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A Russian man cries as he plants a tree in memory of his son, Russian sailor Georgy Shakuro. A younbg boy holds a portrait of the dead sailor.nflict, mourns next to a boy holding Georgy's portrait during a tree planting ceremony in memory of fallen Russian service members in Sevastopol, Crimea, November 20, 2022.
Heartbreak on both sides: a Russian family mourns the loss of a son and a brother in Crimea, November 2022. REUTERS/Alexey Pavlishak

Ukraine war: what the Northern Ireland peace process can tell us about ending this conflict

Most armed conflicts end not with a total victory but with messy compromises. This is especially the case when the objectives on either side are incompatible and both are escalating their efforts to secure a victory which is unachievable.

So it is in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and his western supporters demand the expulsion of all Russians from Ukrainian territory occupied since the beginning of 2014, while the Kremlin has said that while the Russian president, Vladimir Putin remains open to negotiations, Russia would not pull out of Ukraine.

The result has been dreadful levels of death and destruction on both sides. Most military observers think the war is likely to continue for years.

What I saw from my involvement in the peace process in Northern Ireland suggested that achieving a ceasefire and then serious negotiation on both sides depended on external pressure from the US and encouragement from the European Union and the Irish Republic. There, the objective was to put together a workable if imperfect compromise, not Irish reunification.

With this in mind, in Ukraine the external pressure should not be on on the final outcome, whether that be absolute territorial integrity for Ukraine or territorial gains for Russia, or punishment of one side or the other for war crimes. Instead it must focus on building governance structures that reflect the realities on the ground.

That is the well-established approach both in avoiding communal conflict in “ethnic frontier zones” and in ending the serious armed conflicts which often emerge.

In Ukraine and Ireland – as in other divided societies – there are areas in which the population, or most of it, has divided identities and aspirations. Many in the Donbas region and Crimea regard themselves as closer to Russia than to other Ukrainians. And, in those areas, many who regard themselves as exclusively Ukrainian have already moved elsewhere.

In Northern Ireland, some of those with different religious and political identities have also moved into segregated areas. But the overall population is still evenly divided with a growing middle ground. The eventual settlement, after 30 years of death and destruction, has been to recognise these different identities and create structures of governance and cross-border institutions that help most people to live and work happily together.

Everyone can now be British or Irish or both.

There is also a power-sharing regional government, though it has often broken down and has required frequent British and Irish government action to sustain the arrangements.

Something along these lines could be pursued in Ukraine. In 2014-15, after the initial Russian intervention in the Donbas and Crimea, the attempt to negotiate a settlement involved mediation by the leaders of France and Germany and the participation of the insurgent governments in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk.

A man and woman smoking cigarettes outside a damaged apartment block covered in snow
The war has taken a heavy toll on Ukraine. EPA-EFE/Oleg Petrasyuk

The resulting Minsk agreements provided for a ceasefire, an exchange of prisoners and an amnesty. The agreements also proposed the potential grant of local autonomy following elections in the occupied areas under a special new Ukrainian law. But none of this was implemented due in part to disputes over the timing and control of the proposed elections.

All subsequent negotiations between Ukraine and Russia have broken down over incompatible demands by Ukraine for complete territorial integrity and by Russia for the grant of independence to the Donbas region as a whole and the abandonment of any move towards the admission of Ukraine to Nato.

Now that Russia has embarked on a full-scale invasion and occupied a much larger area, it will be even more difficult to reach a settlement. But the recent successes by the Ukrainian army and the winter freeze may provide a new opportunity.

Progress towards peace

The basis for any negotiations should be an indication of the kind of settlement that can accommodate and provide some benefits for both sides. By studiously avoiding taking sides, UN secretary-general António Guterres and his team, along with Turkey, have managed to achieve some progress. There has been practical action to achieve safe passages for some refugees and a deal to allow both Ukraine and Russia to resume vital grain exports.

A new negotiation should involve the development of structures for some form of regional autonomy for the Donbas, as envisaged in the Minsk agreements, or some more permanent change of status.

It may also involve an acceptance that it is for the people of Crimea to decide which state they wish to be part of. In recent censuses, the population has been recorded as roughly two-thirds Russian, one-fifth Ukrainian and one-tenth Tartar.

Vladimir Putin and aides inspect repair work at a bridge.
The Kerch Bridge is Russia’s main road and rail link with Crimea. EPA-EFE/Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/Kremlin pool

Revenge or reconciliation

It will be difficult to get agreement on dealing with war crimes. One problem is distinguishing between legitimate military operations that are permitted under the Geneva conventions and those that meet the criteria for war crimes: grave, deliberate and provable violations of the rules of conflict.

Another is that imposing severe sanctions against a few captured lower ranking soldiers and officers will be hard to justify while those who organised the invasion are beyond the reach of national or international courts.

Organising some form of international truth recovery without relying too heavily or exclusively on criminal prosecutions may be a better way forward. A well-crafted conditional amnesty, as in South Africa and Colombia and as already envisaged in the Minsk agreements, may help to build reconciliation on both sides.

And only compromise will make it possible to bring this conflict to an end – and it will be vital in bringing refugees home and beginning the tough job of securing the resources that will be needed as Ukraine begins to rebuild.

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