exists a willingness to talk. But for this to commence, the approval of the parties concerned will be crucial. Much depends on the identity of the mediator. With the recent diplomatic visits to India, by the U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economics, the British Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs and Minister for Women and Equalities, and the Russian Foreign Minister, show that the world expects India to play a more active role in the Ukrainian crisis.
This is India’s golden chance to establish itself as a global power. More importantly, playing mediator in this dispute is in India’s long-term interest in countering the China threat — especially with a growing “no limits” partnership between Russia and China. Moreover, with the rise of China and its belligerence, its relationship with the West has soured. As a result, the U.S. and its allies need India as a strategic partner to balance the rise of China in the Indo-Pacific; it is for this reason, that India is now a member of the Quad.
For now, India is right in not taking sides. Its relationship with the then-Soviet Union was forged to balance against China (as the U.S. was cosying up to China). But with the Ukraine invasion and western sanctions, Russia is now more dependent on China. Hence, if India wants the best of both worlds, it must step up and live up to its claim of becoming a ‘Vishwa-Guru’ (or world leader).
Utkarsh Leo teaches law at the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. Faizan Mustafa is Vice-Chancellor, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad