Future Peace Deal Not Just About Putin, Zelensky: Ukrainian People Get a Voice and a Vote

People walk inside the reopened Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) metro station in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

A year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it appears unlikely there will be an overwhelming victory for either side, and many are now calling for a negotiated settlement to the war. Most recently, China offered a 12-point peace plan.

A critical question underlying any negotiated settlement is: how can the demands on both sides be balanced to achieve a stable, durable peace?

The answer often overlooks an indispensable player: the Ukrainian people. Since the start of the war, over 5 million Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes and close to 100,000 have died in the war. For both legal and political reasons, Ukraine’s constitutional democracy requires any peace deal to be ratified by its people. If they are ignored, a stable peace deal is far less likely.

Negotiations Hinging on Russia’s Annexations

As we enter the second year of the war, bilateral negotiations are hopelessly deadlocked over the control of territory that lies within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders.

On September 30, 2022, Russia illegally annexed four occupied territories in eastern and southern Ukraine.

In December, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky proposed a 10-point peace plan that called for Russia to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity and withdraw all of its armed forces from the country. Zelensky said this was not up for negotiation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested he might be willing to negotiate, but the Kremlin later added Ukraine must recognize its annexation of the four Ukrainian regions.

In response, an increasing chorus of both “realist” and anti-war voices have argued that US President Joe Biden or the West more broadly must seek to broker a deal between Ukraine and Russia and stop the violence. This includes encouraging Ukraine to be “flexible” in its negotiations.

China has also put forward a peace plan to encourage negotiations and end the war. It focuses on the need to uphold the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also takes into account Russia’s security concerns.

This has led many into a moral debate about whether Ukraine should be pushed to negotiate over the status of its sovereign territory.

Legal and Political Role of the Ukrainian People

The discussion so far misses a critical reality. A stable peace deal cannot just be a diplomatic pact between Ukraine, Russia, China, and the West. It also requires the support of the Ukrainian people for both legal and political reasons.

Legally, Ukraine is a constitutional democracy. This means any formal cession of Ukraine’s sovereign territory (including Crimea) would require constitutional change and, therefore, a referendum. In fact, article 156 of Ukraine’s Constitution requires such fundamental changes to be put to an all-Ukrainian referendum.

Politically, any stable peace deal must have broad public support or it will be abandoned by a future leader.

Zelensky knows this. In March 2022, he was willing to promise Russia that Ukraine would never join NATO in return for other security guarantees from the US and Europe. But he said ultimately this decision was not his to make—it had to be ratified by the people.

This makes political sense: an unpopular set of concessions in a peace deal with Russia would end Zelensky’s political career and would likely be overturned by a future president.

The legal and political role of the Ukrainian people has been overlooked in the past. They were largely ignored in the Minsk agreements drawn up by diplomats in Ukraine, Russia and Europe to try to resolve the conflict that broke out after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Russian-backed insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

Most notably, article 11 of the Minsk II agreement required amendments to Ukraine’s Constitution decentralizing control over the two regions in Donbas.

This agreement failed, in part, because of a lack of support from the Ukrainian people. The decentralization reforms were highly controversial, triggering violent protests that ended any chance of change.

Furthermore, in a 2019 referendum, the Ukrainian people inserted a commitment to “full-fledged membership” in NATO into Ukraine’s Constitution. This further undermined the implementation of the Minsk agreements.

Vast Majority of Ukrainians Reject Giving Land to Russia

Those wanting a peace deal, therefore, must accept the reality that a deal cannot simply be the result of clever diplomatic bargaining and negotiation. It must also take into account the realities of Ukrainian democracy and the important role the people play in Ukrainian politics.

Ignoring the role of the people would be a significant mistake. And there is strong evidence showing the war is deepening hostility to Russia among the Ukrainian people. Consequently, it is increasingly unlikely that Ukrainians would endorse any Russian annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory (including Russia’s 2014 absorption of Crimea).

In fact, polling shows as many as 84 percent of Ukrainians now reject any territorial concessions to Russia.

This reflects a broader trend: the war is increasing Ukrainian independent post-colonial identity and desire to break from Russia. Prior to the war, Ukrainian national identity was complicated, shown clearly by the fact that many Ukrainians speak Russian as a first language (President Zelensky is just one example). But, more than a year into the war, Ukrainians are increasingly refusing to speak Russian and are turning toward a Ukrainian identity that breaks completely with Russia.

Ukrainian popular opinion can certainly change over time. But the need for popular support will undoubtedly constrain the number of concessions that Ukraine can make and shape the details of any peace deal.

However, if these popular constraints are ignored, it is hard to avoid an even more sobering conclusion: short of major change in the war—such as overwhelming victory for either side or new leadership in Russia—it will be increasingly difficult to get a stable peace deal at all.

William Partlett is Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published in The Conversation.