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Diplomacy Is Still (Just About) Possible in Ukraine

The Black Sea agreement offers a model for off-ramps to escalation.

By , a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute.
A Ukrainian soldier walks by a burnt vehicle.
A Ukrainian soldier walks by a burnt vehicle.
A Ukrainian soldier walks by a burnt vehicle at the front line with Russian troops in the Donetsk region on Sept. 23. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

The protracted war in Ukraine is entering a new and potentially much more dangerous phase. Following rapid advances by Ukrainian troops in a counteroffensive against Russian forces in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region as well as the West’s enduring political and security backing, the Kremlin is now climbing the escalation ladder. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a Russian military mobilization on Sept. 21 while issuing yet another semi-veiled threat of the use of nuclear weapons, a return to one of Moscow’s themes following earlier defeats in the initial stages of the invasion. Referendums to join Russia in several Moscow-backed separatist territories, which have long been discussed and are currently being held, are yet another sign of the Kremlin’s attempts to ratchet up pressure on Ukraine.

All of these developments point to a serious risk of escalation in the Ukrainian conflict, one that has already bled over into energy disruptions between Russia and Europe and has come worryingly close to threatening nuclear accidents. But further escalation isn’t inevitable. Indeed, they could provide the impetus for something that has eluded the Russia-Ukraine conflict going back all the way to 2014: an earnest and dedicated attempt by all parties involved to reach a diplomatic resolution to end the war in Ukraine—or at least mitigate against its most destructive outcomes.

To be sure, there have been many failed efforts at resolving the Ukrainian conflict diplomatically. These go back to the start of the conflict in early 2014 following the Euromaidan revolution in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea as well as sponsorship of a separatist uprising in the Donbas. Diplomatic negotiations were then launched almost immediately. These primarily came in two forms: the Trilateral Contact Group, which included Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to address the tactical and security components of the conflict, and the so-called Normandy Four between Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany to address broader strategic issues from a political level.

The protracted war in Ukraine is entering a new and potentially much more dangerous phase. Following rapid advances by Ukrainian troops in a counteroffensive against Russian forces in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region as well as the West’s enduring political and security backing, the Kremlin is now climbing the escalation ladder. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a Russian military mobilization on Sept. 21 while issuing yet another semi-veiled threat of the use of nuclear weapons, a return to one of Moscow’s themes following earlier defeats in the initial stages of the invasion. Referendums to join Russia in several Moscow-backed separatist territories, which have long been discussed and are currently being held, are yet another sign of the Kremlin’s attempts to ratchet up pressure on Ukraine.

All of these developments point to a serious risk of escalation in the Ukrainian conflict, one that has already bled over into energy disruptions between Russia and Europe and has come worryingly close to threatening nuclear accidents. But further escalation isn’t inevitable. Indeed, they could provide the impetus for something that has eluded the Russia-Ukraine conflict going back all the way to 2014: an earnest and dedicated attempt by all parties involved to reach a diplomatic resolution to end the war in Ukraine—or at least mitigate against its most destructive outcomes.

To be sure, there have been many failed efforts at resolving the Ukrainian conflict diplomatically. These go back to the start of the conflict in early 2014 following the Euromaidan revolution in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea as well as sponsorship of a separatist uprising in the Donbas. Diplomatic negotiations were then launched almost immediately. These primarily came in two forms: the Trilateral Contact Group, which included Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to address the tactical and security components of the conflict, and the so-called Normandy Four between Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany to address broader strategic issues from a political level.

These mediation efforts produced a road map agreement to end the Ukrainian conflict, known as the Minsk agreement, which included a cease-fire and a pullback of forces from the line of contact, but no part of this agreement was ever successfully nor sustainably implemented. There were many issues that undermined its implementation, including Russia’s deliberately ambiguous status as both a mediator and belligerent as well as disagreements between Kyiv and Moscow over the sequencing of the security and political components of the protocol. At the core of the Minsk agreement’s failure was that its purpose was used by each of the main parties differently, with Ukraine viewing it as a way to reclaim territory seized by Russia, whereas Moscow viewed it as a way to undermine Kyiv’s Western integration efforts.

The Minsk agreements were rendered fully obsolete with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. No longer was the status of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics subject to negotiation; instead, Russia chose to recognize these territories as independent states prior to launching an all-out military assault on Ukraine. The Kremlin claimed this was necessary to protect these territories as well as to achieve broader “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine. This led to the current phase of the military conflict in Ukraine, one a phase that has been negotiated largely on the battlefield and now appears to be on the precipice of escalating further.


Despite the failure of diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, this does not mean that international mediation in the Ukrainian conflict has been futile as a whole. There has been one such diplomatic effort in the current phase of the conflict that has been not only agreed on and implemented by all parties involved (including both Ukraine and Russia) but could also serve as a framework for preventing the war from worsening.

That effort is known as the Black Sea Grain Initiative, an international agreement involving Ukraine and Russia that was mediated by Turkey and the United Nations. It was signed on Jul 22 and came into force on Aug. 1. This agreement paved the way for a humanitarian maritime corridor for grain supplies through the Black Sea and has allowed both Ukraine and Russia to unlock food exports that were obstructed as a result of the war. As the agreement has been successfully implemented for more than a month more than two months, it has helped alleviate economic pressures in Ukraine and food shortages around the world, offering evidence that practical collaboration can still be achieved between Kyiv and Moscow even in the midst of war.

A key player in negotiating the agreement was Turkey, which has emerged as the most active and effective mediator between Russia and Ukraine since the conflict began. Turkey’s unique position as the only NATO member to not pass sanctions against Russia and Ankara’s complex yet constructive relationship with both Moscow and Kyiv gave Ankara the political leverage to mediate between both sides. In addition, Turkey’s strategic location on the Black Sea and its points of entry from the Bosphorus to the Mediterranean Sea made it crucial from a logistical perspective, as any shipments transiting the Black Sea must pass through Turkish-held straits to reach global markets.

The U.N.’s role was important as it gave multilateral legitimacy to the agreement, particularly as the Russia-Ukraine conflict has created grain problems that are global in nature. Russia and Ukraine collectively account for around 18 percent of global grain exports, with these countries providing the majority of imported grains to many countries in Africa and the Middle East. However, Russia’s military blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and Western sanctions against Russia make it much more difficult for both countries to bring their grain supplies to market. Not only has the war impacted the price of grain and led to rampant food inflation, but it has also created grain shortages in some of the world’s most vulnerable areas.

As a result, both Ukraine and Russia had an incentive to reach an agreement on grain supplies even as the broader military conflict endures, paving the way for Turkey and the U.N. to mediate. Since the Black Sea Grain Initiative was launched, there have been nearly 200 grain ship voyages, delivering more than 4 million metric tons of grain products. Despite occurring during an active conflict, there were several factors that facilitated the grain agreement. It had clear incentives for both Russia and Ukraine to unlock their grain shipments, and it did not require either party to compromise on their broader strategic interests. It also addressed concerns from Turkey and the U.N. over tackling food shortages and inflation, and there was buy-in among all parties for international observation and coordination toward implementation. This allowed diplomacy to be pursued in earnest and for the negotiators to focus on the technical details of the legal and logistical parameters of a deal while overcoming any political obstacles.


All of these factors are important to keep in mind when considering what a diplomatic agreement to end—or at least mitigate against the escalation of—the conflict in Ukraine could look like at this stage of the war. Like the Black Sea Grain Initiative and unlike the Minsk agreement, it is important for any such agreement to have a common purpose and one that is mutually agreed on by all parties. Although there are certainly no shortages of differences among Moscow, Kyiv, and the West, there are common goals that all parties can still get around, even if those are just to prevent a dramatic escalation that would hurt all sides. Such escalation could take numerous forms, from a Russian nuclear weapons attack to a full-scale energy cutoff to the economic and political crises such acts could set off.

Thus, the Black Sea Grain Initiative, with its focus on multilateral cooperation and identifying and implementing common goals, could provide a useful conceptual framework for preventing the escalation of the Ukrainian conflict. Turkey has made it no secret that it wants to help mediate a broader cease-fire agreement between Ukraine and Russia, with Ankara hoping that the experience of the grain deal—as well as a more recent prisoner swap it mediated along with Saudi Arabia—can be leveraged toward this objective. Successful mediation that produces tangible results, even on relatively small issues, can build the groundwork for future de-escalation.

Of course, the key issues of territorial control and security guarantees are far more challenging to mediate, and it remains possible that both Ukraine and Russia will eschew such mediation efforts as their forces attempt to gain the advantage on the battlefield. Nevertheless, the latest developments have placed the Ukrainian conflict at a crossroads of sorts, with a serious risk of escalation on the one hand and an opportunity for a diplomatic climbdown on the other.

Eugene Chausovsky is a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute. Chausovsky previously served as senior Eurasia analyst at the geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor for more than 10 years. His work focuses on political, economic, and security issues pertaining to Russia, Eurasia, and the Middle East.

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