Is a Ceasefire Agreement Possible? A Negotiation Analysis of the Russia-Ukraine War

For more fruitful negotiations to begin, Russia’s interest in a cease-fire must be heightened, even if it remains lower than Ukraine’s, write NTF Director Arvid Bell and Dana Wolf.

When war erupts, we are tempted to assume that diplomacy has failed. In fact, most states use force and diplomacy simultaneously. This assessment applies negotiation analysis methods to the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine—and, indirectly, NATO—to determine the likelihood of a negotiated ceasefire agreement that would end the Russian invasion and open the door to a more comprehensive peace deal. As of this writing, we assess that the probability of such a ceasefire is very unlikely (5–20%) but not an “almost no chance” outcome (1%–5%) that can be fully dismissed.

We also argue that the current mix of escalatory and de-escalatory actions by the parties is meant to improve their negotiating positions by influencing the other parties’ perceptions of “no-deal options”—i.e., the options that would be left open to them if no deal can be reached. Most dramatically, with Moscow opting to target civilians and lay siege to Ukrainian cities, its goal seems to be to convince Kyiv that it is better off with an unfavorable agreement on Russia’s terms than with a terrible alternative—the complete destruction of Ukraine.

For more fruitful negotiations to begin, Russia’s interest in a cease-fire must be heightened, even if it remains lower than Ukraine’s. As political and military conditions change, governments reevaluate the tools and strategies available to accomplish their goals. And a negotiation analysis of a conflict does not start from the assumption that an agreement is possible under all circumstances; it provides insights into the likelihood of an agreement under specific conditions.

Assessing the Probability of a Negotiated Agreement

The probability of a negotiated agreement is influenced by two key variables. The first is the zone of possible agreement, or ZOPA, which is created by the parties’ “reservation points”—a term referring to the worst possible deal parties would be willing to accept, terrible as it may be. The second variable is the strength of each party’s no-deal option, also known as a “best alternative to a negotiated agreement,” or BATNA. This refers to your outcome in the event that you and your counterpart do not reach an agreement: What will you do if one or both of you walk away from the table?

As of early March 2022, the zone of possible agreement between Ukraine and Russia is extremely narrow. This is due to the configuration of their reservation points—that is, to the way in which the worst possible deal from a Ukrainian perspective compares to the worst possible deal from a Russian perspective. Of course, most negotiators do not give away their reservation points. Instead, they make demands that far exceed them. We, hence, do not know for sure what the Ukrainians or Russians see as the worst possible deals they would be willing to accept. However, we can make best guesses based on their recent statements. For example, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said he would be willing to discuss a “neutral status” for Ukraine. At the same time, Ihor Zhovkva, Zelensky’s deputy chief of staff, has insisted that Ukraine continues to seek NATO membership. Such a contradiction in a party’s statements suggests that, by putting neutrality on the table, Ukraine has seemingly made a concession that slightly expands the zone of possible agreement. Russia now knows that Ukrainian neutrality is not an impossible goal. However, the conditions under which Ukraine would accept neutrality are unclear, therefore the exact Ukrainian reservation point remains unknown to Russia (and the rest of the world).

Based on best guesses, here is an example of what that reservation point, or worst acceptable deal, could look like: Ukraine agrees on self-imposed neutrality, consents to the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and to the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk, and Russian “peacekeepers” are allowed to remain in Donbas. In return, Russia withdraws all troops from Ukraine and international security guarantees keep Ukraine safe from future aggression and attacks on its sovereignty. To be clear: We do not suggest such a course of action. We are merely estimating the worst possible deal from a Ukrainian perspective.

To assess the zone of possible agreement, we now have to estimate the worst possible deal from a Russian perspective. This is an even tricker exercise based on open sources alone. But here is an example of what it could be: Russia withdraws all troops from Ukraine, including the ones in Donbas. Moscow rescinds its recognition of Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People's Republic (LPR). Crimea remains part of Russia but is demilitarized. Ukraine joins the EU but not NATO. (We estimate that Ukrainian membership in NATO is below Russia’s reservation point, as is rescinding Russian annexation of Crimea—i.e., Moscow would not sign an agreement that includes NATO membership for Ukraine or Russian recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea.) In return, all sanctions on Russia are lifted and the U.S. and NATO agree on a serious security dialogue with Moscow about the European security architecture.

For a negotiation analysis, the parties’ reservation points (worst possible deals) are more relevant than the parties’ target points (best possible deals), but we will note the latter nonethelessFrom a Ukrainian perspective, the best possible deal might include the ejection of all invasion troops, Russian reparation payments and immediate admission to NATO and the EU, plus full reintegration of Donbas and Crimea. From a Russian perspective, the best possible deal might be the end of Ukrainian sovereignty (de facto or de jure), full control over Ukraine’s domestic politics and foreign policy and the U.S. and NATO signing the security agreements Moscow circulated in December. But these aspirations do not inform the parties’ bargaining range. The bargaining range is defined by their “worst possible deal” options.

Our analysis is based on three assumptions:

  • First, even though the direct negotiations involve two parties (Russia and Ukraine), we are in fact witnessing a three-party conflict involving Russia, Ukraine and NATO. (When we say “NATO,” we are simplifying because the interests of the U.S. and the European NATO member states are not fully aligned, plus there are European non-NATO states that play important roles, such as Finland and Sweden.) We are focusing this negotiation analysis on Ukraine and Russia, while taking into account important ways in which NATO is connected to their conflict. A comprehensive negotiation analysis would have to take all of NATO’s interests into account, as well as the role that other parties (such as China) play in influencing Russia’s and Ukraine’s calculus. That lies beyond the scope of this analysis.
  • Second, there are different layers of issues that must be addressed in different negotiations to bring sustainable peace to Ukraine: They range from the immediate (such as ceasefire terms between Russia and Ukraine) to contentious smaller-scale issues previously included in the Minsk agreements (such as elections in Donbas and the region’s measure of autonomy) to large-scale, long-term issues. The latter include the European security architecture, conflict management in Eurasia, NATO expansion and the relationship between Russia and the West in the context of a changing world order. To open a path toward addressing these long-term issues, Russia and Ukraine would first have to agree on an immediate but sustainable ceasefire.
  • Third, we assume that the Russian leadership, for now, is still able to conduct basic, rational cost-benefit assessments. However, the more the Russian government transforms into an increasingly repressive system where decisions are made by an increasingly narrow circle with an increasingly isolated leader who draws on increasingly selective information, the more will Moscow’s risk-benefit assessment deviate from standards of rationality expected by decision-makers in Washington, Brussels or Kiev, especially in moments of crisis.

Are the Parties Negotiating in Good Faith?

Assessing the motivations of states is a tricky matter. But while we don’t have access to internal Russian decision-making, we can deduce certain preferences from the choices the Kremlin has made thus far in the negotiating process.

One indicator that reaching an agreement with Ukraine is not a Russian priority right now is the negotiation setup. First, the talks are taking place in Belarus. Negotiating on the territory of a state that is closely allied with one of the conflict parties impacts a negotiation process, even if Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko promises that his weapons will remain silent during the talks. Second, while Ukraine has dispatched senior officials to these talks, including Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, the Russian delegation includes lower-level representatives such as presidential aide Vladimir Medinsky (a former minister of culture) and the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Leonid Slutsky. Finally, the meetings are very short and take place only every few days. Subsequent meetings do not seem to be scheduled in advance.

If the parties believed that an agreement was in their interest, and if they preferred it over continuing to fight, we would expect to see a more intense negotiation process and an urgency to reach an agreement, especially when every day brings more human pain and suffering, more death and destruction (in Ukraine), and more economic hardship and isolation (in Russia). U.S., NATO and EU negotiators are absent, making a comprehensive agreement that would go beyond a ceasefire impossible. There are also no mediators from the OSCE or U.N. at the table.

In short, the Russian-Ukrainian talks in Belarus are as likely to bring sustainable peace to Ukraine as bilateral meetings between an Israeli general and the Iranian minister of transportation in a deserted Hezbollah missile camp are likely to revive the Iran nuclear deal. However, we are now seeing a new negotiation channel between the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine in Turkey. Should this trend continue, and the parties maintain and deepen negotiations at higher levels and with representatives who are actually authorized to explore deal options rather than just repeat public demands, it would be an indication that they are taking the talks more seriously.

Winning and Losing in Negotiations

If Russian President Vladimir Putin had indeed expected his military to take control of Ukraine quickly, as many have speculated, he had likely expected that his power at the negotiating table would be overwhelming: Should any “negotiation” have been necessary, the humiliated Ukrainian leadership would accept all Russian demands, including “demilitarization,” the installation of a pro-Russian government, Russian “peacekeeping troops” and independence of the eastern regions of Ukraine. When the military campaign did not proceed as planned, Putin was suddenly confronted with what negotiation strategists call a lose-lose situation—trapped between a weak BATNA and a low reservation point: either a bloody war against a capable insurgency (BATNA) or a humiliating withdrawal deal between Moscow and a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis” (reservation point).

What does this mean in practical terms?

First, there is Putin’s lose-lose scenario to consider: If Russia occupies Ukraine, including Kyiv, it will be difficult to sustain control of the territory in the long term. Moscow will have to use extreme and brutal force against the local population, akin to its wars in Chechnya but on a larger scale, over a long and uncertain period, and at significant costs to Russia’s society, economy and military, which would fight a determined, Western-backed Ukrainian insurgency. Hence, Russia’s BATNA—its best alternative to a negotiated agreement with Ukraine—is now weaker than its expected BATNA before the invasion (i.e., withstanding Western sanctions as it had after the annexation of Crimea following a brief, successful “special military operation”).

However, Russia’s prospects to negotiate a favorable deal with Ukraine are also likely lower than initially expected. In fact, Russia has used military force precisely because it was unsatisfied with the existing negotiation setup around the Minsk agreements, the perceived lack of Ukrainian progress in implementing their provisions and no progress in negotiations about the larger European security architecture between Russia and the West. But the Kremlin’s use of force has not recalibrated the negotiation setup as presumably intended by Moscow. Instead, emboldened by a patriotic uprising, unexpected successes on the battlefield and Western support, the Ukrainian leadership has—for now—no incentive to give in to all Russian demands.

Putin Is Trying to Weaken Ukraine’s and NATO’s No-Deal Options

In this situation, it seems that Putin has decided that what had not yet been achieved by military force in the first round of his invasion could be achieved with even greater force in the second round. Russia is expanding its military operations and is using force deliberately against civilian targets to regain lost power at the table. Putin is using a strategy that negotiation scientists describe as “weaken your counterpart’s BATNA” to reshape the zone of possible agreement to his advantage. The goal is to convince the weaker party (Ukraine) that it is better off with an unfavorable agreement (= accept Russian terms) than with a terrible alternative (= the complete destruction of Ukraine).

It is likely that the same logic underpins Putin’s ominous threat to use nuclear weapons. He is trying to convince NATO that the West’s best alternative to accepting a Ukraine agreement on Moscow’s terms is a direct military confrontation with Russia, possibly even a nuclear one. Absent perhaps a dramatic turning point (such as, perhaps, the use of chemical weapons by Russia against Kiev), Western leaders would not go to war directly with Russia over Ukraine, and Putin knows this.

However, because U.S. President Joe Biden “knows that Putin knows,” his administration has thus far refused to reciprocate the nuclear saber-rattling and drawn a firm line between Ukrainian and NATO territory. Washington’s carefully calibrated mix of escalation (sanctions, weapon shipments) and de-escalation (no war with Russia, no nukes) is intended to influence Putin’s perceptions of Russian no-deal options.

From Putin’s point of view, the zone of possible agreement with Ukraine is hence extremely narrow. He is not interested in negotiating a cease-fire or a long-term agreement until he achieves sufficient military superiority to improve his bargaining position and rule out a deal below his reservation point, which we have estimated above.

Can Diplomacy End the War?

In order for the probability of a negotiated ceasefire agreement between Russia and Ukraine to increase in this situation, one of two variables has to change: Either one of the parties lowers their reservation point—meaning, they become willing to accept a deal they had thus far rejected—or one of the parties perceives a significant weakening of its BATNA, meaning that the no-deal outcome becomes so untenable that the party will make major concessions at the negotiating table rather than walk away without a deal. (There could, of course, conceivably also be dramatic, game-changing events—such as a revolution in Russia or a Russian military attack on a NATO member state—which are beyond the scope of this analysis.) Finally, the ZOPA would also expand if the parties decided to search for mutual gains, meaning they identify creative options that would leave both Ukraine and Russia better off. Negotiation scientists call this “widening the ZOPA through creating value.” However, we expect such a constructive approach to play an extremely small role, at best, as long as the killing rages on.

Even though a negotiated agreement is very unlikely at this point, there could be developments that might indicate a dynamic toward a real ceasefire and, potentially, a comprehensive deal. Since the beginning of the war, the parties have had conflicting short-term interests. After Putin decided to use force in a way deemed by the U.N. General Assembly to be “aggression … against Ukraine in violation” of the United Nations Charter, and with disregard for civilian lives, homes, and infrastructure, Ukraine has been highly interested in a cessation of hostilities. Ukrainians know that an escalating war ultimately threatens their survival as a people and the existence of their country as an independent state. However, for Putin, a cease-fire is neither a core interest nor an urgent matter at this moment. For a genuine negotiation to begin, the interest in a cease-fire must be shared, even if the gap in urgency between the parties may remain.

What could change this dynamic and increase the probability that Russia would prefer a cease-fire to continuing the war? Ukraine and the West could decide to send clearer signals to Putin that a withdrawal from Ukraine as part of a negotiated agreement is less costly to him than a further escalation of the war. This strategy would require the Ukrainian people to be willing to make more enormous sacrifices on the battlefield to raise the cost of the invasion to Russia. Zelensky is preparing Ukrainians for this when he asks them to realize “that every day of struggle, every day of resistance creates better conditions for us.” This strategy would also require the West to work closely with parties outside the conflict, especially China, to prevent them from undermining the effects of the sanctions on the Russian economy. (The role that Beijing could play in reshaping the negotiations is beyond the scope of this analysis.) NATO could also get creative about additional military support for Ukraine, such as finding ways to provide it with fighter jets or launching a “lend-lease” policy akin to U.S. aid to Allied nations during World War II. The goal would be to weaken Russia’s no-deal options so dramatically that a withdrawal agreement becomes tenable.

Putin would likely counter this strategy by attempting to further weaken Ukraine’s no-deal options. Because NATO has taken direct military support for Ukraine off the table, Moscow has solidified its advantage over Kiev at the negotiation table. As we outlined above, the fact that the Russian military operation did not proceed as planned has weakened Russia’s BATNA, but it has not yet led to a significant widening of the zone of possible agreement. But this could change if Ukrainian resistance remains active, the West delivers more military support, economic sanctions on Russia intensify, Russian public opinion turns against the war and the Ukrainian people win the “hearts and minds” of more and more people around the world.

As days go by, Russia might find itself in a position in which it is unable to decide the armed conflict in its favor. In this unlikely but not impossible scenario, Ukraine has a chance to open a window for successful ceasefire negotiations.

This piece originally appeared in RussiaMatters on March 12, 2022.

Lecturer on Government, Harvard University

Arvid Bell is a scholar and entrepreneur who specializes in negotiation strategy, crisis leadership, and international security.

Head of the Law and Security Program at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at Reichman University (IDC), Israel