Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

Russia and Ukraine Are Not Ready for Talks

| Jan. 11, 2023

But They Might Get There If Ukraine Keeps Winning

In October 2022, progressive Democrats in the U.S. Congress sparked an uproar by releasing a letter urging President Joe Biden to pursue negotiations with Russia to end the conflict in Ukraine. The signatories called for a “proactive diplomatic push . . . to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.” The letter was quickly retracted and its release blamed on a staffing error. But the following month, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, repeated the call for Ukraine to “seize the moment” and negotiate, arguing that Kyiv was unlikely to make further military gains for the foreseeable future. Supporters of Ukraine reacted furiously, asserting that negotiations inevitably meant compromise with - and thus victory for - Russia.

But asking whether negotiations are good or bad misses the point. Negotiations are merely a tool, and like any tool, are useful insofar as they can advance interests and lead to preferred outcomes. The better question, therefore, is, Can negotiating lead to a better result for the United States and Ukraine than not negotiating?

Right now, the answer is still no. No deal is possible between a Ukraine that is making steady battlefield progress and a Russia in denial of this reality. Even calling for talks today risks benefiting Moscow. But this impasse need not be permanent. By keeping up pressure on Russia, Ukraine and its partners in the West can begin to create the conditions for negotiations to succeed.

In determining whether an agreement is possible, negotiators often refer to a concept known as the “zone of possible agreement,” or ZOPA. The ZOPA is the gap between the negotiating parties’ real bottom lines—that is, the difference between the absolute maximum that one side could offer and the absolute minimum that the other could accept. In that gap lies the range of deals that is theoretically acceptable to both sides. The task of negotiators is to settle on one, with each side naturally seeking the best possible agreement for itself, which is often as close to the other side’s bottom line as is it can get. For a ZOPA to exist, there must be potential deal packages that are better for both sides than their real bottom lines: in negotiating jargon, their “best alternative to a negotiated agreement,” or BATNA. BATNAs—which determine whether a ZOPA exists—are not immutable. They shift as the underlying situation changes, often by deliberate action. If one side’s BATNA worsens—say, because its battlefield prospects decline—the space for potential deals widens because an agreement becomes a relatively better choice for that party.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Sebenius, James and Michael Singh.“Russia and Ukraine Are Not Ready for Talks.” Foreign Affairs, January 11, 2023.

The Authors