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HomeBlogNow Is the Time for Zelensky To Push for Peace

Now Is the Time for Zelensky To Push for Peace

Image credit: Presidential Office of Ukraine

By Alexander A. Hill

Volodymyr Zelensky is undoubtedly the most famous politician in the Western world at the moment. His resolve, bravery and media savvy have elevated him to a status that most politicians can only fantasize about. Western politicians and celebrities are falling over themselves to have an audience with him, no doubt hoping that some of his fame will rub off on them.

His nemesis, Vladimir Putin, has little or none of Zelensky’s appeal. Putin’s rare public appearances exude none of Zelensky’s charm or the ”sleeves rolled up” aura of a man who seems likely to get things done. However, while some of Zelensky’s fame is undoubtedly justified by his wartime resolve and commitment to an independent Ukraine, the extent to which his idolization will contribute to a lasting and equitable peace is debatable unless Zelensky makes good use of it. Zelensky’s recent statements suggesting that he is not willing to give up Ukrainian territory (where much of that which is disputed has already practically been given up since 2014) are sadly however likely to mean a long, drawn-out battle for eastern Ukraine that will not fundamentally change the ultimate negotiating positions of either party to this war.

Up until this point in the war, Zelensky’s service to Ukraine has certainly been significant. He has been the central figure in mobilizing Ukrainian resistance and Western support to prevent Ukrainian territory from being overrun by Russian forces. In a simple sense, there is no longer an existential threat to Ukraine. Russian tanks will not be rolling into Kyiv. For this, Zelensky can claim much credit. Now, however, it is arguably the time to start seriously thinking about bringing an end to this war. But there is currently no sign that Zelensky or Western leaders are willing to seriously consider the sort of peace terms that, sooner or later, will have to be considered – whether they like it or not. 

As I have written elsewhere, if Vladimir Putin is to end this war, he is going to require not only some sort of acknowledgement of Russian sovereignty over Crimea, but also some sort of meaningful autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist regions. It is important to remember that their ”independence” is ostensibly the reason for which Russia went to war in the first place. 

Currently Western strategy seems to be to hope that Vladimir Putin will simply be overthrown in Russia, allowing Ukraine to re-occupy or re-capture those territories lost to it since 2014. Besides the fact that the chances of this remain low, even if Putin was to be overthrown, there is no guarantee he would be replaced by someone more amenable towards the sort of total Russian defeat scenario that Western leaders seem to be aiming for. The ferocity of Western sanctions and vilification of Russia are likely doing much to unite a sizeable majority in Russian society that was otherwise starting to tire of Putin. How long that unity will last in the face of further Western pressure remains to be seen, but tightening the financial screw further on Russia is likely to hit Western populations – and particularly European consumers of Russian oil and gas – increasingly hard.

The chances of Ukrainian forces being able to push Russian forces out of Donetsk and Luhansk and crush the separatists once and for all are also very low.  It is one thing for Ukrainian forces to defend against a foreign invader, and quite another to defeat a dug-in enemy. At least some of those defending Donetsk and Luhansk would see a Ukrainian advance into those regions as an existential threat. The separatists (who previously might have been satisfied with greater autonomy, but no more) themselves endured years of Ukrainian shelling and attacks and are not about to lay down their arms quietly. 

Sadly, Western and Ukrainian policy to date has not exactly primed the separatists for compromise. Prior to the war, Zelensky’s government did little to improve relations with any separatist-inclined Russian groups in the east of the country. The language law that went into effect in Ukraine this January will undoubtedly have increased the resolve of the separatists. There was little sign before Putin’s invasion that Ukraine was willing to take the Minsk Accords of 2014-15 seriously, and when this language law went into effect it was a further nail in the coffin of compromise.

Although Zelensky’s banning of 11 political parties that are supposedly ”pro-Russian” in mid-March might be seen to be justified by wartime circumstances, for separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk this will be seen as further evidence of Zelensky’s desire to side-line those who identify as “Russian” in Ukrainian society – something that was obvious to them before Vladimir Putin’s invasion and such wartime exigencies as the banning of political parties. Such actions have gone down well with Ukrainian nationalists but will no doubt have further hardened the resolve of the separatists.

The separatists are now of course openly backed by Russian armed forces that have become the butt of many memes in the West, but their performance in those areas where separatist sentiments are strong is likely to be better than when they were trying to rush Kyiv with inadequate forces and resources in the face of stiff resistance. Although overall Russian military capabilities are far lower than the raw data for troops numbers might suggest, Russia did not throw anything like its full capabilities into the initial phases of the war against Ukraine. Focusing on the Donbass region will alleviate, even if not solve, many of the Russian army’s logistical inadequacies. To write off the Russian armed forces and start to believe in Ukraine sweeping them out of all Ukrainian territory is simply naïve – no-matter how many weapons the West provides it.

If we are to accept that Zelensky’s attempts to drag NATO and the West into a direct confrontation with Russia can only lead to a calamitous escalation and are not in Western interests (despite the best efforts of some ‘hawks’ in the West to suggest otherwise), then it becomes clearer that the time for a more measured tone from Western leaders towards negotiation has also come. 

Some Western leaders may sadly be keen to see this war drag out for as long as possible. Not only do they seem to think that the longer the war goes on the greater the chances are that Putin will be overthrown, but a continued war is also of course convenient in distracting from their own political problems, from low approval ratings to political scandals. For the US in particular, a prolonged war promises even greater increases in defence spending by other NATO nations – much of which will benefit US manufacturers and its economy. Although France’s Emmanuel Macron has shown some inclination towards negotiations, he stands out as being somewhat isolated in that regard. With the West providing little impetus towards negotiation, it is left for Zelensky to take the lead. 

If he chooses to look for a viable peace, then Zelensky currently has a lot of political currency in the bank. Zelensky could choose to focus his political efforts on highlighting what Ukraine has actually achieved – rather than where it is unlikely to succeed. Ukraine has resisted its larger neighbour and all but guaranteed its ultimate acceptance into the EU as long as it can prove its democratic credentials. 

Even if Russia gains some of what it wants from this war – and in particular recognition of its control over Crimea and some sort of “independence” for the separatist regions (even if not for all the territory they claim) – it will be apparent to much of the world that the end result was not a Russian victory. Russian forces have clearly been humbled on the battlefield and Russia will no doubt remain isolated from and vilified in the West.

Although some have suggested that Ukraine should have a fast-tracked admission to join the EU, one assumes that the EU will apply some standards to Ukraine before accession. Part of the process of joining the EU will undoubtedly require it to show that it can be benevolent towards linguistic minorities within its borders. Perhaps Zelensky could in that regard begin by showing now that he has the statesmanship not only for bold wartime statements, but also for the more nuanced business of being a successful leader after the fighting is over. A good place for Zelensky to start would be to indicate that any remaining Russian minority in Ukraine (where there are many “Russians” outside the separatist regions) will not be subject to excesses by nationalist right-wing groups after this terrible war has come to an end. 

Given that Zelensky is probably at the apex of his popularity, perhaps now is the time for him to start to negotiate seriously for peace. A long dragged-out war over the separatist regions is unlikely to lead to a substantially different outcome and may even see his popularity wane. If Ukrainian forces start to recapture significant amounts of territory from a dug-in enemy, then it will be the Ukrainian side that will have to start making much greater use of less discriminating weapons such as artillery. Western audiences may forgive them for some “collateral” damage under the circumstances, but increasing civilians deaths at the hands of Ukrainian forces would undoubtedly start to chip away at Western support for a prolonged war – and might even become an impediment to Ukraine’s fast-tracked membership of the EU.

As it stands, Volodymyr Zelensky has the opportunity not only to be the great wartime Ukrainian leader who oversaw the defence of Ukraine against Vladimir Putin’s aggression, but also the great peacemaker and statesman who oversaw a stable and lasting settlement and Ukraine’s incorporation into the “West”. Negotiating with Russia now – including over the vexed issue of territory – may not be particularly palatable, but in all probability has to happen at some point and is ultimately in Ukraine’s interest. So far, Zelensky has gambled and won – but now is the time for him to cash in his chips.

Professor Alexander A. Hill has taught history at the University of Calgary since 2004. He has PhD in Social and Political Sciences from the University of Cambridge and specializes in Soviet military and political history, with a particular emphasis on the period 1928-1945 and on Soviet Cold War involvement in Africa. He also has a Diploma in Russian from the University of Cambridge. He has written a number of books on the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War, including The Red Army and the Second World War (Cambridge University Press, 2016). His most recent book, The War on the Eastern Front: The Soviet Union, 1941-1945 – A Photographic History has just been published by Pen and Sword (2021).

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor