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All wars eventually end – here are 3 situations that will lead Russia and Ukraine to make peace

A woman wearing dark clothing and a light hat puts her hand on a grave that is covered in photos of a young man. Red and black flags and a blue and yellow flag surround her.
A Ukrainian woman touches the grave of her husband, a soldier killed by Russian troops in August 2022. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

It’s been a year since Russia first launched a full invasion of Ukraine, and, right now, peace seems impossible.

Peace talks between the two countries have launched, and then faltered, multiple times.

In February 2023, a senior Ukrainian official said that peace talks are “out of the question” – without Ukraine’s reclaiming its territory that Russia overtook 2022.

All wars end, however, and research shows that almost half end in some type of agreement to stop the fighting. The others end in victory for one side or when, for a variety of reasons, the fighting simply peters out.

As a scholar of peace and conflict, I have 20 years of experience working to help people establish and maintain peace after conflict.

As Ukraine readies to enter its second year of a widespread war with Russia, I think it is useful to consider how wars end and what conditions need to be in place before the war between Russia and Ukraine might draw to a close.

Here are three key points that help assess the possibility of whether a war might end.

Two rows of soldiers in green outfits and helmets hold rifles all pointed in the same direction.
Ukrainian National Guard soldiers undergo combat training outside of Kyiv in February 2023. Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images

1. A shared idea of the future

The first question is whether opposing groups at war agree about what it will take for war to end – be it land, money or political control.

Fighting in a war is part of a wider bargaining process. Victories on the battlefield allow the winning aggressor to demand more, while defeats may mean those losing ground have to settle for less.

Once both sides have a clear sense of the fighting’s likely outcome, additional negotiations – or more fighting – become less important. And because war is so costly, it is normally better to accept even part of an envisioned peace agreement than continue to fight.

At the moment, Russian and Ukraine appear to have differing opinions about the war’s likely outcome. Ukrainian forces made progress in September 2022 when they retook two Ukrainian regions – Kharkiv and Kherson – that Russia had occupied. So Ukraine is likely to believe that it can make more advances if it keeps on fighting.

Conversely, Russia successfully halted a wider collapse of its forces and appears to be in a stronger position militarily heading into the spring than it was in the fall of 2022.

2. If war costs overtake costs of peace

Beliefs in the costs of war and the costs of peace also matter.

If the costs of war – including human lives, money or more intangible qualities, such as prestige – are low, one side might keep fighting for its goals.

The human and economic costs of this war are very high for both Russia and Ukraine, although they are clearly much higher for Ukraine.

Russian attacks in Ukraine killed at least 40,000 Ukrainian civilians in the first year of this conflict, and more than 13 million Ukrainians have had to flee their homes – about half have left the country altogether.

Upwards of 100,000 Ukrainian and Russian soldiers have also died in the fighting war.

These losses should help create incentives for Ukraine to go along with some kind of agreement to stop the fighting.

However, the costs of peace are also still very high for both sides.

It is possible that that Russian President Vladimir Putin would lose power, and might even lose his life, if he is seen to be capitulating to Ukraine.

For Ukraine, peace might require relinquishment of part of its recognized, sovereign territory. It would also require Ukrainian people to make peace with an enemy whose wartime strategy has been to carry out the deliberate, targeted “brutalization of the Ukrainian people.”

3. Whether peace can be enforced

When opposing groups reach an agreement in other types of conflicts – such as an agreement to end a labor union strike, for instance – there is typically a government in place to help enforce its agreement.

Enforcing peace agreements between different countries is far more difficult because there is no global government to enforce them.

This creates what war and peace researchers call a commitment problem. Without a way to enforce an agreement, how can one side trust the other side to live up to the commitments it made to stop fighting?

In smaller conflicts, the United Nations could serve as a credible, if imperfect, enforcer of a peace agreementas it did in Kosovo after the war there ended in 1999.

Given that Russia has nuclear weapons and considerable political power as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, these options are not feasible in the case of Ukraine. Neither the U.N. nor any other group or country is powerful enough to force Russia to fulfill commitments it might make as part of a peace agreement.

Without a solid way to enforce the terms of a peace agreement, there is little incentive for either warring party to agree to one.

A woman wears a blue and yellow flag draped over her shoulders ad stands in front of rows of pairs of shoes.
Ukrainian designer Margarita Chala stands next to shoes in Prague symbolizing war crimes in Ukraine. Michal Cizek/AFP via Getty Images

What might change between Russian and Ukraine

Based on the answers to these three questions, I don’t think it’s very likely that there will soon be productive peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia.

But there are three main issues that could change this dynamic.

First, the Ukrainian offensive in the fall of 2022 revealed a host of weaknesses within the Russian military. If the Russian military continues to falter, it would create incentives for Russia to negotiate some kind of peace agreement or cease-fire.

Second, Ukrainian people have suffered almost unimaginable attacks and losses in 2022. The suffering of the Ukrainians appears to have hardened their resolve and willingness to defend their country. However, I think that it would not be surprising if Ukrainians eventually prefer to end the fighting – even with an undesirable peace agreement.

Third, public polling in Russia is difficult to conduct because of a range of factors, including many Russians’ concern about criticizing Putin and the government.

Putin’s popularity appears to have remained high during the war. But if Russia were to lose the war, it could place Putin in immediate danger of being overthrown either by a popular uprising or in a palace coup.

It is not possible to predict which of these dynamics might lead to peace negotiations. In every war, however, unforeseen developments unfold that allow progress toward eventual peace.

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