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Ukraine-Russia War Explained: Conflict Resolution

Jonathan Golden explains the distinction between justice and peace

March 2022 – On February 24, 2022, Russian troops invaded neighboring Ukraine in an escalation widely condemned by governments across the globe.

We’ve asked Drew University faculty experts to help put the crisis into perspective.

Here, Jonathan Golden, director of Drew’s Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict and assistant professor of comparative religion and anthropology, discussed the application of conflict resolution practices.

Take us through the crisis from a conflict resolution standpoint.

There are a few key principles from the field of peace and conflict studies in play here. It should be said first that options for peaceful resolution become increasingly difficult once armed conflict is underway. Nonetheless, our primary goal should always be to limit and alleviate human suffering.

The concepts known as BATNA, the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement and WATNA, the Worst Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, were presented by Fisher, Ury, and Patton in their seminal 1991 work, Getting to Yes. Assuming rational actors, Putin and Zelensky must be weighing their BATNA and WATNAs.

What are the leaders of Ukraine and Russia considering within those frameworks?

From Putin’s perspective, the BATNA probably includes territorial expansion, including capture of Kyiv, the fall of the Ukrainian government, and pushing back NATO while expanding the Russian sphere of influence, presumably with limited loss of Russian lives. Putin’s WATNA is a NATO-led military operation against Russia in defense of Ukraine where NATO succeeds and Putin is deposed from power. Putin probably thinks this WATNA is unlikely, and he may be right about that.

On the other side, there is one form of conventional wisdom that says there is no negotiating with the likes of a Putin and nothing short of Putin seated in front of the International Crimes Court is acceptable. That view may well be correct, but it is very unlikely to come about without a massive loss of human life. This is where Ukraine and Europe’s BATNA and WATNA come into consideration. We are not talking about Liberia’s Charles Taylor with a small, poorly-armed militia comprised of child soldiers.  The WATNA in this case involves several of the world’s nuclear superpowers. There is a worst case scenario with implications for the entire planet.

How do we weigh justice versus peace?

The most likely option for a negotiated agreement at this point may be offering Putin an off-ramp. This is where critical questions about the relationship between justice and peace arise. Are peace and justice one and the same? Do they always go hand-in-hand? Are there cases where it can be difficult to have a full realization of both? Justice might mean Russia fully withdraws its troops today, pays reparations to the Ukrainian people, and Putin faces war crimes charges. But holding out for this type of all-or-nothing approach, especially at this point where much blood has already been spilled, is probably unrealistic and more likely to result in further injustice (e.g. more lives destroyed) and fewer prospects for peace.

Another important strategy in conflict resolution is to try to draw distinctions between positions, interests, and needs. The objective is to get beyond the positions that are presented at the surface, where apparent impasses seem most difficult to overcome, and seek a deeper understanding of the interests and needs of parties in conflict, where creative opportunities are more likely to be found.

Are peace and justice one and the same? Do they always go hand-in-hand? Are there cases where it can be difficult to have a full realization of both?

On the surface, Putin claims that parts of Ukraine, e.g. Donbas, belong with Russia, and his position is to say, “It’s ours and we will take it.” There wouldn’t seem to be much room for negotiation here. Exploring at a deeper level, we may uncover interests—and this is an interest that has been driving Putin for most of his political career—like a concern that Russian security is threatened by the expansion of NATO, especially into a country with which it shares borders. Of course, NATO has its own interests, foremost being their own security concerns.

It is typical in these cases to default to a zero-sum conception where Russia and NATO’s interests are seen as in direct competition and mutually exclusive. When we settle for conflict management or conflict resolution, we often treat the symptoms of a problem but allow the root causes of conflict to fester. But in this way, we limit opportunities for long-term peacebuilding, what we call conflict transformation. This means transforming the conditions that lead to conflict in the first place by addressing the unmet needs of the parties in conflict. It is impossible to know what Putin’s needs are, but I would bet that pride is one of them.

It is important to acknowledge here the courageous public dissent by many Russians who are demonstrating against the war at great risk to their own safety. As much as we want to avoid the appearance of appeasement, creating a way out of this violent phase of conflict that allows Putin to save face would probably save lives. This does not preclude possibilities for reparations and accountability somewhere down the road, but it potentially offers a way out of the current conflict, which, sadly, is teetering on the edge of a bloodbath, if it is not one already. Rather than a zero-sum approach to the view that Russian and NATO security needs cancel each other out, we can explore ways to cultivate mutually assured security conditions that open opportunities for an end to the war

To be clear, all of the above is entirely separate from the discussion about who is right or wrong—I have some pretty strong feelings about that, as I am sure we all do. Nor is it to argue for an absolution of responsibility for the massive damage done. If the war ended today, there is no undoing the tragic consequences that have already occurred. The question is where we go from here, and what course of action from this point on does the most to mitigate against further human and tragedy. And all of the aforementioned strategies and methods require direct dialog between the parties. As President Zelensky himself said recently, “I think I have to talk to Putin. The world has to talk to Putin because there are no other ways to stop this war.” But it is unclear whether Putin is ready and willing to talk in good faith. And, sadly, things look to get worse before they get better.

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