There is a consensus among observers of the Russo-Ukrainian War that it should end as soon as possible. Most Ukrainians couldn’t agree more. Furthermore, many Russians would not mind ceasing the carnage. Why, then, is there still no negotiated finale to the war?
Many reasons hamper the potential for compromise between Kyiv and Moscow. The Ukrainian and Russian constitutions, both country’s domestic politics, Crimea’s peculiar needs, and Eastern European historical memory all present obstacles to a diplomatic settlement. Each of these is a formidable barrier, and their combined challenge for decisionmakers in Moscow and Kyiv will likely prolong the war through 2024.
Pushing for a negotiated ceasefire of some durability—not to mention sustainable peace—between Ukraine and Russia is futile. Following this strategy would not only be inconclusive but also absorb the energy needed to pursue more promising paths toward resolving the conflict.
Ukraine’s and Russia’s Constitutions
The foundations of international law (i.e., the inviolability of borders and territorial integrity of states) are frequently mentioned obstacles to compromise between Kyiv and Moscow. While this is doubtlessly valid, global norms are not the highest legal hindrance to successful Russian-Ukrainian negotiations. In the past, post-Soviet Russia had been engaged in creating or supporting separatist movements, sparking or fanning civil wars, as well as establishing so-called “republics” in its backyard.
However, ten years ago, Moscow went beyond this informal strategy of destroying independent states emerging from its former empire. In March 2014, Russia formally annexed Crimea and made it an official part of its pseudo-federation. In September 2022, Moscow repeated this move and declared four southeast Ukrainian mainland regions part of the Russian Federation. Russia’s Constitution was altered to incorporate them fully. As a result, there are now five administrative units of Ukraine claimed by Russia’s Constitution and scores of lower Russian legal acts, including laws, decrees, resolutions, etc.
According to Ukrainian and international law, Moscow’s claim is null and void. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, Russia’s self-announced entitlement to the five occupied Ukrainian regions is also historically dubious. These territories were colonized by the Tsarist and Soviet empires rather than owned by a primordial Muscovite state. Nevertheless, Moscow’s illegal and ahistorical pretense to the five Ukrainian regions is now fully enshrined in Russian law, federal legislation, and state structure. This has already had deep material and psychological effects on the citizens’ daily economic, social, cultural, and private lives in the annexed regions, especially in Crimea.
Neither Ukraine’s nor Russia’s constitutions can be easily changed. Theoretically, the Ukrainian Constitution can be quickly amended by a two-thirds majority of Ukraine’s unicameral parliament, the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council). Yet, such a constitutional reform will never pass. In August 2015, under pressure from Berlin and Paris, former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko attempted to temporarily and marginally change Ukraine’s Constitution to fulfill the infamous Minsk Agreements. Yet, scheduling a parliamentary vote on this minor and arguably inconsequential constitutional reform led to a violent clash in front of the Verkhovna Rada. Several people died, and dozens were injured in Kyiv’s city center. The proposed temporary special status for the Russian-occupied parts of the Donbas did not pass parliament. Against this background, and given other factors, a Ukrainian renunciation of its legitimate state territory will never happen.
In contrast, the prospect of a Russian reversal of the 2014 and 2022 constitutional reforms implementing the annexations is somewhat more likely than a Ukrainian cessation of its temporarily occupied territories. Yet, if and when such an intention emerges, a Russian fulfilling its obligations under international law will not be easy to implement. Not only is it politically more feasible to annex territories than cede them, but Russia’s procedure of constitutional revision is also more complicated than Ukraine’s.
A hypothetical de-annexation vote by the Russian parliament would only be the first of several steps in enacting new constitutional reform. Moreover, for such a revision process to start, the regime in Moscow and the situation in Ukraine would first have to change fundamentally. In other words, a formal Russian reversion of Putin’s expansionist adventure will only come after, not before its material end. The hope that Ukraine and Russia can enact even a temporary abrogation of their currently valid constitutions is unrealistic.
Two Hawkish Domestic Constituencies
Both Ukraine and Russia contain significant social and political groups that strictly oppose any territorial or political compromise with the enemy. Due to the war’s high human and political toll on both countries, even symbolic concessions to the other side would generate domestic political challenges for both governments. Conciliatory steps toward the other side, as a result of hypothetical negotiations, will be regarded by large sections of both societies as acts of national treason. Many citizens and entire parties would oppose them, making their voices heard and becoming politically as well as physically active.
The hawkish constituencies of Ukraine and Russia are, to be sure, neither normatively nor politically comparable. They are fundamentally different in numerous ways—morally, historically, and culturally. On one side, the Ukrainian constituency merely demands restoring law, order, and justice. This hawkish camp includes most of the country’s population and elite.
On the other side are Russians who insist that at least some territorial and political gains from Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine since 2014 should remain permanent. The radical wing, including Vladimir Putin himself, thinks the already achieved territorial expansion is insufficient. To them, certain regions not yet annexed by Russia, like Odesa and Mykolaiv, are also part of Russia. Moreover, the Ukrainian state’s current non-membership in the EU and NATO should, in this view, become permanent. They also think Ukraine’s sovereignty should be limited in several other regards—from language to defense policies.
The depth and width of hawkishness in Russia’s population are less than that of Ukraine’s citizenry. A future Russian acceptance of the loss of most of the relative gains for Russia from the war is more likely and can become more widespread than Ukrainian acceptance of a written acknowledgment of losses of territory and sovereignty. However, Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea continues to have overwhelming support in Russia. This sentiment reaches far beyond the outspoken imperialist sections of Russian society.
Such an outlook creates a peculiar strategic problem for the Kremlin, the Russian population, and outside actors. For geographic reasons, Crimea is the most distant and least defensible for Russia out of the five Ukrainian regions annexed since 2014. It is thus the war booty most unlikely to remain in permanent Russian hands. At the same time, Crimea is, and will stay, the most popular of Putin’s territorial achievements in the war.
To be sure, the aims, sentiments, and visions of ordinary Ukrainians and Russians regarding the war, as measured in opinion polls, have been shifting in content and intensity since 2021. Nevertheless, today, a clear majority of Ukrainians continue to support a complete restoration of territorial integrity before peace. In Russia, polls continue to show strong support for the “special military operation.” Both countries contain, moreover, vocal maximalist hawkish groups who are strictly against even minor concessions. Some of these particularly intransigent parts of society include members who are experienced in using arms and have access to them.
A double domestic political challenge for successful negotiations would remain even after a hypothetical agreement to change the Russian or Ukrainian Constitution (or both). The Russian and Ukrainian governments may, for one reason or another, become inclined to achieve a negotiated end to the war. Yet, it remains to be seen what compromise they could sell to the less dovish parts of their domestic audiences. Given more or less widespread hawkish sentiments in the Ukrainian and Russian populations, Moscow and Kyiv would both risk civil war at home.
In fact, Moscow has always tried to upgrade its initially furtive—and later open—inter-state war against Ukraine into a civil war within the Ukrainian political nation itself since 2014. For eight years, the West oddly supported this Kremlin strategy with its pressure on Kyiv to implement the infamous Minsk Agreements. This shameful policy, mainly promoted by Berlin and Paris, only ended in February 2022.
As the Prigozhin mutiny last June illustrated, the prospect of domestic civil unrest has also become an issue for the Russian leadership. Prigozhin’s armed uprising was motivated, it may be worth reminding, by the insurgents’ perception of insufficient bellicosity from Moscow, not by any pacifism. Given precarious political situations in both the Russian and Ukrainian hinterland, it is unlikely that Kyiv or Moscow will be able to make sufficient concessions to achieve a lasting ceasefire, let alone a peace deal.
The Crimean Conundrum
Another hindrance to reaching a negotiated end to the war is the role of Crimea in the Russian national mind and military expansion since 2014. As mentioned, Crimea was the most popular territorial achievement that Putin presented to the Russian nation. It is a far more appreciated Russian geographic acquisition than Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region (“South Ossetia”) in Georgia, or the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, or Kherson regions in mainland Ukraine. However, the 2014 annexation was based on a profoundly flawed historical narrative about an allegedly Russian Crimea.