The war in Ukraine: 'Ripe' for peace or not?

January 09, 2023 09:25
Photo: Reuters

One of the biggest geopolitical events in 2022 was the Russo-Ukrainian War. The war is making to its one-year mark but has shown no signs of ending. There have been numerous discussions in media on how and when the war will end, with a variety of possible scenarios having been covered. That said, a lack of a useful analytical framework to organise information presented in different scenarios has made the comprehension and prediction of any peaceful settlement highly difficult. In this context, Ripeness Theory helps us make sense of the nuances about the future of the peace process.


Ripeness Theory is the study of material and psychological conditions whereby parties in a conflict are willing to initiate negotiations to search for a settlement. The theory is a significant contribution to the studies of international conflict resolutions.

The merit of this theory is its relative simplicity, or parsimony in academic lexicon, centring around cost-benefit calculations. The theory proposes that a conflict becomes ripe for entering into negotiations when two components emerge – a mutually hurting stalemate (‘MHS’) and a perception of a way out.

An MHS refers to a situation where the parties find themselves locked in a conflict in which they cannot escalate to victory, whereas the standstill concurrently inflicts unbearable pains to both. Notably, an MHS contains elements of subjectivity and objectivity. A painful deadlock carries objective and materialistic pains, but such pains have to be subjectively appreciated and be taken into account by both parties to conclude that there are no meaningful ways to defeat the other.

A perception of a way out is more straightforward, referring to the parties sharing a sense that a negotiated solution is possible, and that the other party is willing to search for it together.

An MHS and a perception of a way out are necessary conditions for faithful negotiations to take place. That said, their existence alone is not sufficient. The opportunity has to be seized by the parties or a mediator to bring forward any negotiations.


The war in Ukraine has been at a standstill following the re-capture of Kherson in November 2022. Throughout the winter, both sides fought fiercely around Bakhmut in Donbas, with hundreds of casualties each day which render the battle a meat grinder. Kyrylo Budanov, the head of the Ukrainian Defence Intelligence, admitted a standstill last month, commenting that neither side could comprehensively defeat the other, at least for now.

Ukraine has suffered from significant losses of soldiers, despite the advanced weaponry supplied by the West. The Russian tactic of missile and drone strikes targeting utility infrastructure in Ukraine have brought life-threatening cut-offs of electricity, water and heating amongst Ukrainian civilians. The war has brought additional human costs to Ukraine. Millions of Ukrainians have fled the country. The people who stayed behind have not only faced constant Russian bombardments but have likely been pushed into extreme poverty as a result of the staggering loss of one-third of GDP of the country in 2022, according to the World Bank.

Despite the losses, Ukraine has not admitted an MHS as yet and still, at least in its rhetoric, has maintained hope of winning the war. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has continued to ask the West for more weapons in a hope to recapture lost territories, a goal that the US does not believe to be achievable without additionally sacrificing tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers.

Russia appears to be closer to recognise an MHS. The Russian military has completely lost the momentum in the war, having suffered from egregious human life and equipment losses without achieving any military objectives set in the first place. The losses have left Putin with limited choices but to resort to national conscription and massive purchases of weapon, ammunition and equipment from Iran and North Korea. On the economic front, Russia seems to have weathered the effects of economic sanctions imposed by the West, thanks largely to its continuous energy exports. These sanctions, however, have still thrown sand in the Russian war machine by denying critical hi-tech components to its weapon systems.

Although the Russian military is widely believed to have no hope to win the war by any means, it has so far stabilised the frontline, thanks to the winter and to the brutal tactics of throwing in countless poorly equipped and trained soldiers to hold the field. The military has also made use of the standstill to shore up defence, resupply, and train, making any future Ukrainian offensives more costly.


Both sides do not seem to have perceived a negotiated way out as a possibility due to a yawning gap on terms for initiating any negotiations.

Putin said Russia was willing to negotiate but would only do so under the condition of keeping all the annexed territories. Putin himself has no better alternatives than this position if he wants to survive politically. The best strategy for Putin at the moment is to show that Russia is staying at all costs. The recent large-scale missile attacks against Ukraine, although having no military merits, is a political message to Ukraine that Russia is still not out of the game and thus Zelenskyy better accepts territorial losses if he wants peace.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has laid out terms for peace, including a complete withdrawal of Russian troops from the occupied land. Unsurprisingly, Russia rejected the proposal outright. I believe that, deep down, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy knew that those were impossible terms but proposed them as such anyway not for Russia but for his Western allies lest they blame Ukraine for prolonging the war.


Ripeness Theory suggests that a mediator is vital for initiating negotiations. A mediator could bring breakthroughs by nudging the warring parties to recognise the MHS. Notably, a powerful mediator could even manipulate the power balance between the warring parties to an MHS through giving military aid to the weaker side in a drive towards a standstill.

However, we do not see any promising candidates who are powerful and respected enough to act as a mediator. The war has been polarising, with all the major powers having taken side. This leaves the United Nations, a natural candidate to the role, with limited space to push for a settlement when all permanent members of the Security Council have their national interests invested in the event.


While no one can predict when the peace process would start, we may conjure up certain conducive scenarios through the lens of Ripeness Theory. One such scenario would be the removal of Putin. The new leadership could place all the blame on Putin and start realistically dealing with the MHS. This scenario is not without precedent. Think about Russia withdrawing from the First Word War following the October Revolution in 1918. Although no one can tell if Putin is in any danger of being removed, but equally no one knows how tight of his grasp to power. As the old saying goes: a day is too long in politics. It is particularly true to dictators, whose power has no legal and established means to be taken away. The endgame of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe reminds us of this precariousness.

Another scenario would be the West’s unity starting to crack, resulting in Ukraine losing all hopes of obtaining enough advanced weapons to dislodge the Russians. Ukraine would then be forced to deal with the MHS and start negotiating in earnest. The major problem with the West is literally always not about military technology but resolve. In the course of the war, France and Germany have repeatedly showed signs of wanting to reach out to Russia to build rapport, potentially detrimental to the Ukrainian war efforts. These acts also deepened the longstanding trust issue in security matters between Western and Eastern Europe.


The above confirms once again that it is always easier to start a war than to end it. That’s why it is disheartening to see people at war, particularly when Ripeness Theory informs us that the sufferings usually have to intensify before any meaningful negotiations can possibly take place, let alone conclude. The war in Ukraine, despite in a painful deadlock, has not yet become “ripe” for a peace talk. We saw Ukraine still wants to fight and Russia, although significantly weakened, is not ready for a faithful negotiation. Worse still, there is no mediator in sight.

As the event unfolds, we will see if any of the imagined scenarios would play out eventually contributing to the peace process. At any rate, though, Ripeness Theory provides us a useful tool to make sense of various information and predictions flowing around. That said, I do hope to see one day Ripeness Theory is no longer relevant to this war, because the application of the theory ends when negotiations finally start. By then, I will start discussing negotiation theories.

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Founder of Richard Ip Consultancy, a due diligence and sanctions compliance advisory business, the writer is a global political and compliance risk consultant with a special focus on Asia.