Negotiating with Putin is the only way out

As the crisis in Ukraine deepens, so does the need for negotiations. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterresha warned that Ukraine is being “decimated before the eyes of the world” and that the only reasonable option is “an immediate cessation of hostilities and serious negotiations based on the principles of UN Charter and international law”.

Although there have already been talks between Ukraine and Russia, media coverage highlights that have made no progress. But make no mistake: the only way out is a negotiated settlement.

Even in seemingly intractable situations, with uncompromising actors, the power of reason can prevail. Dialogue can make the impossible possible. I know this from personal experience.

In my first term as president of Costa Rica, in the late 1980s, the situation in Central America was also thought to be intractable.

The civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua had produced bloodshed and suffering to a horrific extent. Achieving comprehensive peace agreements seemed illusory (at least, in the opinion of self-styled realists). However, we managed to bring the parties together, and the impossible happened: the wars are over.


Something similar can still happen in Ukraine. The Russian invasion is flagrant violation international law and the UN Charter, but that does not eliminate the possibility of reaching an agreement that guarantees peace and security for Russia and Ukraine.

Let’s consider the alternatives. The international community has responded to the invasion with sanctions and weapons, but no one believes that this is enough to end Ukraine’s suffering.

Weapons and ammunition can help Ukraine’s brave defenders defeat Russian tanks and planes, but they can also prolong the war and increase the number of dead and wounded.

And while some may see prolonging the conflict as a strategy to wear down Russian forces and put pressure on President Vladimir Putin’s government, that too would come at a huge human cost, even if it worked out as planned.

There would be many more deaths on both sides, and the growing internal turmoil in Russia would encourage further repression and loss of fundamental civil rights and freedoms.

The longer the conflict drags on and the more the divide between Russia and the world’s democracies widens, the more difficult it will be to win international cooperation on issues such as climate change, post-pandemic recovery, financial stability, the rule of law, and (perhaps most important) nuclear safety.

Commitment of all parties

The prolongation of the war increases the risk of a nuclear holocaust. Faced with such a possibility, other geopolitical, regional and national considerations dwarf.

George F. Kennan, 20th-century diplomat who formulated US policy of containment for the Cold War, he put it very well: “The willingness to use nuclear weapons against other human beings (against people we do not know, whom we have never seen, and whose guilt or innocence it is not for us to establish), endangering in doing so the natural structure that serves as the foundation for the entire civilization, as if the security and perceived interests of our generation were more important than anything that has ever taken place or may take place in civilization, is nothing but arrogance, blasphemy, indignity (an indignity of monstrous dimensions) before the God’s eyes”.

In the current crisis, we need all relevant parties to commit, at a minimum, not to initiate or threaten to use nuclear weapons. And the only way to achieve this is through dialogue and negotiation.

In its opening speech In 1961, United States President John F. Kennedy declared: “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never be afraid to negotiate.” And then he put those words into practice.

Following the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 (a close encounter with the apocalypse) came negotiations that led to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, based on the promise of nuclear disarmament. Today, 191 countries (including Russia, the United States and all NATO members) are signatories to the treaty.


We already agreed once to repudiate nuclear recklessness; we can do it again. the recent resolution of the UN General Assembly in relation to Ukraine “urges the immediate peaceful resolution of the conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine through political dialogue, negotiations, mediation and other peaceful means”. These words express the desire of people all over the world.

Of course, negotiating a comprehensive agreement will not be easy. Holding sporadic meetings to air political grievances does not help. What is needed now is a ceasefire and serious dialogue at the highest level.

We must commend all efforts in that direction, remembering that the alternative is a relentless escalation of hostilities. This is why many other winners of the Nobel Peace Prize they have accompanied me calling on the governments of Ukraine, Russia, the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and other countries to begin high-level diplomatic talks immediately.

Those involved in the negotiations (including top-level officials) must keep in mind that they will not be able to get everything they want. They must be willing to understand the interests and views of the other party.

Ukraine must receive guarantees of sovereignty, security and democracy. Russia must receive guarantees that its security interests are respected and taken into account. And both sides must be willing to be flexible and make concessions.

If these conditions are met, the negotiations can lead to progress towards peace. In fact, it is the only way to obtain a lasting solution. Although this possibility seems remote today, we must not lose hope.

We live in dark times. But sometimes tragedy becomes a vehicle for the birth of a brighter future. I have seen it in Central America. Hopefully soon the world will see the same in Ukraine.

Óscar Arias, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was President of Costa Rica from 1986 to 1990 and from 2006 to 2010.

© Project Syndicate 1995–2022

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Negotiating with Putin is the only way out