Ukraine and Northern Ireland are very different countries, one tiny and one huge. But they share some significant historical and current features.

Both are divided societies populated by two major communities with different felt nationalities and different political aspirations; and both have suffered major deaths and destruction at the hands of those ready to fight for those aspirations. 

A striking difference, however, is that Northern Ireland has found a way to bring an end to its conflict by creating structures supported by its dominant neighbours that reflect its divisions while Ukraine is being destroyed by the expansionist ambitions of its Russian neighbour and the conflicting and absolutist positions on sovereignty, territorial integrity and punishment on all sides. And we are all suffering from an escalating sanctions war. 

The prevailing view is that no further negotiation with the Russians should be envisaged until Russia’s war of aggression has been defeated and all of the territory occupied since February has been regained by Ukraine. But few military strategists think this can be achieved quickly or at all. Total defeat for Putin and Russia in either of these wars is probably unachievable. There must be a better way of ending the fighting and economic disruption. 

A little history 

It always helps to start with an understanding of history. Both territories have always been dominated by neighbouring world powers and empires. We all know that Northern Ireland’s problems originated from the plantation of Ulster by Scottish and English Protestants who displaced and then dominated most of the previous Catholic population and for most of the last hundred years treated them as a potential threat to their political power and cultural traditions. 

Fewer of us understand that Ukraine was at times a separate kingdom until it was conquered by the expanding Russian empire in the nineteenth century. Following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 it was briefly independent but was soon absorbed by the Soviets and subjected under Stalin to a disastrous famine in the 1930s. But it fought with the Russians against the Nazis in the 1940s and was later given Crimea as a reward. It eventually gained formal independence when the Soviet regime collapsed in 1989 but continued to be dominated by pro-Russian politicians until a more pro-European party gained power in 2004 leading eventually after a decade of political infighting to the Maidan revolution in 2014. 

In all this time Crimea was an essentially Russian resort with a largely Russian population and a huge naval base in Sevastopol – the remnants of its original Tartar population had been deported by Stalin. In recent censuses the population was recorded as roughly two thirds Russian, one fifth Ukrainian and a tenth Tartar. 

Following their take-over the new pro-European government in Ukraine was keen to assert their Ukrainian identity and language and reluctant to accept the legitimacy of its Russian-speaking citizens in the east, despite pressure from the Council of Europe to adopt European standards for the treatment of ethnic and linguistic minorities. 

A similar pattern had been followed by the newly independent Georgian government in respect of the minorities in Abkhazia and Ossetia. The Russians took advantage of the opposition nationalists in these territories – and an ill-judged attack on South Ossetia by Georgian forces – to launch a military intervention in Ossetia in 2008. The success of this Russian military action encouraged them to make unacknowledged interventions in parts of the Donbas in 2014 to support pro-Russian insurgent governments and also in Crimea to achieve its annexation. The Western response to this Russian expansion was to condemn and refuse to recognise the new facts on the ground but not to take any stronger action by way of sanctions or otherwise. 

The Minsk Agreements 

The attempt to reach a negotiated settlement to the fighting in the Donbas was left to the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine , consisting of Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The first attempt, known as the Minsk Protocol, was drafted in 2014 with mediation by the leaders of France and Germany in the so-called Normandy Format and with the participation of the insurgent governments in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. This was followed in 2015 by the Minsk II Agreement. Both these proposed settlements provided for a cease-fire, an exchange of prisoners and an amnesty for those involved in the fighting and also the potential grant of local autonomy following elections in the occupied areas under a special new Ukrainian law. But these agreements have not been implemented due in part to continuing disputes over the timing and control of the proposed elections. All subsequent negotiations between Ukraine and Russia have broken down over contradictory demands by Ukraine for complete territorial integrity and by Russia for the grant of independence to the Donbas region as a whole as well as the abandonment of any move towards the admission of Ukraine to NATO. 

The outcome has been the carefully planned but consistently denied invasion by Russian forces in a failed attempt to take control over the whole of Ukraine, soon followed by the progressive destruction and occupation of large areas of eastern and southern Ukraine and the associated massive refugee flows into neighbouring countries and other EU member states. The Ukrainian government led by President Zelensky has responded by the mobilisation of all citizens for the defence of its territory and its international allies have been supplying arms and finance to support the continuation of the Ukrainian war effort until full territorial integrity can be achieved. But most military analysts regard this as unachievable without years of continued fighting, massive loss of life and continued destruction. 

It should also be remembered that United Nations Secretary-General and his team have for once managed to achieve some progress on practical action to achieve safe passages for some refugees, some benefits for both Ukraine and Russia in exporting their grain and fertiliser and some protection from nuclear disaster by studiously avoiding taking sides and focusing their work on small confidence building measures. 

Some lessons from Northern Ireland 

What can experience of the peace process in Northern Ireland contribute to a less destructive and disruptive outcome. 

One is that when both sides – here the British Army and government and the IRA – have realised that they cannot win by military action there is an opportunity for quiet exploration of the basis for a cease-fire and an outline settlement rather than ‘one more push’ to victory. In Ukraine no-one really believes that either Ukraine or Russia can achieve all their objectives. 

Another is that it is important to recognise and accept the validity and legitimacy of the separate identities and aspirations of the major communities. Here that has meant allowing people to be either British or Irish citizens or both with all the associated rights and obligations. It is equally dangerous to assume that the deep-seated divisions in Ukraine can be wished away by the assumption that in response to Putin’s invasion all Ukrainians, including those in the Donbas and Crimea, are united behind the Zelensky government. In Ukraine something similar, an option of Russian or Ukrainian identity and citizenship, needs to be seriously considered, not least so that people on the wrong side of any new boundaries can be allowed to retain or regain their properties and to travel freely across those boundaries. 

A third is that it is necessary to create governance structures that accommodate both sides. Here that has meant attempting to develop and sustain internal power-sharing and cross-border institutions. In Ukraine it may involve at least regional autonomy for the Donbas, as envisaged in the Minsk agreements, or some more permanent change of status. It may also involve an acceptance that it is for the people of Crimea to decide which state they wish to be part of. 

A fourth is that it is likely to be very difficult to get agreement on dealing with past crimes. This has been particularly difficult in Northern Ireland due to demands on all sides for criminal prosecutions and the inability of the judicial system to deliver the kind of justice that is sought. In Ukraine the current focus is on prosecutions for war crimes while ignoring the very real difficulty in distinguishing between legitimate military operations that are permitted under the Geneva Conventions and those that meet the criteria for war crimes – a deliberate and provable violation of the rules on grave breaches. In both cases some form of international truth recovery without relying too heavily or exclusively on criminal prosecutions may be a better way forward. A well-crafted conditional amnesty, as in South Africa and Colombia and as already envisaged in the Minsk agreements, may help to build reconciliation on both sides. 

This might assist in deploying the available internal and international resources on rebuilding destroyed towns and cities on either side of any new boundaries or borders and encouraging the return of refugees. That might be a better way forward than severe sanctions against lower ranking soldiers and commanders while those who organised the invasion and the ensuing dreadful destruction are beyond the reach of national or international courts. 

The fate of President Putin and his generals as the prime movers in the continuing death and destruction can perhaps be left to the Russian people. And punishment for those most responsible can be left to international lawyers to deal with over the coming years, though very few think that much will be actually be achievable. 

All this may seem inappropriate at a time when Ukrainian forces are regaining some territory. But they will face stiffer opposition as they move towards the territory occupied by the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics in which there is probably a majority in favour of preserving some form of linkage with Russia. An attempt to regain heavily populated areas in the Donbas by military action would risk more urban destruction by Ukrainian as well as Russian missiles. And any attempt to regain control over Crimea would risk even more retaliation from a wounded Putin. 

The objective of the Ukrainian government, its Western allies and those like Turkey and the UN who are working on agreed confidence building measures should be to avoid escalation and move carefully and cautiously towards the gradual expulsion and withdrawal of Russian forces with as little further death and destruction as can be managed. Putin’s referendums in areas from which most of the population has fled or been expelled can more easily be ignored if other means of ascertaining the wishes of the people in contested areas and cross-border structures like those in Ireland are on the table. No-one who seeks peace and stability for all the peoples in Ukraine should imagine that this can be achieved by military means alone.