What is the Way Forward for the Russia-Ukraine War? Understanding our Differences and Potential Common Ground

Peace Advocate March 2024

Photo: Loco Steve from Bromley, UK via Wikimedia Commons

By Anicca Juraschka Sullivan

“Negotiation is never a surrender,” Pope Francis stated in an interview on Saturday, March 9, calling on both Russia and Ukraine to “have the courage of raising the white flag” and to find a diplomatic solution to end the war in Ukraine. While he was applauded for his words by some, others offered harsh critique, demonstrating how two years after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the question of how the war should end remains hotly debated. 

There appears to be a growing consensus among the American population that a negotiated peace between Russia and Ukraine is the only way to end this nightmare: according to a recent survey by the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, almost 70% of Americans support pushing Russia and Ukraine toward finding a diplomatic solution as soon as possible. If these numbers truly represent American thinking, then Biden’s “we will not bow down” approach to Russia suggests a significant disconnect between U.S. foreign policy and public opinion toward the war in Ukraine. In Europe, where the proximity of the war has sparked immense security concerns, public support for “doing whatever it takes” to defeat Russia and regain all Ukrainian territory remains strong. Yet even in European countries, critical voices calling for negotiations are becoming increasingly louder. It is evident that the question of how to end this war has become a divisive subject worldwide, in fact, even amongst MAPA’s own members. Much is at stake in this conflict, making it important to understand the underlying reasoning behind our divergences, as well as our shared ground amidst these disparities. In a quest to embrace this diversity in perspectives, I spoke to various MAPA members about their stance on the way forward for Ukraine. 

The differences in opinions on how this war should end strongly correlate with differences in opinions on what started it in the first place. Some argue that U.S. dominance, NATO expansionism, and the repeated failure of the West to address Russia’s security concerns are the leading causes of the war. “I think it’s pretty clear that the idea of turning Ukraine into a US base of operations against Russia was the motivating factor in this,” says Paul Shannon, chair of MAPA’s Ukraine: A Time for Peace campaign. Similarly, Jeanne Trubek, a leader in the campaign, believes that “NATO’s push to the border with Russia, and the United States push of NATO to surround Russia, is the primary cause.” Another campaign activist, Steve Gallant, states that “Russia had absolutely no right to invade” but stresses that “it was not just an invasion out of the blue.”

In contrast to these opinions, others argue that shifting all the blame onto the US and NATO is an inaccurate and dangerous way of explaining this war. According to Grace Sanford, a MAPA intern, the Kremlin’s “hunger for power and control” should not be underestimated as a cause of the current situation. Matvei Mozhaev, a member of the Gaza Working Group, shares this perspective, emphasizing that Russia’s hostility goes hand in hand with its “very deep colonial and imperialist aspirations, where Ukraine’s desire to be independent isn’t acceptable.” A clear division emerges: Is Russia at fault, or rather the US-led West,— or is it perhaps a mixture of both? While opinions range widely, all agree on one thing, stated by Paul: that “the invasion is a war crime and a violation of international law.” 

Non-surprisingly, these narratives surrounding who should take the blame for the conflict translate into diverging opinions on how to end it. For those framing the conflict as “the new Cold War”— the West against Russia — ending the war necessitates calling for an immediate ceasefire and the start of negotiations. According to Paul, finding a diplomatic solution needs to involve the US, “because all of NATO was mobilized against Russia, and the US was behind setting that up.” He stressed that any agreement reached must include addressing everyone’s, including Russia’s, security concerns. Jeanne believes this can only be achieved if parties establish “a long-term agreement for Ukraine to remain neutral and to not join NATO.” Steve, however, emphasizes that finding a negotiated solution is “the short answer.” He hopes that negotiations would result in “Ukraine get[ting] Russia out of most of its territory” but recognizes that this is no easy endeavor, especially considering historical territorial disputes. Grace, too, advocates for a diplomatic solution, but adds that this call comes “from a position of privilege where I don’t have to deal with the effects of negotiations.”

When discussing the way forward for Ukraine, some interviewees warned about framing the conflict as a new Cold War and pushing for Ukrainian neutrality as the ultimate solution. Matvei believes that focusing on Ukraine as a proxy state caught in the midst of a great power showdown is an “imperialist mindset:” “I think this delegitimizes Ukraine, and it is disrespectful towards its people because they have a right to be sovereign. Such a perspective suggests that Ukraine must remain this neutral territory, defined by the empires that surround it.” According to Matvei, achieving sustainable peace necessitates guaranteeing Ukraine “complete sovereignty in terms of its territorial integrity and safety from future aggressions from Russia.” To some, this is grounds to call for a continuation of the conflict and military assistance for Ukraine, “because Ukraine is not in a place where it can pressure Russia to agree to those terms” (Matvei). In stark contrast, Steve argues that “military aid isn’t going to help anything, it just intensifies and prolongs the war.” Similarly, Jeanne states that she is “completely against it” and that “it’s about time for the humans of the world to figure out a different way to resolve disagreements.”

The question looms large: why is there such profound division regarding the trajectory of this war and the necessary steps for its resolution? While some attribute this to generational and political differences shaping people’s perspectives on the conflict, all agreed that propaganda and public narratives surrounding Russia play a dominant role. For some, it is the demonizing portrayal of Russia in US media that stands out as the primary factor. Paul articulates this sentiment, noting, “I think that period of time from 2016 to 2022 led to a view of Russia in the US as the great evil empire who must be destroyed because they are out to get us. […] It’s very personalized, we’re not really fighting Russia, right? We’re fighting Putin.” Conversely, others argue that pro-Russian propaganda holds significant sway over American perceptions. Matvei, being part-Russian himself, states: “I think Russian propaganda narratives actually run a lot deeper into Western media than people would like to acknowledge; I just see a lot of misinformation about the war.”  

Acknowledging that the hopes, goals, and assessments of everyone differ widely, I ended my interviews by asking whether there is one thing everyone criticizing this war can agree upon. Steve doubts that there is: “Some people want to see Russia defeated and humiliated, some people want to see the US defeated and humiliated. It’s complicated, and there are no shining angels in this.” Matvei also hesitated, “I feel like what people agree on are words, but not the definitions of those words. When people say peace, what they mean by that are very different things.” However, some do believe unity is possible: “I think no one wants a nuclear war,” Jeanne shares, and Grace states, “I really hope that everyone can agree that people shouldn’t continue to lose their lives, because any life lost in conflict is a tragedy.” 

In conclusion, the question of the way forward for the Russia-Ukraine War is not an easy one. As Steve acknowledges, “It’s a complicated question, which a lot of people reduce to simple answers.” The official position of the Ukraine: A Time for Peace campaign is clear: There is no military solution to this war. The only way forward is to step off the dangerous escalation ladder we’re on and to work towards a ceasefire and negotiations. Yet, not everyone involved in the peace movement agrees, and even those who do may have different approaches to attaining that outcome. If pursuing peace in Ukraine by promoting our viewpoint is our objective, then we must embrace the complexity of positions on this war and counteract the tendency of vilifying opposing narratives. We can’t convince anyone to listen to our perspectives without also lending an ear to theirs. Instead of succumbing to polarization within the peace movement, we must engage with these differing truths, strive to understand where each of us is coming from, and seek common ground amidst our differences.  

Anicca Juraschka Sullivan is a Peace and Conflict Studies graduate from Amsterdam University College and a current Campaign Intern at Massachusetts Peace Action