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One year of war in Ukraine: is now the time for negotiations?

22 February 2023
24 February marks one year since Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, a bloody war has been raging with no end in sight. Wolfgang Wagner, political scientist and professor of International Security at VU Amsterdam, discusses recent developments in the war and what we might expect.

“It’s difficult to predict who will win the war. I think both countries think they can,” says Wolfgang Wagner. Although the Russians are struggling to gain ground, and are wrestling with logistical problems and internal corruption, there’s also optimism there, according to Wolfgang Wagner. “Russia also believes that they can still win. Not in the sense that they can completely conquer Ukraine, but that they can achieve important victories.”

External pressure

Meanwhile, several countries have announced that they want Ukraine and Russia to start negotiations – such as French president Emmanuel Macron in an interview last Monday (in Dutch). Prof. Wagner questions whether now is the time. “Colleagues of mine ask the Dutch government in open letters to put pressure on Ukraine to reach a resolution to the war through negotiations. I am sceptical about that.” He doesn’t believe that Putin is ready to make concessions, given that Ukraine has recaptured territory. This is also difficult on the Ukrainian side: “In essence, a Russian occupation also means large-scale human rights violations and atrocities.” The professor of International Security takes a gloomy view: “The best way to bring this war to an end is to make it clear to both sides that they cannot win this war militarily”.

Negotiations between great powers

“I think it’s crucial that Ukraine has an important voice in the negotiations,” says Wagner. “It should not become a negotiation between great powers about Ukraine, in which Russia wants to involve the United States.” He thinks it’s a good decision that the US and EU do not want to negotiate without Ukraine’s consent. “Ukraine is a democratic state, and Zelensky and the Ukrainian government represent the people of Ukraine. Negotiations would be inappropriate without Ukraine's consent.”

Boycotts and sanctions

In addition to large-scale arms transfers, various countries have imposed sanctions and boycotts. Wolfgang Wagner and his colleague Michal Onderco from Erasmus University Rotterdam advised the Dutch House of Representatives last month on the EU’s sanctions policy. Do these measures affect Russia’s war machine? “What’s important to understand is that sanctions rarely change behaviour. In that sense, sanctions don’t work and almost never have.” They create a so-called “rally around the flag effect,” says Wagner. The people feel that the country in question is under pressure and therefore feel solidarity with their own government. “Governments can attribute anything to those sanctions. You see that with Assad in Syria, and in Iran, and so on,” explains the professor. “But the reason sanctions are important is because they send a signal in an international context that what’s happening is not done. For example, China will study very carefully what happens in terms of sanctions and boycotts if you invade a country. We’re all familiar with the Taiwan issue, of course. Although we don’t know exactly what China is planning, it’s likely that they’re seriously considering an invasion and its consequences.”

Wolfgang Wagner compares this to crime in his own country. “If someone gets a prison sentence, very few people think that they’ll really become a better person as a result. They’re temporarily imprisoned, but in the long term it won’t make the person any less criminal. For everyone else, however, it does make a difference whether there are consequences if someone commits a crime. In the international system, there are also general norms such as not using force against neighbouring countries. That should be more than just lip service, so sanctions play a crucial role. Which is why I say they’re very important.”

In addition, he continues, sanctions and boycotts paralyse the Russian economy, “especially in the medium to long term. The gas boycott will have a long-term effect and will also accelerate the energy transition here. Russia loses Western Europe as a customer. And without new pipelines, India and China cannot replace this demand.”

A European army

For all the speculation about a European army, prof. Wagner does not think it will happen. “A lot can be gained through good cooperation.” When it comes to arms purchases, for example, he explains: “You have so many systems in the EU, and that makes it terribly expensive. If you could run the purchases through a single common system, that would yield economies of scale.” In the matter of a European army, the main challenge is that everyone must play their part, he believes. “Countries could find themselves in a conflict in which they wouldn’t have participated had it been their decision alone. I think that's very risky.”