Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


The Russo-Ukrainian war risks following the usual pattern of other interstate conflicts since 1946: absent the end of fighting during the first year, conventional wars last over a decade on average. The most likely endings are a frozen conflict or cease-fire potentially sooner than a decade, and perhaps, over time, a negotiated armistice.

As the Russia-Ukraine conflict begins its third year, arrangements to end the fighting and restore regional stability could represent the “least-bad” outcome under far-from-ideal circumstances.

This is why the solution of the Ukrainian conflict through a purely military armistice could be a viable option.

Current situation

Peace treaties have become rare for all interstate wars since 1950. The worst case scenario would be if the Russo-Ukrainian conflict turns into a dress rehearsal for a broader East-West war involving the U.S. and China. Although that outcome is currently far less likely than a frozen conflict or cease-fire, it cannot be ruled out in a world where the major powers are increasingly divided.

The Ukrainian conflict certainly involves a “great toll of suffering and bloodshed on both sides” and very serious destruction of civilian goods and means of production, with an enormous number of refugees and displaced people. Furthermore, after more than two years of fighting, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has stalled in a bloody impasse. Both countries continue to expend huge resources to gain territory, but their gains have become rare and small, and are often quickly reversed. Neither side appears to have the resources to achieve a decisive victory on the battlefield and both suffer heavy casualties every day. Often situations like these favour conditions that lead the parties to negotiate.

Military situation

The Russia-Ukraine war appears to have reached an inflection point,  as it moves into its third year. Ukraine’s counteroffensive has been unable to drive back Russian forces or recover lost territory, despite the overwhelming support of the U. S. and other NATO countries. The Russian military has also not made significant advances in its attempts to seize additional territory. Yet the destruction of towns and villages, as well as the loss of life, continues on a hideous and unacceptable scale.

The offensives launched by Ukraine failed to break through Russian defences. At best, a military stalemate has settled in; at worst, Russia is poised to make further offensive advances. For now, and likely for the foreseeable future, Ukraine has no realistic prospect of restoring territorial integrity by force.

Russia's size, military-industrial complex, and human and material resources exceed Ukrainian capabilities. The difference might allow Russia to not only maintain its positions in the east and south of Ukraine, but also to go on the offensive.

Under these circumstances, Ukraine has no choice but to pivot from an offensive to a defensive military strategy, focusing on consolidating its hold on the 80 % of the country under Kyiv’s control. Ukraine needs to devote available manpower and resources to holding the line, preventing Russia from advancing on the battlefield.

Korean-Style Armistice

Two key factors shaped the “freezing of the Korean War” and the eventual 1953 armistice, which has held ever since. First, there was a military stalemate along the 38th parallel, which was Korea’s original North-South border. Second, the great powers (China, the former Soviet Union, and the U. S.) all wanted to end the war. Armistice talks began in July 1951 and were only concluded with an agreement two years later.

Achieving a successful armistice to stop the Ukraine War would take many months if not years. At the moment, Russia and Ukraine are far from seriously considering an end to the fighting. Putin is feeling confident: the Russian economy is doing well despite sanctions and Ukraine’s poor counteroffensive might suggest to Putin that Russia could be successful in conquering more territory in the four oblasts - Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia  - that the Kremlin has formally annexed.

Putin has recently called on the U.S. to begin peace talks that would “cede” Ukrainian territory to Russia: a demand that might be accepted by a Trump presidency but would most likely be rejected by Ukraine and most NATO members.

However, one can imagine circumstances in which an armistice would come about. For example, if during the next few years there is little movement on the ground by both Ukrainian and Russian forces, then both sides might be more open to a negotiated cease-fire which could be a step on the way to an armistice that had the backing of NATO members.

For Ukrainians, a Korean-like armistice might still be a difficult step should Kyiv be unable to recapture its lost territories. An armistice that relinquishes control over portions of eastern, southern, and Crimean territories might seem the equivalent of ceding them to Russia.

Fight or Armistice?

As of today, for the governments of both countries, continuing to fight appears preferable to finding an armistice, having exposed themselves too much to their citizens for "indispensable" and "vital" objectives in a narrative that has become increasingly ideological. Ukrainians cannot simply cede the territories that Moscow wants to annex  while they can still defend them by fighting.

Even Russia cannot renounce the motivations that led it to the invasion, as stated by President Vladimir Putin in the message of February 21, 2022.  In full agreement with the government, the patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church last March added a spiritual and theological dimension to the conflict, stating that Russia is fighting a true “holy war” to defend itself from the “globalism and Satanism” that grip the West.

It seems clear, based on the current positions of the two governments, that a peace negotiation, or even an armistice, is impossible to achieve  without a fundamental change in the political system of at least one of the two regimes in power, a prospect that seems unthinkable today. So, why not a purely military armistice?

And here the "Korean" option could come into play, i.e. handing over to the military. Politicians could delegate to military commands to negotiate what they could never admit, in order to obtain the social and economic benefits of an armistice without having to openly renounce their maximum political claims. A ceasefire supported by an agreed armistice would  bring significant benefits to both sides.

Both the Russian and Ukrainian governments would still be dissatisfied and will not give up trying to achieve their political objectives, but they will avoid being trapped in an exhausting endless armed conflict, or, even more seriously, in its fatal escalation to uncontrollable levels.

The Korean model

In April 1954 the conference “for the unification and pacification of the Korean peninsula” began in Geneva to conclude the war in Korea after an armistice was signed on 26 April 1953 between the 16 countries of the international fighting forces and the USSR,  China and the DPRK.

The conference ended on 20 July with a stalemate, due to the irreducible will of both the parties to ensure total control of the country. While the Geneva conference failed and the state of war formally persists, the armistice remains still in force today and over the years has allowed the ROK and DPRK to coexist without a major war in an alternation of forms of relationships and perspectives.

Arrangements for avoiding future conflicts

The Korean armistice is a testament to the difficulty of moving beyond an armistice to a peace treaty. Thus, the armistice would not constitute a final settlement but a durable cessation of hostilities. Disputes between Russia and Ukraine and between Russia and the West will certainly persist, probably indefinitely. For that reason, it might be useful to consider how the armistice and follow-on agreements might be built upon to strengthen the broader regional order in Europe and Eurasia. The purpose of that effort would be to find new, more effective arrangements for avoiding future conflicts by providing mechanisms and forums to manage differences and avoid conflict, not to create any sort of convergence between systems or resolve political disputes.

Its objective would be stability, not reconciliation or common security. It would therefore be desirable to begin a broader dialogue on regional issues to reduce the possibility of future conflicts and contribute to regional and global stability. A fully inclusive order is no longer plausible, but various norms, dialogue formats, and other arrangements could conceivably be agreed on a piecemeal basis. Together, such agreements could lay the foundation of long-term regional stability.