How peace in Ukraine might be negotiated

Armed-conflict mediator Pierre Hazan tells John Milnes-Smith about possible war endgames and how peace deals have transformed since the 1990s.

The World Today Updated 21 March 2024 Published 2 February 2024 3 minute READ

Pierre Hazan

Senior Adviser, The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue

Negotiating with the Devil: Inside the World of Armed Conflict Mediation
Pierre Hazan (translated by Susan Mutti), Hurst, £18.99

Pierre Hazan is a conflict negotiator and a senior adviser with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. He has worked in conflict zones in Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East and helped organize the 2011 Peace Conference that led to the end of the Basque conflict in Spain. Here, he talks to John Milnes-Smith about the Israel–Hamas war, the ethical challenges facing conflict mediators and how a peace in Ukraine might be mediated. 

You added a last-minute preface to your book to address the November agreement between Hamas and Israel, mediated by Qatar, which led to a ceasefire and an exchange of hostages and prisoners. What did you see as so unprecedented about that deal?

In the 1990s, mediation was a tool for liberal peace. Today, we see something very different, with fragile and limited ad-hoc deals being agreed between countries or parties that are at war and want the elimination of the other.

This is what we observed between Israel and Hamas, each determined to annihilate the other. That didn’t stop them from reaching an agreement which, as far as I know, is unprecedented. I know of no other example where hostages have been released in exchange for an extension of the ceasefire.

The identity of the lead mediator – Qatar – is also unusual, since it is the main financial backer of an organization –Hamas – listed as ‘terrorist’ by the United Nations and since it also hosts the political leadership of this organization. This is all the more striking given that Qatar does not recognize the other party, Israel, with which it nevertheless deals, while also being a strategic ally of the United States, housing the US Army’s Central Command in the region.

How would you say the West’s declining hegemony is reshaping mediation?

In the 1990s, the US largely shaped the mediation field. It used the UN as a very convenient vehicle for the new post-Cold War world order. This was the high time of peace processes from Guatemala to the former Yugoslavia.

The end of western hegemony has now created a multipolar world marked by greater insecurity, from the China Sea to the war in Ukraine, not to mention the multiple conflicts in the Sahel and elsewhere. Mediation reflects this new world.

The United Nations in its role as mediator is marginalized. This was particularly striking when UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited Moscow on April 27, 2022, to offer mediation to the Russian president.

In a fragmented world marked by international tensions, deals are essentially transactional and fragile.

Vladimir Putin’s response came in the form of two missiles which struck Kyiv the following day, just as Guterres was leaving a meeting with the Ukrainian president. This brutal ‘no’ to the UN’s offer of mediation reflects the new geopolitical realities.

On the other hand, new players have entered the field of mediation. In addition to the aforementioned Qatar, China led the mediation to restore diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were also involved in prisoner exchanges between Russia and Ukraine. Turkey contributed to the Russian–Ukrainian wheat agreement, which was renewed twice before Russia put an end to it.

This last aspect is the most worrying in the evolution of mediation: in a fragmented world marked by international tensions, deals are essentially transactional and extremely fragile. Peace processes such as the one between the Colombian government and FARC are now the exception rather than the rule.

You were a journalist and describe abandoning the ‘ethics of conviction’ for the ‘ethics of responsibility’ to become a conflict mediator. Can you tell us more about the key ethical dilemmas facing conflict mediators?

The recurring dilemma is the tension between peace and justice. Do you put justice on hold in the name of peace? That was the decision taken in the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and then in the Dayton Accords that ended the war in the former Yugoslavia in 1995.

In the peace agreements reached with FARC in Colombia in 2016 and in the Central African Republic in 2019, there was a desire to find a better link between peace and justice, but this remains an extraordinarily sensitive issue.

Another dilemma for mediators is the price of peace. In the Sahel region and in Afghanistan, peace came at the price of women’s rights.

A third dilemma that arose in Bosnia-Herzegovina and, more recently, in Syria, is the position of mediators when faced with policies of ‘ethnic cleansing’. Should they support, or even participate in, the deportation of populations to save them from death, at the risk of playing into the hands of a criminal policy?

In all these cases, the challenge is not to find the right solution, but to identify the lesser evil.

How might a Ukrainian peace be mediated?

Different contexts may lead to a negotiated peace: a military defeat; a mutually hurting stalemate; or the perspective by one party that the situation might further deteriorate on the battlefield. There could also be a change of power in Moscow, which is an improbable scenario, or a new US administration which radically limits its support to Kyiv.

If we assume that Ukraine still claims its territorial integrity, as does Russia, including the annexed territories, we can imagine three scenarios.

New technologies will require not only a new diplomacy but a whole new grammar for mediation.

There is a minimal scenario where both parties agree on limited points such as a ceasefire, humanitarian aid. A precarious calm would prevail, while Russia and Ukraine remain technically at war.

A more ambitious scenario is the ‘Korean model’, with a demilitarized military zone between the two sides. From a Ukrainian perspective, it would mean exchanging territory for security guarantees and NATO/EU membership.

Or a more robust mediation process and peace deal could only happen if the military or the political situation changes radically either way.

What do you see as the key challenges for the future of conflict mediation?

The key challenge for mediators is linked to the current security crisis, with rising international tensions, the weakening of norms and the emergence of regional powers. In such an environment, where conflicts tend to become internationalized – as seen in Libya, Sudan and elsewhere – it becomes even more difficult to find compromises. And when compromises are found, they have to be sustainable.

Moreover, the fact that we are living in a post-truth age makes conflict mediation very difficult when belligerents cannot even agree on basic facts.

New technologies will require not only a new diplomacy, but also a whole new grammar for mediation. What would a ceasefire look like in a cyber war? Who would monitor it? Interesting experiences in different parts of the world are being currently tested.

For example, a draft Code of Conduct on Artificial Intelligence in military systems has been elaborated after a two-year consultation process among Chinese, American and international experts convened by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

In another area, following the UN secretary-general’s call, there have been some ceasefires in the Philippines and Central African Republic during the Covid pandemic. It was the first time that a public health crisis had led to ceasefires. Climate change also calls for mediation.

There is plenty of work!