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Ukraine “Skeptical” of Ceasefire Russia Could Use to Cement Occupation, Even as Grain Exports Resume

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As G7 leaders discuss supporting Ukrainian defense forces against Russia, we speak with Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the International Crisis Group, about the possibility of diplomacy to end the war. It is possible for the U.N. to help broker a peace deal, says Gowan. However, “the Ukrainians are very skeptical about accepting a ceasefire because they fear that Russia will pause hostilities, but it won’t pull its troops back from the territories it’s seized since February,” he adds.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

Secretary of State Tony Blinken is in Germany today for a two-day meeting with the other G7 foreign ministers. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is expected to top the agenda. The meeting begins a day after Russia agreed to rejoin a deal allowing for grain shipments from Ukraine’s ports. The Ukrainian government said seven ships carrying agricultural products were able to leave Ukrainian Black Sea ports today. The original deal to reopen the ports was brokered by Turkey and the U.N. When the grain deal was first reached in August, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called it, quote, “a victory for diplomacy.”

Well, we turn now to look if other diplomatic steps could be taken to end the war. We’re joined now by Richard Gowan here in New York. He is the U.N. director for the International Crisis Group.

With these latest developments and the G7 meeting, Russia rejoining this grain deal, what do you think is the possibility of Russia ending this war through negotiation with the world community and Ukraine?

RICHARD GOWAN: I fear that we are not much closer to a real end to this conflict. It is positive that Russia has rejoined the grain deal. I think that it only suspended its participation for tactical diplomatic reasons. But it remains fairly clear that Vladimir Putin believes that he can win this war, or at least do enough damage to Ukraine and to Ukraine’s infrastructure to bring Kyiv to the table in a much weakened state. So I fear that we face a prolonged conflict despite some small diplomatic success.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In your experience monitoring negotiations where the U.N. plays a critical role, what kind of role do you foresee for the United Nations once the two parties and other involved parties are ready to negotiate?

RICHARD GOWAN: Well, Secretary-General Guterres has been very cautious in his diplomacy over Ukraine, but he has actually established a significant diplomatic role. He’s brokered humanitarian agreements with Moscow, and he did play a leading role in brokering the Black Sea deal. So, he is one of the very few diplomats who has shown that he can get concessions from Vladimir Putin this year. I think that means that if Moscow does edge towards peace talks and if Ukraine wants peace talks, Guterres could play some sort of facilitating role, either through shuttle diplomacy between Moscow and Kyiv or through using the U.N.’s mediation services to at least push talks forward.

I don’t think that the U.N. can do this on its own. I think that you’re going to need other players, such as Turkey, to play a facilitating role in peace talks. But Guterres does seem to have a diplomatic toehold in this war in a way that we didn’t necessarily expect back in February. We weren’t sure that Russia would take the U.N. seriously at all. But for the time being, there is a small amount of space for the organization in the war.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the most contentious issues is, of course, the territorial one between Russia and Ukraine. Some say that Russia in fact has the greatest incentive to hold talks now towards a ceasefire in the hopes that it can retain the territory that it’s taken since the invasion began on February 24th. Now, when such negotiations take place, it’s often common to suspend territorial issues in the interest of obtaining a ceasefire. Do you see that happening in this case?

RICHARD GOWAN: Well, I think that the Ukrainians are very skeptical about accepting a ceasefire, because they fear that Russia will pause hostilities but it won’t pull its troops back from the territories it’s seized since February. And there is also a risk that Russia could agree to a ceasefire and then take a few months to improve its military position, rearm some of the units that have suffered quite badly on the battlefield, and then go back to war. So, I think that Kyiv will only accept a ceasefire if it sees that Russia is really willing to give up a lot of the territory that it’s grabbed. But this is something which will, I think, be based on what happens on the battlefield. It’s not something which the U.N. secretary-general or even the U.N. Security Council can define. I mean, sadly, this is going to be decided through force of arms.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month Russian President Vladimir Putin said the world should reconsider the power structure within the United Nations.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] Perhaps it’s worth thinking that the structure of the United Nations, including its Security Council, could to a greater extent reflect the variety of the world’s regions. The state of things in the world soon will depend on Asia, Africa and Latin America much more than it is thought today. This growth of their influence is undoubtedly positive.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Gowan, you’re the U.N. director of the International Crisis Group. Your response to that? And also, you must have been following this kerfuffle in the U.S. Congress where the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the largest caucus in Congress, wrote a letter to Biden saying, “You can continue the weapon sales, but push for negotiation next to them.” Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the caucus, then withdrew that. We spoke to one of the members, Ro Khanna, who said he absolutely supported that letter. So, if we could get your response to both?

RICHARD GOWAN: Well, firstly, on the question of reforming the U.N., the irony is that Vladimir Putin thinks that the U.S. dominates the U.N., but a lot of American diplomats and European diplomats would say that the real problem with the Security Council is that Russia is using its veto to block any action on Ukraine, much as Russia used its veto repeatedly over Syria. So, actually, everyone agrees that we need some serious reforms to the U.N. Joe Biden actually said this when he visited the General Assembly in September. And right now in New York, there are lots of seminars, there are lots of diplomatic discussions about the need to revitalize the U.N. system and make it fit for purpose 77 years after the organization was founded. But it is very, very hard to get to real U.N. reform. The hurdles, the diplomatic obstacles, to rewriting the U.N. Charter are huge. And so, I think President Biden will talk about U.N. reform, President Putin will talk about U.N. reform, but, sadly, we’re stuck with the U.N. we’ve got.

As for the kerfuffle, as you describe it, in Congress, I think that for a lot of observers outside the U.S., including observers at the U.N., this was a rather petty distraction. I think that most leaders in the non-Western world, in Africa and Asia, do feel that there should be some sort of peace process and that there should be peace talks between Russia and Ukraine. That’s not a controversial position around much of the globe. And so, this virtue signaling and this rather obscure political fighting in Washington, you know, it seems like a distraction from what a lot of the world wants to see.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And finally, Richard, before we end — we just have 30 seconds — what about the fears around a nuclear escalation and the fact that there aren’t sufficient lines of communication between Russia and the U.S.?

RICHARD GOWAN: This is a concern that U.N. officials have flagged very strongly. They take it very seriously. But the U.N. view is that there is actually some communication going on now between the U.S. and Russia on nuclear issues. The U.N.'s focus is still more on the grain deal and on humanitarian issues. That's where the U.N. has some leverage today.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Richard Gowan, we want to thank you for being with us, U.N. director of the International Crisis Group. You mentioned Africa. Coming up, we’re going to South Africa to look at the war’s impact on Africa. Stay with us.

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