At the end of 2023, the Russo-Ukraine War reached a stalemate1. The Russian Federation appears to persist as Ukraine begins to panic about the West losing interest in the conflict with distractions from Gaza and upcoming elections in the United States in 2024. Where does the global community go from here? How can everyone claim a victory and move forward? How will the war end when it is clear Russia will not face a catastrophic defeat as the West expected?

In Causes of the conflict in Ukraine: Understanding the war with Russia through international relations theory2, I write about four international relations theory frameworks that explain the causes of the conflict from multiple perspectives. Liberalism blames Russia as an aggressive rogue state in violation of international law. Realism faults NATO and the West for provoking Russian security fears with the continued eastward expansion of NATO, which violated an informal promise after the reunification of Germany. Constructivism holds a right-leaning3 nationalist Ukraine to account for creating ethnolinguistic tensions by restricting Russian language use for 30% of its population. World Systems Theory draws on leftism to explain how competition and exploitation through capitalism split Ukraine by dividing the population into different orientations between the East and West. These different perspectives provide us with pathways to peace. What could future peace look like? Let’s use the analysis from the international relations theory frameworks and apply some imagination.

First, all the parties involved, Ukraine to Russia, the United States, and the European Union, must tire of the war and come to the table for a solution. Previous attempts towards peace, like the Minsk Agreement4 scuttled by Ukraine5 or the later proposal rebuffed by the West6, failed7 when Ukraine and the West believed they could and would prevail. This view is becoming less likely in 2024 as Russia appears to hold the upper hand in endurance and patience to continue the conflict. Western sanctions8 on Russia have not been as effective as planned. Despite large weapons transfers to Ukraine, front-line positions show less and less movement as Russia continues to pay a high price for its Special Operation. Battle fatigue will eventually set in.

Second, a new multi-lateral peace conference of involved parties will be required with facilitation by neutral actors from different levels of political and economic society. At the start, this may occur in smaller groups behind the scenes and may have already started. Next, there should be a cease-fire and a return of refugees to their homes with a guaranteed right to return on either side of the current lines of control.

Liberalism advocates for democratic principles by supporting Western notions of freedom and a right to self-determination. Here, we can permit the divided population of Ukraine to sort itself out. It may come as a surprise to many in the West, but much of the populace in Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk9 has an affinity for Russia10 and does not wish to rejoin Ukraine11. Repeated polling before the 2022 invasion illustrates the reality that a majority of voters in Crimea will not support12 a return to Ukraine. They remember President Zelensky making fun of their cut-off water supply during his previous career as a comedian. Russia's gaining territory for peace is a tough pill for the West to swallow. Adhering to principles of democracy and self-determination can guide the way to conducting new referendums on national determination under the United Nations, not Russian supervision. Previous referendums in the Russian-annexed regions of Ukraine lacked the international collaboration to bring a sense of credibility required for global acceptance. International oversight of the local votes can settle the skeptics if the results are like the previous referendums. Borders may need to be re-drawn to create cohesive communities and prevent resentful populations from isolating themselves.

We must also challenge liberalism to solve the issues presented by constructivist analysis. The revocation of the Ukrainian language laws oppressing minority languages from Russian13 to Hungarian in media and education is essential. Liberalism facilitates a multi-cultural society. Ukraine instead worked towards nationalist assimilation, which promoted division by oppressing Russian and Hungarian-speaking populations. If Ukraine is to join the club of Western liberal democracies, it must accept liberal values, including cultural diversity. Since the conflict, Ukraine has become more authoritarian by restricting opposition parties, controlling the media14, oppressing the Orthodox Church, and delaying elections. There will be a reshuffling of Ukranian political elites as the focus moves from war to postwar thinking. Ukraine will need to reopen the internal democratic debate process where dissent and opposition are legitimate parts of inclusive national discussion.

Realism informs us that we must settle the security concerns15 of Russia and Ukraine. A grand bargain will be required where Ukraine pledges neutrality for peace. A phase of peacekeeping forces may need to be supplied from neutral actors Russia can tolerate on the ground, such as Turkey or other members of the BRICS like Brazil and India. Hungary has repeatedly prevented Ukraine from advancing with NATO because it oppressed Hungarian speakers. Ukraine is not likely to advance with NATO member Slovakia adopting a new government critical of Ukraine. Russia will not accept Ukraine in NATO16 any more than the United States could accept Canada or Mexico in a military alliance with China. Compromise will require the acceptance of the idea that, as a major power, Russia has on the ground leverage to force this concession.

The World Systems Theory points to the need for a restoration of multilateral economic links between Ukraine and its surrounding neighbors to break the core competition between Russia and the United States. We should not force Ukraine to pick between East and West when it can have trade relationships with multiple partners without domination by a specific sphere of influence. Norway has various agreements with the European Union without being in the EU. Ukraine can also have separate agreements and take part in other networks, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Eurasian Economic Union. The West’s previous refusal to permit tripartite trade17 agreements was a factor in Ukraine being forced to choose an East or West orientation. This split loyalties and ignited the 2014 protests. It doesn’t have to be one of the others. Ukraine’s geographic position places it where consideration must allow a restoration of social and economic connectivity with its neighbors, including Russia, in the interests of future peace and collaboration.

Finally, a truth and reconciliation commission should be established to investigate and prosecute war crimes committed during the conflict. Despite all the talk about international law, Ukraine, the United States, and the Russian Federation have all refused to adopt the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). They should all join the ICC together for a new shared future. Restitution for the destruction of infrastructure may be due when guilt can be assigned. This may lay much responsibility to Russia for damages; however, it is already rebuilding the territorial areas it gained during the conflict. It may retain many of these areas in new referendums with international oversight. Compensation for the damage of the majority of the Russian-owned Nord Stream Pipeline may also need to be considered if the culprits of the destruction can be determined with certainty. Such an amount for the pipeline would lower restitution costs to Russia if the West were found responsible for destroying it.

We can use international relations theory to understand the causes of conflict. We can then apply our insights to think about ways to solve conflict. There is a win for everyone here. Russia, as a great power, would not have NATO on its Ukrainian doorstep. Ukraine can halt the bloodshed, pursue multilateral economic links, and rebuild for a new shared future with its eastern and western neighbors. The West wins when liberal values and inclusive democracy win in a multi-cultural society. Ukraine must turn away from right-wing nationalism, respect minority rights, restore elections, restore opposition parties, and respect the right to self-determination18 for regional Russian-speaking populations wishing to secede from Ukraine. Then, normalized daily life without war can resume.


1 Ukraine ends year disappointed by stalemate with Russia, and anxious about aid from allies by Barry Hatton, December 21, 2023.
2 Causes of the conflict in Ukraine.
3 Ukraine’s Got a Real Problem with Far-Right Violence (And No, RT Didn’t Write This Headline).
4 Ukraine-Russia crisis: What is the Minsk agreement?.
5 A Ukrainian Sociologist Explains Why Everything You Know About Ukraine Is Probably Wrong.
6 The War Could Have Ended Months Ago — But the West Didn’t Want It To.
7 Ukraine failed to comply with the Minsk agreements: Putin informs Biden.
8 Why Non-Western Countries Tend to See Russia’s War Very, Very Differently.
9 It’s Time for Ukraine to Let the Donbass Go.
10 Six years and $20 billion in Russian investment later, Crimeans are happy with Russian annexation.
11 Poll: Half of people in occupied Donbas want to join Russia.
12 How ordinary Crimeans helped Russia annex their home by Olga Zeveleva.
13 New Language Requirement Raises Concerns in Ukraine.
14 Zelenskyy has consolidated Ukraine's TV outlets and dissolved rival political parties.
15 Frustrated by refusals to give Russia security guarantees & implement Minsk 2, Putin recognizes pseudo-states in Donbas and invades Ukraine, by David R. Cameron.
16 Turkey Makes Way for Sweden's NATO Accession.
17 Four Years of Ukraine and the Myths of Maidan.
18 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.