Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Peace Begins with Mediation – Mediating the Russia-Ukraine conflict


Time to read

4 Minutes


Nida Kadayifci
BCL student at the University of Oxford
Mualla Betul Ozkan
MJur student at the University of Oxford
Leon Theimer
MJur student at the University of Oxford
Anna-Sophie Hochgürtel
MJur student at the University of Oxford
Arasj Khodadade Jahrome
MJur student at the University of Oxford
H Lam
BCL student at the University of Oxford
Liam Yuen
BCL student at the University of Oxford

Behind every severe conflict lies a series of misperceptions, fears, grievances, and interests that aggressors have chosen to pursue in an acrimonious manner. When transposing this principle to the context of war, such behaviour holds the potential to cripple entire economies, shatter public order, and, above all, give rise to heart-breaking losses of life. However, more powerful than any army or weapons arsenal will always be our ability to open the minds and soften the hearts of our counter-parties through constructive, interest-based communication and collaboration. It is in this respect that mediation presents itself as a promising path to peace for Russia and Ukraine. Accordingly, this piece will begin by discussing the value that mediation affords in resolving tensions between the two nations before assessing its feasibility and the means by which it should be carried out.

Mediation as a process is flexible and can have different goals. Mediators can be more facilitative or evaluative, the process can take place in joint sessions or private meetings, the aim can be to settle or just provide a neutral space for constructive communication. The key is ‘fitting the forum to the fuss’ (Sander & Goldberg, 1994). As the lives of millions are in grave danger under the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the immediate goal of a mediation process would be to install safe corridors and achieve a ceasefire. Simultaneously, stopping further escalation to a nuclear disaster and establishing a safe communication channel to do so should be an aim of the initial mediation design. Other issues regarding the future of Ukraine, its territorial integrity and, more generally, its status under public international law would need to be introduced after these priority goals have been met.

In light of the analysis above, the question arises whether mediation in circumstances such as the present is even desirable as a dispute resolution mechanism. Put bluntly, is mediation the right choice when one party is not only much more powerful than the other, but has also violated international law and potentially committed war crimes?

There is a real risk that employing mediation to resolve such a conflict will perpetuate existing power asymmetries and legitimise past violations of international law. This is because mediation is fundamentally based on party autonomy. Where that autonomy is severely curtailed on one side, it is easy for the other side to take advantage. Moreover, at the very heart of this conflict is the sovereignty of the Ukrainian state. A prerequisite for mediation is usually some willingness to concede in exchange for concessions. Thus, if mediation were used to achieve a long-term solution, any such solution could potentially or even likely involve a concession in the form of ceding Ukrainian territory to Russia. This would effectively legitimise violations of international law, trading justice for peace (Fiss 1984).

Nonetheless, mediation offers many advantages: constructive negotiations guided by a neutral third-party may be beneficial for the tension-filled relationship between both states. The flexible nature of mediation would, for instance, allow for the implementation of caucus mediation, ie, not requiring either party to meet face-to-face, but having the mediating party ‘shuttle’ between states. On the other hand, it may be precisely personal interaction at the table which has the potential to discourage a further escalation of military tensions. Another benefit may lie in having a mediator act as a ‘scapegoat’ vis-à-vis the involved parties, avoiding reactive devaluation of solutions originating on either side.

Mediation can further aid the international community and Ukraine in information gathering, identifying Putin’s long-term interests and thus more accurately evaluating the stakes at play. For Russia, entering mediation might just prove to offer a ‘way out’—an option to save face by willingly negotiating with Ukraine, instead of seemingly bowing to the pressure of the international community unifying behind Ukraine through military support and unprecedented economic sanctions.

While, on the first view, it may not seem intuitive to use mediation in international armed conflicts, in reality it has been used as a tool of conflict resolution in these contexts for hundreds of years (see, eg, the Congress of Berlin 1878, where numerous tensions after the Russo-Turkish war were mediated or, more recently, Jimmy Carter’s mediation of the Middle East Conflict at Camp David in 1978). Indeed, in old dictionaries mediation is often defined as ‘assistance by a neutral third party to resolve conflicts between states’. But, is mediation feasible in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict as well? And how do we bring the parties to the table?

Although the fighting continues, Russian and Ukrainian delegations are engaged in bilateral negotiations in Belarus right now. Thus, the willingness to talk with each other is there—at least to a limited extent. However, these talks seem to be largely unconstructive, since the parties are mainly focused on the exchange of positions, not on interests. Only recently could we witness first careful steps towards an effective resolution of pressing issues, for example, by attempts to establish humanitarian corridors in Ukraine. Building on these first silver linings, mediation of the conflict by a neutral third party could make the decisive difference to lead to more constructive talks. In fact, China already offered to act as a mediator, as did Israel.

However, before mediation could take place, several factors must be taken into account. First, a crucial precondition of mediation is the approval of the participating parties. Whether they will approve of mediation is, in turn, depending on the identity of the mediator, the specific process envisaged as well as the military context. Second, mediation must be practically feasible. This requires opportunities for safe travel of diplomatic delegates, and possibly also a ceasefire.

Next, for mediation to be successful, it is essential that the mediator is seen as neutral. Both parties need to trust and accept the process. A possible candidate could be Angela Merkel, who shares languages and history with Putin, is respected in Russia and Ukraine, and has vast experience with the current conflict and negotiations with Russia. Considering the immediate need to install safe corridors and achieve a ceasefire, international organisations such as The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or similar non-governmental organisations could also act as trusted neutrals. These institutions can convincingly stress that the goal is to save lives for both parties. The ICRC has acted as a successful neutral mediator before. Besides the mediator, the location for mediated talks must also be regarded as neutral, and the parties must be able to reach it in safety. One possibility would be Vienna, considering Austria’s long history of neutrality.

In the end, trying to mediate the Russia-Ukraine conflict is a desirable step as mediation is a flexible and peaceful dispute resolution mechanism that has been relied on in inter-state conflicts successfully before. The numerous benefits of mediation outweigh the potential risk of legitimising past violations of international law. If the process is designed according to the issue at hand, mediation is also practically feasible. Peace in Ukraine could begin with mediation.

Anna-Sophie Hochgürtel, Nida Kadayifci, H. Lam, Arasj Khodadade Jahrome, Mualla Betul Ozkan, Carl Alexander Strobel, Leon Theimer, and Liam Yuen are currently students at the University of Oxford and participants in the Commercial Negotiation and Mediation class.


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