Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine continues unabated. Seesawing military actions alternate with on-again, off-again interest in peace negotiations. But no clear end is in sight. Neither side has a realistic expectation of military victory or unconditional surrender.

All parties to the conflict have made clear that they believe it is too soon for diplomacy. But at some point, the time will come for negotiations, and it is essential that the United States plans carefully for that day. Failure to do so will condemn Washington to a hurried and poorly thought-through approach to ending the war—a mistake the United States has made in every serious conflict it has become embroiled in since 1945. No war ends without political consequences. Either the United States engages to shape those consequences to serve its interests, or others will shape the consequences in its stead.

Ending a war occurs in three phases: prior preparations, pre-negotiations, and the negotiations themselves. The first phase involves resolving internal differences of opinion and opening communications among the parties: each party irons out its own disagreements and reviews the other parties’ positions and attitudes to determine priorities and strategy. The second involves laying the groundwork for official negotiations, including by determining where and when they will take place and with whom participating. And the third involves the direct talks that most people associate with diplomacy.   

Each phase of peacemaking involves choices. No process is a template for others. Decisions lead to forks in the road, which open some possibilities and close off others. Political circumstances, leverage, and changing military realties all influence preparations. Like battle plans, peace plans may not survive first contact with the enemy, but the groundwork laid in advance of negotiations will still inform decision-making and improve the odds of a favorable outcome.


Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky remain deeply committed to winning the war. Slight openings for negotiations have begun to appear, mostly thanks to Russia’s declining military prospects. These may be real openings reflecting greater willingness to talk, or they may be false ones created by two adversaries still trying to outfox each other. The two sides are currently cooperating in very limited areas: shipping grain, exchanging prisoners, and informally (and perhaps coincidentally) aligning their actions to avoid catastrophe at nuclear power stations. But for now at least, each side’s objectives still far exceed what the other appears ready to concede: for Russia, control of all of Ukraine, and for Ukraine, return of all its territory. 

Prior preparations do not require the parties to fully agree on issues of substance. They don’t even require the parties to agree among themselves; that is what this phase of peacemaking is for. Early resolution, or even just understanding, of differences among key players—in the case of the United States, among the National Security Council, the State Department, and the Department of Defense—is vital for diplomatic readiness. American diplomats often say that in the course of any negotiation, up to 60 percent of what needs to be resolved involves disagreements between the administration and its own negotiating team. Early harmony among these players is not just beneficial; it is essential.

Resolving internal differences can be slow and difficult, but starting this process can signal that negotiations may become possible even when differences between the parties appear insuperable. Right now, the United States is in the early stages of prior preparation, and it has yet to resolve disagreements over the role, pace, and effect of military actions—and how they can best be timed to shape favorable outcomes, including through negotiations.

It is not yet clear when progress toward the next phase of peacemaking—pre-negotiations—will be possible. World leaders have intensified their calls for peace, and Washington and other third parties have begun informal and confidential contacts with the other parties to gauge their attitudes about diplomacy. But the road to pre-negotiations is sometimes circuitous. Efforts to get internal houses in order are extremely useful for preparing strategies, but they are also challenging, unpredictable, and constantly subject to change.


As Washington and the other relevant parties establish more unified positions, pre-negotiations aimed at bringing Russia and Ukraine into direct talks can receive more attention. The task will be to convince both sides that diplomacy can support and even advance their interests. U.S. officials should emphasize to their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts (and to others who might be able to influence them) that a positive military outcome will be time-consuming, expensive, and uncertain, and that diplomacy may be a surer path to getting what they want. The goal should be to focus both sides on the punishing realities of further combat and the opportunities of negotiation, and to develop a common understanding of the situation.

One practical way to do this would be to hold so-called proximity talks, which bring both parties to the same city and allow third-party intermediaries to shuttle back and forth between them, exchanging information on positions, preparing ideas, and working to foster direct contacts. This can be especially helpful when, as is the case now, domestic political considerations make it harder for the belligerents to speak directly. To start, one or more third parties deemed acceptable by Russia and Ukraine could meet individually with the leaders of both countries (or their trusted designees) to quietly explore ideas, objectives, possibilities, and attitudes, eventually identifying areas of overlap that could form the basis of agreements. These talks could also begin to set the agendas for future direct negotiations, settle logistical questions such as the time and location of meetings, and determine who aside from the warring parties will participate.

Like battle plans, peace plans may not survive first contact with the enemy.

More formal face-to-face talks could follow, also mediated by third parties. The UN secretary-general could help facilitate this process by appointing a special representative to encourage the parties and shepherd them toward direct negotiations with the help of China, India, Turkey, the United States, and other countries that might be able to facilitate an agreement. The European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe could also guide the parties toward face-to-face talks. 

Starting the pre-negotiation process in an informal setting can help get the ball rolling, which is why proximity talks are often a useful tool. But too much informality can unnecessarily complicate things: it opens the door to more third parties, creates more opportunities for third-party interference, potentially prolongs negotiations, and increases the probability of misunderstandings. Even if discussions take place in a common language, multiple word meanings and ambiguities in syntax can impede progress and plant land mines that will later blow up a deal. On the other hand, using multiple languages in order to accommodate more parties poses its own difficulties.

Whether the parties are willing to move from pre-negotiations into negotiations will partly depend on events on the battlefield and perceptions of who is winning and who is losing. It will also depend on interests, international position, and pressures created by everything from sanctions to shifts in public opinion and morale. But third-party negotiators can play an essential role in keeping the peace process on track, providing positive reassurance, and supplying innovative ideas about how to overcome differences.


Once the parties agree on a process for direct negotiations, then the hard part begins. Confidentiality is usually advisable for face-to-face talks, but it is difficult to achieve. Even if the mediators have succeeded in limiting press and public access during the pre-negotiations, they will likely struggle to do so during direct negotiations.

Peace between Russia and Ukraine should, of course, be the main goal of such talks. But the United States and its European partners will also want to ensure that any peace arrangement makes the region more secure and helps stabilize the bilateral U.S.-Russian relationship, especially in the nuclear arena.

One issue that is sure to be contentious and thus require careful handling is the role of Ukraine’s economy in Europe. Some have suggested that Ukraine is well placed to become a bridge between the European Union and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. Designing such an economic arrangement will be challenging, even though Ukrainian industry and agriculture once played a major role in the Soviet economy. Ukraine will also need a framework for rebuilding after the war, rehabilitating its population, battling corruption, and ensuring equal status for its two main languages—Ukrainian and Russian. Quebec, for all its trials, may present a useful model. 

The safest way to settle territorial disputes is to ask the people what they want.

Harder will be agreeing on security relationships: should Ukraine join NATO or be pressed into the Collective Security Treaty Organization of former Soviet states? Will it make that decision after a referendum that fairly captures the views of its citizens and a waiting period of, say, ten years?

Most challenging of all—and as a result, likely to be resolved last—will be territorial questions. These will be influenced by military realities and other sources of leverage. Neither party has made enough progress on the battlefield to achieve all its territorial claims: all of Ukraine for Moscow and Ukraine’s boundaries at independence in 1991 for Kyiv.

The safest and fairest way to settle territorial disputes is to ask the people of the region what they want. Referendums are not always perfect. But carefully handled by the United Nations, they can be the best approach to facilitating self-determination. One option would be to put all occupied areas of Ukraine under a UN trusteeship and require both militaries to withdraw for a period of three to five years, after which Ukrainian citizens would vote separately in the Donbas and Crimea on whether they wanted to be part of Russia, part of Ukraine, or an autonomous region of either country. These UN-led referendums would be conducted under wide international observation to ensure that they were free and fair.

Another option would be to temporarily accept Ukraine’s February 23, 2022, borders as a line of control separating military forces and the 1991 boundaries as the official border between Russia and Ukraine until a UN-led referendum could be held to determine the status of everything between those two boundaries. Both the Donbas and Crimea would then hold popular referendums to settle their precise affiliation with Russia or Ukraine within five to seven years.


Although the contours of any deal would be determined in large part by leverage, reciprocity, negotiating skill, and quid pro quos, there are some basic principles that could help facilitate a fair and lasting agreement. For starters, once negotiations have commenced, they should continue regularly with only short, mutually agreed recesses until a final agreement can be reached. Both parties should be allowed to invite a limited number of states and international organizations to assist in negotiation, verification, monitoring, observation, and peacekeeping. And the principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” should apply unless the parties agree to implement some measures early—for instance, a cease-fire to enable humanitarian access.

All agreements should be made at the negotiating table, put in writing, signed by the parties, guaranteed by a UN Security Council resolution, and registered under the UN Charter. Wherever possible, the agreed-on measures should be reciprocal, such as common trade tariffs, or at least incorporate asymmetrical exchanges of concessions, such as different but complementary trade benefits when it comes to nontariff barriers. The international community should commit to financing the reconstruction of Ukraine and the rehabilitation of those affected by the war. And finally, Ukraine should have the right to apply to join any international organization or body on equal terms with other members—unless it explicitly agrees to limit this right in the peace deal.

Russia and Ukraine are not yet ready for direct talks. But with care and confidentiality, the leaders of the United States and other important third parties should accelerate their prior preparations and begin pre-negotiations. They should aim to build confidence, persuade the parties to confront harsh realities, and remove impediments to diplomatic progress. Otherwise, Russia and Ukraine could fall into a vicious cycle of self-deception, denial of diplomacy, and endless war.

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  • THOMAS R. PICKERING is Senior Counselor at Albright Stonebridge Group. He has served for more than four decades as a U.S. diplomat, including as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and Ambassador to the United Nations.
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