Is a Peace Deal Possible With Putin?

Unlike a majority of the conflicts studied by PeaceRep, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to a classical conventional war rather than a civil war or situation of intractable violence. Whereas fragmented, intractable conflicts, which involve multiple non-state actors often using violence to extract rents from vulnerable populations, tend to predominate in the twenty-first century, the Russia-Ukraine War is a classical political and military contest. It is a war between an autocratic regime characterised by a combination of political-economic corruption (largely based on rents from fossil fuel extraction) and exclusionary identity politics (i.e., Russian ethnic nationalism), on one side, and a predominantly civic democratic state, on the other.

In principle, if the conflict retains its conventional war character, then it should, as Timothy Snyder argues in his contribution, come to an end. If, however, the Ukrainian state fragmented and public authority became dissipated there would be a danger of the conflict assuming an intractable, non-conventional character – although unlikely at the time of writing, due to the deep civic reserves the Ukrainian resistance has drawn on, we should be cognisant of this risk.


Our panel were united in their view that a peace deal – as defined above, including notions of a just end – was not possible with Putin in power.


Assuming the war retains its conventional character, then how it will it end? Classical political contests resolve themselves around some form of political conclusion, armistice or settlement. The ability of each side to prosecute them successfully lies in what the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausevitz called the trinity: (a) the army and military high command, (b) the government and (c) the people. Whether one or other side wins the classical political contest, will be determined by the complex interactions between these three elements. In the historical evolution of ‘total wars’, in which an entire society is mobilised around a war-economy to prosecute the conflict, ‘the people’ came to play a critical role. In addition, international alignments, including economic and military aid from allies, have also driven ‘total wars’ to their conclusion, providing a tipping point which changed the balance of forces dramatically.

In Ukraine’s war of self-defence this raises some questions. On the one hand, Ukraine and its allies will not declare war on Russia itself and prosecute a total war ending in ‘regime change’ in Moscow. This would very likely lead to a nuclear war or conventional war on NATO territory with unimaginably bad human and environmental costs – and has been ruled out. The goals of the Ukrainian side are rightly limited to the eviction of Russian forces from Ukraine’s sovereign territory. On the other hand, if Vladimir Putin remains in power in Moscow, then what would the end of the war look like in this scenario?

In this context, we asked our panel: ‘Is a peace deal with Putin possible?’ In their responses, the panellists, in discussion with experts, considered what we mean by ‘peace’ and a ‘just peace’. This, in turn, introduced a distinction between an armistice, i.e., a stop to the fighting, and a peace settlement. Whereas the former simply means a formal or informal end to the war, the latter raises issues of rights and responsibilities; e.g., transitional justice for war crimes, payment of reparations, human rights and the legitimacy of sovereign territorial claims.

Our panel were united in their view that a peace deal – as defined above, including notions of a just end – was not possible with Putin in power. In drawing this conclusion, they nonetheless laid out scenarios for how Ukraine could successfully prosecute a military campaign that led to an end to the war (i.e., a stop to fighting/armistice). A successful military campaign could be expected to produce some form of political shock in Moscow, forcing the regime to re-evaluate its goals. This raised the possibility that such an end could conceivably happen with Putin declaring a false ‘victory’. They also argued that the basis for any peace talks between the two sides would have to involve the recognition of Ukraine’s basic legitimacy as an entity – something that the extreme discourses now emanating from the Kremlin flatly refuse to do.

In addition to the summary presentations included in this policy briefing, the discussion raised two other questions requiring further analysis. First, how Ukraine could organise its economy and social infrastructure effectively to maintain its cohesion as an entity and successfully prosecute the war – and the role of international donors in supporting this. For example, Ukraine’s ability to avoid a breakdown of authority (thus risking intractable violence) would be more straightforward in a situation of full employment, in which labour was directed centrally towards prosecuting the war effort using proto-planning mechanisms.

Second, there was an interesting discussion about what might be called ‘humanitarian diplomacy’ – talks that are taking place at all levels regarding lifting the blockade on grain exports, evacuating civilians from occupied areas, exchanges of prisoners, lifting of sieges, and so on, and how these might be conducted in ways that are optimal for individuals caught up in the war. An important issue to deciphering this element lies in whether the Russian state should be analysed as a fragmented entity and the possibilities, in this context, to negotiate at lower-order levels of military authority. These are questions we will return to in the future work of Ukraine PeaceRep.


Access the policy briefing: Is a Peace Deal Possible With Putin?




Luke Cooper is a Senior Research Fellow with the Conflict and Civicness Research Group, LSE IDEAS.

Mary Kaldor is Emeritus Professor of Global Governance and Director of LSE PeaceRep and the Conflict and Civicness Research Group, LSE IDEAS.