The Black Sea agreement offers a model for off-ramps to escalation.
The protracted war in Ukraine is entering a new and potentially much more dangerous phase. Following rapid advances by Ukrainian troops in a counteroffensive against Russian forces in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region as well as the West’s enduring political and security backing, the Kremlin is now climbing the escalation ladder. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a Russian military mobilization on Sept. 21 while issuing yet another semi-veiled threat of the use of nuclear weapons, a return to one of Moscow’s themes following earlier defeats in the initial stages of the invasion. Referendums to join Russia in several Moscow-backed separatist territories, which have long been discussed and are currently being held, are yet another sign of the Kremlin’s attempts to ratchet up pressure on Ukraine.
All of these developments point to a serious risk of escalation in the Ukrainian conflict, one that has already bled over into energy disruptions between Russia and Europe and has come worryingly close to threatening nuclear accidents. But further escalation isn’t inevitable. Indeed, they could provide the impetus for something that has eluded the Russia-Ukraine conflict going back all the way to 2014: an earnest and dedicated attempt by all parties involved to reach a diplomatic resolution to end the war in Ukraine—or at least mitigate against its most destructive outcomes.
To be sure, there have been many failed efforts at resolving the Ukrainian conflict diplomatically. These go back to the start of the conflict in early 2014 following the Euromaidan revolution in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea as well as sponsorship of a separatist uprising in the Donbas. Diplomatic negotiations were then launched almost immediately. These primarily came in two forms: the Trilateral Contact Group, which included Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to address the tactical and security components of the conflict, and the so-called Normandy Four between Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany to address broader strategic issues from a political level.
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