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“Unwinnable War”? Calls Grow for Negotiated End to Ukraine War

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was at the top of the agenda of a critical meeting of G20 foreign ministers this week in New Delhi. The issue has caused deep divisions within the G20, which includes 19 major economies and the European Union. U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, spoke briefly on the sidelines of the summit on Thursday, though there was no diplomatic breakthrough between the two countries. The G20 meeting comes a week after China released a 12-point peace plan and as calls grow for a negotiated end to the fighting. To talk more about possible peace talks, we are joined by two guests: Vladislav Zubok, a Russian professor of international history at the London School of Economics, and Wolfgang Sporrer, a conflict manager and adjunct professor at the Hertie School in Berlin, who was head of human rights for the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission in Kyiv from 2014 to 2020.

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

AMY GOODMAN: A critical meeting of foreign ministers from the G20 has just ended in New Delhi, India, without any agreement on the war in Ukraine. India’s foreign minister said, quote, “We could not reconcile as various parties held differing views.” Earlier today, U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken spoke briefly with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in their first meeting since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The G20 meeting comes a week after China released a 12-point peace plan to end the war. On Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping joined with the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, calling for a ceasefire and negotiations. The United States has dismissed China’s proposal. On Wednesday, Blinken said he has seen, quote, “zero evidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin is ready to engage in negotiations. Meanwhile, the Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has urged the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, to play a central role in facilitating ceasefire negotiations.

The G20 meeting comes as intense fighting continues in eastern Ukraine, where Russian forces have almost fully surrounded the city of Bakhmut, where thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been cut off from humanitarian aid. Ukrainian officials say they’re now contemplating a tactical withdrawal from the city.

To talk more about the possibility of negotiations to end the fighting, we’re joined by two guests. From Berlin, we’re joined by Wolfgang Sporrer, a conflict manager, adjunct professor at the Hertie School in Berlin. From 2014 to 2020, he was the head of human rights for the Special Monitoring Mission in Kyiv of OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. And in London, we’re joined by Vladislav Zubok, professor of international history at the London School of Economics. His December article for Foreign Affairs is headlined “No One Would Win a Long War in Ukraine: The West Must Avoid the Mistakes of World War I.” He’s the author of Collapse. The Fall of the Soviet Union.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with professor Vladislav Zubok. Let’s take the title of your piece, as you talk about “No One Would Win a Long War in Ukraine” and you put negotiations in context, going back to World War I. Can you lay out your argument and what you think needs to be done?

VLADISLAV ZUBOK: Well, thank you. And good to be on your show.

I would call it untimely thoughts, because the moment my article was published, President Zelensky of Ukraine declared in the U.S. Congress his desire for a complete victory. So, I should say in advance that my proposal was not to impose any negotiations in any way, because it is manifestly unfeasible. I’m very skeptical, even more today than back in December, that any sides are ready for negotiations. My idea was to map out how would it look after Russia has to accept its defeat, and how to make it a more palatable solution for some parts of the Russian elites that want to switch from this attitude of aggression, aggression and imperialism, to a different, more pragmatic approach to the West.

So, I went through several obvious aspects of possible maps. First of all, continue to help Ukraine, of course, to achieve military gains, but also indicate on a political level to Russian elites and Russian populace that this war is unwinnable for them, and they — the longer the war continues, there will be a greater danger of another collapse, just as what happened to the Soviet Union 30 years ago.

The second part of this map is to offer some possible carrots, up to negotiations, up to tradeoffs, to return Russia, after it accepts its defeat and withdraws its forces from Ukraine, into the international economic, financial and political space. In political sense, I wrote that we need to offer the return of legitimacy to certain individuals and certain groups of Russian elites as a trade-off for them accepting a defeat. In the economic field, there should be some talk about the conditions for removing sanctions, because we know from the Cold War that — and, actually, from the history of World War I, after Germany accepted an armistice, it was still subject to very humiliating and painful blockade by the Allies. So, there should be some discussion: What will the Russians gain economically if they accept status quo ante and agree to talk with Ukraine on the damage control. And financially, there’s an issue, of course, of frozen assets and compensation to Ukraine.

All we hear from some supporters of Ukraine and Ukrainians themselves is about sticks and punishment. We don’t hear anything about carrots, which is understandable. We are in the midst of brutal war, while Russians committed so many atrocities. But without certain carrots, at least addressed for the postwar period, we risk repeating the dangerous path after World War I.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Zubok, that Foreign Affairs piece, I mean speaking of — you just mentioned that the war may be unwinnable for Russia, but you begin the Foreign Affairs piece by citing comments by General Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said that the probability of a complete Ukrainian military victory was not high; nevertheless, he said President Biden wanted Ukraine to decide whether to negotiate with Russia. Let’s go to his comments. He made these comments in November.

GEN. MARK MILLEY: The military task of militarily kicking the Russians physically out of Ukraine is a very difficult task. And it’s not going to happen in the next couple of weeks, unless the Russian army completely collapses, which is unlikely. So, in terms of probability, the probability of a Ukrainian military victory, defined as kicking the Russians out of all of Ukraine, to include what they define or what they claim as Crimea — the probability of that happening anytime soon is not high. … The Russian military is really hurting bad. So, you want to negotiate at a time when you’re at your strength and your opponent is at weakness. And it’s possible, maybe, that there will be a political solution.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Professor Zubok, those were comments that General Mark Milley made in November. Your response to what he said, and especially this comment that he made about negotiating from a position of strength? How do you assess the situation now? And what prospects do you see for any talks between Ukraine and Russia?

VLADISLAV ZUBOK: Well, we have three months when neither side made any breakthrough after the spectacular liberation of parts of the Ukrainian territory by the Ukrainian army. So, more and more people, including Fareed Zakaria on CNN, begin to talk about a stalemate, which is what was the starting point of my piece in December. But, yeah, I’m not a military expert, and war is a highly volatile thing. So, I think Ukrainians disagree with Milley. And they are more confident than Milley in their own capacities to inflict a humiliating military defeat and even forcing Russians out of Crimea. They have their, you know, secret plan. They have various stratagems for that, which I’m not aware of. But we may have surprises.

But what I want to stress, Milley is a good authority, because he went through several wars where you achieved military goals but you don’t achieve political goals. The War in Iraq showed that. The War in Afghanistan showed that. So, in a sense, to add to his argument about the military — the definite military defeat, complete military defeat of Russia is unlikely, I would add a political factor. As long as Putin and his entourage continues to view this war as a war about heritage and a war of defeat, or a defeat of Ukraine or defeat of Russia, which equals, in his mind, to the demise of Russia — so, until then, we have an intractable political dilemma. There is no political counterplay to this, no political alternative that the West offers to Putin. There were a few words by Biden. Recently he said in Warsaw, “This was not a war against the Russian people,” and all that. But, you know, it needs to be more loud and more pronounced and more specific, I would say, so that parts of Russian elites and parts of populace would see, “Wait a minute, it’s not about a dilemma whether we win or perish; it’s a senseless war, and we’d better end it soon.” So, you know, the West must come up with something more politically specific to address Russian terrainial insecurity and Russian concerns — which is not easy.

You know, the third part of my article is about selling peace. There’s so many people who accuse me of appeasing Putin, which was not my intention, who blame me for offering a ramp-off for Russia, which was not my intention. My intention was to avoid the aftermath of the war, which would be dangerous both for Russia, with nuclear weapons in Russia, and for its neighbors and for the architecture of European peace in general.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Wolfgang Sporrer, you were involved in the Minsk talks from the outset. Could you talk a little bit — give us some background of this war? You were involved, as I said, from 2014, with the Russian annexation of Crimea, as a member of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission.

WOLFGANG SPORRER: Well, the talks that took place in Minsk were there to implement the so-called package of measures that was concluded in March of 2015. This, in essence, meant there were security provisions, and there were political provisions. Political provisions were, in essence, about giving more rights to the people living beyond the so-called contact land, whereas the political provisions were about also transforming the state of Ukraine, for making it into a more decentralized society, etc. The security provisions, however, were, in essence, about getting a ceasefire. And both parts of these provisions were never fulfilled, because the Russian Federation really never showed a big interest in fulfilling the security provisions of the Minsk agreements, and the Ukraine never really felt a big intention, in my opinion, to fulfill the political provisions of the Minsk agreements.

However, I think it is a mistake to believe that these Minsk agreements, just because they did not lead to full implementation, were actually a complete failure, because they were not. And this is where we can learn potentially some things for the situation today. The Minsk agreements did not solve the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. They did not. But they did bring about certain humanitarian positive steps. They brought about temporary ceasefires. They brought about disengagement zones around the humanitarian facilities. They brought about the reconstruction of critical infrastructure. So, they brought about humanitarian steps. They did a second thing. And this is, they kept a minimum of trust between the sides, between the Russians and the Ukraine — between the Russian Federation and Ukraine, because they were simply meeting every two weeks, and they had a real possibility to voice their concerns, to talk to each other, to talk to each other officially, but also to talk to each other outside of the official settings, which is something that brings a minimum minimum of trust.

So, and therefore, my proposal was to somehow try to get to proper negotiations, to real political negotiations, of a ceasefire in the current conflict via first really small steps. That means: Why can Russia and Ukraine not find a forum, an internationally mediated forum, where they will talk about exactly humanitarian protection zones, about a disengagement around the atomic power plant in Zaporizhzhia, about small potential ceasefires for the beginning of school, for the harvest, for the sowing of the fields? This would bring about these exact same advantages, namely humanitarian advantages. And every life saved is a big step in the right direction. Secondly, the ground could be prepared to establish some kind of little, small trust, which has been completely lost by now by both — by the sides. And thirdly, such a forum, where the sides would meet and be in a position to interact on a permanent basis, with neutral mediation, but with other countries, such as the West, as observers, would probably also have a deescalatory effect. This would probably and likely have the effect of preventing escalation that may otherwise take place. So, this is what we can maybe take from the failed Minsk negotiations forward into some kind of segue into negotiations, how they could start now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Wolfgang Sporrer, take that a step further. Where do you see these kind of mini or prenegotiations taking place? And what countries do you see mediating that negotiation? I mean, today you have the image of Lavrov and Blinken shaking hands, but at the same time you have the U.S. increasing tension with China, sending over $600 million in weapons to Taiwan. You have Putin and Xi Jinping’s alliance. Where do you see this happening?

WOLFGANG SPORRER: The location is, I think, of secondary importance. By now, I can see Istanbul. Let us not forget that Istanbul is the place where right now Russian and Ukrainian officials are sitting together on the daily — on a daily basis, negotiating in the context of the Black Sea European Grain — Black Sea Grain Initiative. So, Istanbul as a location would be, I think, a good one.

More important is the question: Who could play the role of a mediator? I hear on many occasions that people think about personalities like Brazilian President Lula. We just heard in your news that potentially Indian Prime Minister Modi. I am a little bit skeptical of this, as I would not be surprised if either Ukraine or Russia actually rejects — would reject these countries as a mediator, because they do not actually — they would probably not assign that amount of impartiality to these countries. It is my guess at the moment. However, I think organizations such as the United Nations or the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation, would be ideally suited, because they are kind of neutral by definition. That means the U.N. or the OSCE could basically give a coat, could give the role or a coat of mediator to an eminent personality that enjoys the trust by both Russia and Ukraine. And such personalities still do exist.

So, the setting would be — this would be under the auspices of the United Nations or the OSCE, taking place in Istanbul or in a comparable city, with the Ukraine and Russia as the main participants, but — which is important, particularly for the deescalatory function of this facility — with the West, the United States, the European Union, China, India and Turkey as observers of this process. They are to facilitate when they can. They are to work with their allies when they can and when needed.

Now, the question is: Why should the sides to the conflict, at this point in time, be ready to engage in something like this? Let me just underline, participating in such negotiations does not cost the sides anything. It does not mean a change in the position in the field. It does not mean giving up any type of political or military position that you have held so far. So this would be negotiations that could be entered into at zero cost for the sides, but with potentially great benefit, but, therefore, they should also be entered into with no preconditions. And I think it would be the duty of the West, on the one side, and of China and India, on the other side, to convince both Russia and Ukraine to inform them, constructively, that participation in such negotiations would be deemed as highly welcome.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Zubok, if you could respond to what our guest Wolfgang said, and also talk — another article that you wrote, in The Spectator last year, just days after the invasion, headlined “The post-Soviet roots of the war in Ukraine,” in which you talk about the significance of the Crimea, Khrushchev in 1954 handing over Crimea to Ukraine, the Soviet republic, and the fact that you’ve said that Crimea is the principal, or one of the principal, obstacles to Russia and Ukraine speaking at the moment.

VLADISLAV ZUBOK: Well, you raise two very important points. And I read with great interest what Dr. Sporrer wrote, Wolfgang Sporrer wrote, about the importance of talks. And I’m all in favor of this idea for sort of a dry run of talks of the future. You know, we have plenty of experience during the Cold War, when, for instance, talks on POWs or MIAs were taking place during the Korean War between the sides. And the war still lasted in a stalemate for a couple of years, if not more, and then, suddenly, Stalin died, and a new political — and Eisenhower was elected, and a new political situation emerged. And the same kind of, you know, dry run talks, almost futile talks, suddenly became a vehicle for signing an armistice. So, the very existence of this venue, or, I would say, a practice, where the sides are accustomed to meet and talk, is really, really important to prepare for the future.

I would be very skeptical about involving multilateral organizations or organizations like OSCE for one simple reason. In the Russian eyes, you know, most of members of the OSCE are members of NATO. And also Turkey, of course, is very important, but Turkey also is a member of NATO, although an unusual one. So, you know, what’s important, I think, not only credibility and impartiality, but also power. So, you know, previous negotiations that led to some kind of solutions — I’m not saying that those solutions were good or bad, just solutions to military conflicts, like the end of the Korean War, I mentioned, the end of the First Indochina War, the Geneva Accords, even the Paris talks that ended the Second Indochina War between the United States and North Vietnam — they involved several parties, but not multilateral organizations. So, for me, you know, I don’t have that experience that Wolfgang Sporrer has, obviously. I’m a historian, But, for me, the ideal combination would be Ukraine and the U.S. on one side, and Russia and China on the other.

On Crimea — on Crimea, of course, we have it as a bone of contention between the two sides. But let me say, it became much worse now, much worse, because from the Russian perspective, if Putin loses Crimea, that would mean the end of his claim on whatever heritage of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and all the rest of them, the Russian imperial glory, and huge humiliation. You know, even the blow-up of the bridge, if it happens a second time, will be a huge blow to him. And exactly for this reason, the Ukrainians realize this is his Achilles’ heel. For Ukraine, the Crimea is no longer only a beachhead from which Russia could deliver another attack, you know, a strategic menace to Ukraine pointing to its underbelly in the south, but it’s also an opportunity, as Khrushchev used to say about his partners, to grab Putin by the balls — I’m sorry for the expression. And if they manage to ease the Russian forces out of Sevastopol, the glory of the Russian Navy, and destroy the Black Sea navy, that would be an intolerable humiliation for Putin, which, in Ukrainian perspective, would kill all the birds they want to kill, not only remove the Russian troops from the Ukrainian territory, but to topple the autocratic regime of Putin.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. There is so much to discuss here, and we will continue to do so. Professor Vladislav Zubok, professor of international history at the London School of Economics, speaking to us from London, and Wolfgang Sporrer, the conflict manager and adjunct professor at the Hertie School in Berlin, Germany. We’ll link to all of your pieces at

Next up, we go to Tel Aviv and Huwara in the occupied West Bank. On Sunday, hundreds of Israeli settlers attacked the village in what’s been described as a “pogrom,” all while the Israeli army looked on. Israel’s new finance minister has called for Huwara to be “wiped out.” Stay with us.

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Surviving a Pogrom: Palestinian in Huwara Decries Israeli Settler Attack as “Ethnic Cleansing”

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