What a Russia-Ukraine peace agreement might look like

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In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy listens during his meeting with President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, April 1, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy listens during his meeting with President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, April 1, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Russia and Ukraine are meeting for talks, even as fighting and bombings continue in cities around Ukraine.

"Every war eventually has a diplomatic conclusion of some sort. And this one will, too," Ret. Lt. Gen. Donald Kerrick says.

But what sort of conclusion?

Today, On Point: Ukraine says it would offer neutrality in exchange for concrete security. Would the U.S. and Europe support that?

We discuss what a Ukraine-Russia peace agreement might look like.


Ret. Lt. Gen. Donald Kerrick, President Clinton’s personal representative during the Dayton accords negotiations.

Max Seddon, Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, currently based in Latvia. (@maxseddon)

Dr. Cindy Wittke, specialist in peace treaties at the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies.

READ: "The Secret History of Dayton" -- U.S. Diplomacy and the Bosnia Peace Process from the National Security Archive

Transcript: Show Highlights

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Today, we are talking about the ongoing discussions going on in Istanbul between Ukraine and Russia. And also looking back to the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, which brought the Bosnian War to an end, the last great conflict in Europe, and what it took to achieve that peace. I'm joined today by Ret. Lt. Gen. Donald Kerrick. He was President Clinton's personal representative during the Dayton Accords negotiations in 1995. Dr. Cindy Wittke joins us as well. She's a specialist in peace treaties at the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies.

Now, Dr. Wittke, I do want to return to what kind of template, if any, Dayton could provide for the Ukraine-Russia conflict now. I mean, what kind of peace agreement would you say Dayton was? And is it applicable to what's happening at the moment?

CINDY WITTKE: So, first of all, Dayton belongs to a series of very large scale framework and comprehensive agreements that were concluded in the 1990s and in the 2000s. So in this period of time, parties usually to so-called asymmetric conflicts, so state as well as non-state parties were involved. So it was always tried, especially by the international community, to lock them subsequently into deals and then close it by a framework or comprehensive agreement. So in the past years, we actually assumed that the age of comprehensive peace agreements was over.

And parties tended to to make shorter agreements, like ceasefire agreements, that nevertheless included some transitional arrangements for power sharing and transitional periods. Similar actually, to what was happening with the Minsk agreements in the so-called Normandy format between Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine. So what we can actually learn from the Dayton agreement is it was the last of those really big comprehensive framework agreements that were concluded for a conflict on the European continent. And that actually involved also guarantee forces in such an agreement. Although we have to acknowledge that in the Ukrainian case, we probably need security guarantees that go beyond what we have seen, for instance, in the course of the Dayton negotiations.

CHAKRABARTI: Yes, understood. Lieutenant Kerrick, let me turn back to you here just to add a little bit more detail. Please correct me if I'm getting any of this wrong. But what part of Dayton involved the agreement that there would be some 60,000 NATO troops involved in helping secure the peace. A third of those were American, that produced some pushback here in the United States, I should note.

But also, for example, there was the creation of a couple of states within a state. The Serb controlled Republika Srpska, if I could pronounce that correctly, being one of them. And you know, I'm not sure if either of those options seem to be even remotely on the table, given what Ukraine wants regarding its territorial integrity and what Russia wants. Your thoughts?

DONALD KERRICK: I think you're correct. I mean, frankly, the final report card on date, even though it's been more than 25 years, is really not yet written. It was a good agreement that stopped the fighting, stopped the killing and created a new nation. But there were flaws, of course. The issue of putting in a peacekeeping forces, as you mentioned, was quite controversial within the United States and with the Serbs, of course. And it took a great deal of us convincing our own armed forces that this was going to be a peaceful deployment, that there would be no fighting against the forces that NATO deployed.

That turned out to be correct. And so they were there for a while and did what they were intended to do, providing that framework of time. But one of the big mistakes we made, of course, was we allowed the Serb army to remain intact. That was something that we wish we could be overdue and somehow have negotiated that away so that there would have been one country, a shared government and one military. So as I mentioned, there are similarities in negotiations, but each one of them is different. Bosnia had its own unique set of circumstances, which are very different than in Ukraine. Ukraine is facing an external aggressor, and inside Bosnia it was an internal conflict about the future makeup of the country.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Dr. Wittke. I mean, the truth is that there is no such thing as a perfect peace. Yeah, so tell me more about that. What does history say about peace agreements that have worked, or at least yielded the longest period of a cessation of violence against civilians? I mean, that seems to be a pretty low bar, but that's where we are right now.

WITTKE: Exactly, so we are actually in the face of the conflict, where are we looking at a form of negative peace, which means actually ensuring the absence of violence between the parties. But we are also facing those longer term implications of any political settlement, which means that, for instance, delaying the territorial question or overstepping, so the desires of the Ukrainian population could even lead to the prolongation of the conflict. And this is very, very typical for the setting of peace negotiations.

So they're usually backward looking. In terms of that they are dealing with the reasons for the outbreak of the conflict, that they are coding the conflict into the peace agreement. So they're basically verbalizing the conflict between the parties. And it's usually the best, worst deal that the parties could reach or the best bet deal that the parties could reach at that moment in time. And the risk of the Dayton agreement was actually that it somehow kept the parties within this limbo of the different fractions of the Bosnian War in the political reality of Bosnia today. So that could be, of course, also a looming danger for Ukraine.

CHAKRABARTI: ... I want to just sort of illuminate more of the history that you're referring to. And of course, General Kerrick, I want to get your view on this, too. But part of the coding, as you said, of the conflict into the peace agreement itself, could we consider the fact that Bosnia's constitution was drafted as a part of Dayton, right? And that that constitution assigned a sort of privileged status to three main ethnicities, if I remember correctly in Croat, Serb and Bosnian Muslims? So was that an example of coding the conflict into the peace agreement? Dr. Wittke.

WITTKE: Yes, exactly. This is what I meant of coding the conflict into the peace agreement because it actually implies that those three ethnicities will always share the political power. And that we are keeping Bosnia in this permanent state of transformation, from war to actually a peace. But it excludes basically other ethnicities or other political powers and traps them, so to say, in this war balance of power between exclusively those three ethnicities.

CHAKRABARTI: Right. So General Kerrick, did you or Ambassador Holbrooke at the time feel that there was any other option, though? Because as Dr. Wittke says, sometimes you have to go with what is the best, worst option?

KERRICK: Sometimes when you negotiate, you know, you wind up with the lowest common denominator of what everyone can agree. We were hoping to raise that up to get the highest denominator that we could get. Unfortunately, human nature is very hard to predict. And the struggle for different groups of people to live together peacefully and function together goes on around the world. And what we had encouraged was that over time, as the groups inside Bosnia had freedom of movement to live and work together, intermarry, et cetera, that they would be able to function more and be more welcoming of themselves and other groups.

As I said, that's yet to be determined, whether that will work. We see within the United States the struggle of our different groups to be able to accept one another and work together. So that is the biggest challenge no matter where you are. And as you mentioned, the time comes in Ukraine that will play a major factor.

CHAKRABARTI: Do you think, General Kerrick, that Russia, as it observed how Dayton unfolded in 1995 and then was called the imperfect peace that has lasted in Bosnia for the subsequent quarter-century? There are obviously several very fierce critics of the Dayton Peace Accords, but do you think Russia learned any lessons about what can and can't be done during these kinds of negotiations?

KERRICK: Russians were part of the contact group and actually had a place at the table in Dayton, and they were there with us. And what they witnessed, first and foremost, was never underestimate the influence of the United States of America in Europe. That's one lesson they learned, and they also learned never underestimate the effectiveness of the United States military and their ability to reinforce diplomacy. So I think they've learned those things, and I think they've also seen through this interaction that the United States and NATO are a major force.

Even though we have seen people trying to undermine them for years, that function, that love of democracy and respect for freedom still exists. And I think they've learned that lesson. So the question is now, how far are they willing to go? Can they get to that May parade with some sort of victory that satisfies their political interests, yet allows Ukraine to also declare that they've been able to repel the Russian invasion?

CHAKRABARTI: Well, I want to play a moment here from November 21st, 1995, the day that the Dayton Accord was announced. This is then Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, who was on PBS NewsHour that day, saying that even after almost all the differences had been ironed out to get to Dayton, there did remain a significant unanswered question in the final hours of the negotiation.

[Archival Tape] HOLBROOKE: By the last few hours, the issues were very small in relationship to what had been achieved. 99%, more than 99% was finished. But there's a question at the end of the negotiation like this. Not of substance, but a political will. If you pick up the pen and put your initials on a piece of paper, or do you keep seeking more and more and more so you never get there?

And Camp David in 1978, the war between Israel and Egypt had been five years old, and it still was difficult. Here we are trying to do the same thing in the middle of a war with three countries instead of two. It was tough.

CHAKRABARTI: Richard Holbrooke in 1995. Dr. Wittke, as Holbrooke in that piece of tape acknowledged, Camp David five year conflict. And as Gen. Kerrick reminded us, Bosnia had already been going on for four years. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a month and a half old at the moment. But what do you think we should be considering about the possibilities of, as you said, the causes of the conflict being encoded into any peace agreement or even a cease fire agreement at the moment in Istanbul?

WITTKE: Even the cease fire agreement is already very hard to reach, so there are basically no realistic options, for instance, for monitoring and enforcing this cease fire. Maybe through a neutral force, as we have with Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council being the aggressor in this war. So this is a very particularly difficult, militarily and politically difficult situation of reaching already the minimum for a negotiated agreement. And I just wanted to add one notion about the current status of the Dayton agreement.

We should not overlook that, for instance, the current president of the Republika Srpska, Dodik. He has very strong support from Russia, actually for his plans to separate the Republika Srpska and thereby actually also destroying the Dayton agreement from Bosnia-Herzegovina. So we still have the case that the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine could even have spillover effects on the peace on the Western Balkans.

CHAKRABARTI: It does seem to me, though, that in the moment where peace negotiations are going on, it's impossible to satisfy both the need to end the killing immediately and make headway on the underlying causes that led to the killing. Has there ever been an example where those two things were mutually achieved?

WITTKE: Not mutually at the same time. No, unfortunately not. So I would not be able to come up with an immediate example. No, unfortunately not.

This program aired on April 4, 2022.


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John Ringer Freelance Producer, On Point
John Ringer was a freelance producer for On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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