As the crisis in Ukraine becomes more acute, so does the need for negotiations. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that Ukraine is “being decimated before the eyes of the world,” with the only reasonable option being “an immediate cessation of hostilities and serious negotiations based on the principles of the UN Charter and international law.”
Though there have been talks between Ukraine and Russia, news reports have emphasized their failure to make progress. But make no mistake: a negotiated settlement is the only way forward. Even in seemingly intractable situations with intransigent actors, the power of reason can prevail. Dialogue can make the impossible possible. I know this from personal experience.
In my first term as president of Costa Rica in the late 1980s, the situation in Central America also was considered intractable. Civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua had produced appalling bloodshed and suffering. Achieving comprehensive peace agreements among the parties seemed like a pipe dream – at least in the eyes of self-described realists. Nonetheless, we managed to bring the parties together, and it happened: the wars ended.
Something similar could still happen in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion is a flagrant violation of international law and the UN Charter, but that does not eliminate the possibility of arriving at an agreement that assures peace and security for both Russia and Ukraine.
Consider the alternatives. The international community has responded to the invasion with sanctions and arms, but no one thinks that these alone can end Ukraine’s suffering. Weapons and ammunition might help Ukraine’s brave defenders face down Russian tanks and planes, but they also might prolong the war and increase the toll of deaths and casualties. And while some may welcome a longer conflict as a strategy to wear down Russia’s forces and pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government, that, too, would result in enormous human costs – even if it turned out to work as planned.
Many more people would die on both sides, and more unrest within Russia would spark even harsher crackdowns and an even greater loss of fundamental freedoms and civil liberties. The longer the conflict goes on, and the wider the divide between Russia and the world’s democracies, the more difficult it will be to pursue global cooperation on climate change, pandemic recovery, financial stability, the rule of law, and – perhaps most important – nuclear security.
The longer this war rages, the greater the risk of a nuclear holocaust becomes. That specter already casts a shadow over all other geopolitical, regional, and national considerations. George F. Kennan, the twentieth-century diplomat who framed the United States’ Cold War policy of containment, put it aptly:
“The readiness to use nuclear weapons against other human beings – against people we do not know, whom we have never seen, and whose guilt or innocence is not for us to establish – and, in doing so, to place in jeopardy the natural structure upon which all civilization rests, as though the safety and perceived interests of our own generation were more important than everything that has taken place or could take place in civilization: this is nothing less than a presumption, a blasphemy, an indignity – an indignity of monstrous dimensions – offered to God!”
In today’s crisis, we need all relevant parties to pledge, at a minimum, that they will not be the first to use, or threaten to use, a nuclear weapon. This can be achieved only through dialogue and negotiation.
In his 1961 inauguration address, US President John F. Kennedy famously said, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” He then put those words into practice. After the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis – a brush with the apocalypse – came negotiations that led to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which rests on the promise of nuclear disarmament. Today, 191 countries – including Russia, the US, and all NATO members – are parties to it.
We have come together before to repudiate nuclear brinkmanship; we can do it again now. The recent UN General Assembly resolution on Ukraine “urges the immediate peaceful resolution of the conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine through political dialogue, negotiations, mediation and other peaceful means.” These words echo the desire of people everywhere.
Of course, negotiating a comprehensive settlement will not be easy. Sporadic meetings to air political grievances do not help. What is needed now is a ceasefire and serious dialogue at the highest level. We should commend all efforts in this direction, remembering that the alternative is ever-expanding hostilities. That is why many other Nobel Peace Prize laureates have joined me in calling on the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, the US, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and other countries to pursue high-level diplomacy immediately.
The parties to negotiations – even officials at the highest level – must bear in mind that they cannot expect to get everything they want. They must be willing to understand other parties’ interests and viewpoints. Ukraine must be assured of its sovereignty, security, and democracy. Russia must be assured that its security interests are being respected and accommodated. Both sides must be prepared to be flexible and make concessions.
Provided those conditions are met, negotiations can yield progress toward peace. In fact, it is the only approach that can produce a lasting resolution. While this prospect may seem unreachable now, we should not lose hope. As Costa Rica’s poet Isaac Felipe Azofeifa wrote:
Truly, son, all the stars have departed.
But it never gets darker than when the dawn is about to break.
We are living through dark times. But sometimes tragedy becomes a conduit out of which brighter futures are born. I witnessed it in Central America. May the world soon witness it in Ukraine.