Is it possible to find peace? Photo @Ian Betley for Unsplash.

Peace talks are possible to end Russia’s war with Ukraine – Guatemala shows how

Anthony Pahnke

Anthony Pahnke

Anthony is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University, in San Francisco, California. His research deals with social movements and protest, development, and trade policy.

In this piece, I provide a novel proposal for how to think about possible peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, bringing in the case of the Guatemalan peace process that took place in the 1980s and 1990s.  I discuss how this case illustrates not only how peace talks take time, but may involve parties besides those that are directly involved in a conflict.  In my comparison, I draw parallels between what could happen to bring groups together to end the current conflict in Ukraine, highlighting the potential role of religious leaders, NATO, and third-party states such as Mexico.
Despite the Cold War heating up as the Korean War was in full swing in 1951, Eleanor Roosevelt took to the radio waves to say, “it isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”

Everyone should take Roosevelt’s words to heart when it comes conceiving of ways to end Russia’s war with Ukraine, specifically, in recognizing that peace is a process that requires time and dedication.

Moreover, there are past examples to draw from, for instance, the process that took place in Guatemala to end that country’s civil war in the 1980s and 1990s. The case of this small Central American country’s process stands out for showing the time it takes for peace talks to develop, as well as for illustrating the work that parties besides belligerents can do to get discussions off the ground.

Some may doubt the need for talks, believing that Russia will eventually retreat. Reasons that would lead Russia to withdraw include the crippling effects that Western sanctions have had on the country’s economy, declining munitions and supplies, as well as how Putin’s army is apparently no match for Ukrainian forces that have been stocked with weapons from Biden and his European counterparts.

The reality is that the war’s trajectory is heading more towards stalemate than Russian defeat. First, despite sanctions, Putin has managed to retain economic ties to China and India that help him finance his war effort. Northern African countries are also increasingly buying Russian oil and natural gas.

Meanwhile, Iran is supplying drones that are being used on kamikaze style missions. If the conflict continues evolving to feature technological warfare and more precision-style forms of violent engagement, then who knows when it will end.

Furthermore, a majority of Russians support the war. Even after a year of hostilities, Russia retains its manpower advantage over Ukraine, in part due to taking up a defensive position in the southeast that appears difficult to dislodge.

There are also problems with US support. While tanks from the US and Germany are heading to Ukraine, F-16 fighter jets will not. Even if these planes were provided, they would most likely not take an offensive, but defensive posture given Russia’s significant air defenses.

The greater concern is how Republicans have increasingly questioned how long financial assistance can continue. As the US has contributed twice the amount of aid as its European allies, an American drawback would seriously impair efforts to push Russia out of Ukraine.

So, with stalemate on the horizon, are there prospects for peace? Yes, and the small impoverished Central American country, Guatemala, shows how. In 1996, Guatemala concluded its thirty plus year civil war with a peace agreement that included commitments on human rights, an agreement to resettle displaced people, and calls for institutional reform, among other provisions.

This was not drafted overnight; it took about a decade of dialogue to bring people together on what these different points entailed. A three-month long UN-backed peacekeeping mission in Guatemala solidified the deal in 1997.

Is it possible to find peace? Photo @Ian Betley for Unsplash.

The first move towards peace came in 1986, when left wing guerrillas reached out to the government that they had been fighting for decades. Although ignored initially, in 1987 with the Esquipulas II Accord, states in the region pledged to conclude their respective conflicts through dialogue, build democratic institutions, and form National Reconciliation Commissions to oversee ceasefire commitments.

Leaders from the Catholic Church were part of the Commissions, as well as figures from the government and the media. In 1988, the Commission received input on how the peace process should unfold from 200 delegates from 47 organizations.

One result was the Commission for Historical Clarification in 1994, which documented how Guatemala’s military was committing genocide against the country’s Maya population.

While establishing a similar kind of commission to document human rights abuses and provide healing for victims’ families in Ukraine is needed, to start working for peace, more preliminary moves are required. For instance, a neutral country needs to be selected where negotiations could take place.

During the Guatemala peace process, Norway served that purpose. Currently, even though China is jockeying for such a position, a better option is Mexico. Mexico has remained aloof from the conflict since it began, which is in line with the country’s long history of practicing neutrality in foreign affairs. Moreover, the country is one of the non-permanent members of the UN’s Security Council.

Similar to how a peacekeeping mission was part of the Guatemalan process, the Security Council will most likely have to send an armed contingent into Ukraine to maintain a ceasefire in the East. Making Mexico a host would position the Latin American country as a legitimate broker that could propose such an operation.  This may move talks forward concerning the status of the currently occupied areas, which could receive a certain kind of semi-autonomous status akin to what Scotland has within the United Kingdom.

Moreover, Mexico is not a member of NATO. As a major catalyst to Russia’s invasion, any peace negotiations will have to address the place of NATO in Eastern Europe. Similar to how Central American countries vowed to advance democratic institutional reform, NATO representatives can propose changes that would include Russian representatives in future plans. For one, both could work together on planning military drills, which have been interpreted as acts of aggression by the Kremlin.

The Guatemala process also shows the importance of involving religious leaders.

As both Russia and Ukraine share the Eastern Orthodox faith, religious leaders could bridge divides. Some signs show that leaders, despite differences, are willing to talk peace – even including Pope Francis.

Eleanor Roosevelt, even as divisions were calcifying around the world, reminded us of the necessary work required for peace to be achieved. Moreover, as the Guatemala process displays, this work can involve actors besides belligerents.  After all, this is the beauty of our international system – there is a lot of talent to draw from as we work together to resolve our problems.

Anthony Pahnke


Received: 15.3.23, Ready: 18.05.23,. Editors: Federico Germani and Robert Ganley

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