The Voices of War

72. Special Release: Wolfgang Sporrer - On Diplomacy Alongside Combat Operations In Ukraine

VOW 72 | Diplomacy


My guest today is Wolfgang Sporrer who is an Adjunct Professor at the Hertie School in Berlin and who was until 2020 the head of the Human Dimension Department of the OSCE in Ukraine.

Wolfgang has joined me on the show twice before, where we discussed the lead-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as the ultimate reasons and consequences of Putin’s decision to go to war.

You can find links to those episodes here and here. He joins me today to discuss the importance of diplomacy occurring in parallel to the war effort.


Some other topics we covered are:

  • Assessment of the current situation
  • Peace process and combat operations not mutually exclusive
  • Explaining mediation and different tracks
  • Relevance of a Mutually Hurting Stalemate
  • Appreciating the wide-ranging costs of the invasion
  • Expanding already existing dialogue mechanisms
  • Mediation must not have an end in mind
  • An example process with two tracks
  • German and Austrian sentiment towards the invasion
  • Military effort along with diplomacy essential
  • Focus on re-establishing European security architecture

If you like what you’ve heard, please consider liking and reviewing the show wherever you get your pods. If you can afford $AUD 5 per month, you can also support the show on our Patreon page here.

Listen to the podcast here


Special Release: Wolfgang Sporrer – On Diplomacy Alongside Combat Operations In Ukraine

In this episode, my guest is Wolfgang Sporrer, who is an adjunct professor at the Hertie School in Berlin. Until 2020, he was the head of the Human Dimension Department of the OSCE in Ukraine. Wolfgang had joined me on the show twice before, where we discussed the lead-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as the ultimate reasons and consequences of Putin’s decision to go to war. He joins me today to discuss possible ways out of this war. Wolfgang, thank you for joining me on the show again.

Thank you very much for having me.

For everybody tuning in to give some context, we’re having this conversation around lunchtime, Ukraine time, on the 17th of October 2022. How would you assess the current situation in Ukraine?

The situation is dire for civilians who live in the war-affected areas, as it always is. The situation is dire for the Russian Army, Russian conscripts, and civilians affected by the war, even in Kyiv and other cities around Ukraine. The situation is getting direr for households in Europe affected by the fallout of the war, but that’s not all.

What comes in addition to that is that there seems to be a spiral of escalation forming where attacks are getting fiercer, and losses are remaining at a very high level, not only on the Russian side. Losses are also very high on the Ukrainian side, as every Ukrainian soldier will tell you. I’m assessing the situation in simple terms as not very good. In addition to that, what I’m also not assessing as very good is the intensity to at least come to a situation where the weapons remain silent and where some solutions can be sought on a diplomatic, political level.

The main reason we’re going to talk is you have been a public proponent for finding a political and not necessarily a military solution to the invasion. What does that look like from where you are sitting?

I have been a public proponent of minimising the loss of lives, and that will always remain. What I do not want to do is what others have done, which is to propose any type of solution. With the current climate, all the atrocities being committed, and the war crimes being committed by the Russian Federation to the largest degree, it is very hard to come from the outside to this conflict and say, “In my opinion, this and that would be a fair or attainable solution.”

At the end of the day, Ukraine, together with its allies, has to determine what solution could be regarded as fair and acceptable. I’m a proponent of a process that could lead sides, and that could lead on the path to such a solution. In other words, I’m not saying what the situation should be because that’s ultimately up to negotiations between Ukraine, the allies of Ukraine, the West, and Russia. What I’m saying is that there should be real substantial efforts to enter into a process of finding such a solution and be a little bit clearer.

You do not come as a mediator with a result. As a mediator, you will focus on the process that eventually may or may not lead, but that could be the path towards a temporary or permanent solution. Let us not forget when we look at mediation, the first step of mediation is not negotiations. The first step of mediation is finding an agreement to talk and sit at a table. To be ready to sit at the same table is not the prerequisite for mediation. It’s the first result of mediation.

You do not come as a mediator with a result. As a mediator, you will focus on the process that eventually may or may not lead to a temporary or permanent solution. Share on X

I do understand that attempts like that better remain confidential and silent for the time being. When I look at what’s going on, I do not see these attempts from the outside coming. Maybe they’re happening behind closed doors. That is entirely possible, but when I look at the rhetoric that prevails in all circles, I hope that the public rhetoric is silently and secretly accompanied by a policy that seeks to enter onto this track of mediation that I’m talking about.

I see what you’re saying. Zelenskyy has signed a decree stating that Ukraine will not negotiate while Putin is in charge. Given what Ukraine has experienced, it’s very difficult to blame him for that. However, it has almost put him in a bit of a corner. I wonder what is your take on that, given that the alliance has been drawn very clearly.

When the President of Ukraine signed this decree blocking himself from entering into negotiations, that’s like he burned the bridges behind him to convince that he has no way of going further. The readiness for negotiations on both sides will always be the same thing. It will be determined by the situation on the battlefield.

I see the chance of it happening as rather low before the situation reaches a so-called mutually hurting stalemate. Once you reach a mutually hurting stalemate, what decree was signed or not signed will be the ultimate blockage for having negotiations, but that is a little bit presupposing a result. Nobody has banned shuttle diplomacy from happening. Maybe a little bit by President Erdoğan. Should there be more shuttle diplomacy? I’m convinced there should be more shuttle diplomacy at least than what is being reported at the moment.

It also needs to look a little bit beyond the hype that is sometimes created about how much is happening on the battlefield despite the fact that all Ukrainian defence efforts are remarkable. Honestly, no one would have expected that. They do not indicate that this war is over soon or that the Ukrainian war aims are going to be reached soon.

When the big offensive around Kharkiv happened and what is upcoming at the moment may reinforce a little bit of careless deliberation that the war is going to end soon. By spring or winter, Ukraine will be liberated. The reality looks very different without any process that leads to some kind of negotiated solution.

I’m not saying what that should be. It’s not my right to say what this should be, but without the process to have this solution, this work would go on for a very long time at horrendous human costs. Overall the successes on the battlefield, we should not forget that the GDP of Ukraine has gone down by 30% to 35% in 2022. This is not a number that’s somewhere on paper. That is a number that indicates a tremendous increase in poverty.

VOW 72 | Diplomacy
Diplomacy: The GDP of Ukraine has gone down by 30% to 35% in 2022. That is a number that indicates a tremendous increase in poverty.


People were living below $4 a day. That is expected to rise significantly in the winter with energy infrastructure being severely damaged. I don’t know whether we have seen the end of that. It will pose tremendous challenges to Ukrainians living in the country. Whose fault is that? The answer to this is very clear. It’s President Putin’s and Russia’s fault. Nevertheless, it is a reason to think of this type of process that, at some point, will make it easier for sites to come together and agree on something.

I’m confused about that statement, though. It could be perceived as though there was victim shaming here. Ukraine is unequivocally the victim in this, and victim in the sense that they’re still missing 15% or more of its land mass due to an illegal and unjust war started by President Putin. When we’re talking about the mutual hurting stalemate, Ukraine has got the upper hand. At least, it seems that way on the battlefield.

BATNA, or Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, is perfectly fine. Not just in my view but in the view of many, Ukraine has got the upper hand. While it’s getting support from the West, in other words, it’s being pumped with weapons while Russia is slowly depleting its weapons and also stupidly wasting its arsenal on striking civilian and militarily useless targets. I don’t see why Ukraine would in any way even contemplate anything other than absolute withdrawal from the four annexe regions as well as Crimea. I can’t see why they would back off.

Ukraine should not back off from the liberation of its territory as long as the situation on the ground remains as it is. We are on the right track here. We should, at some point, have a conversation as the allies together with Ukraine about what winning means because it is not clear. The definitions of winning are ranging from the liberation of Ukraine to the borders on the 23rd of February, via the liberation of the Donbas, via the liberation of all of Ukraine’s officially recognised territory, including Crimea, plus the resignation and prosecution in front of the international war crime of Putin and the entire Russian regime, plus the full reparations paid from Russia to Ukraine, which is going to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

VOW 72 | Diplomacy
Diplomacy: We should at some point have a conversation as allies with Ukraine about what winning means because it is not clear.


Would this be fair? Yes. The question is, at what price? What is the win that Ukraine and its allies are ready to accept as a win? I want to tell you one thing. We’re falling into the trap of talking about outcomes. It is not to dictate to either side what should be the outcome. In essence, that is either a process of negotiation or a process of absolute total military victory, which is something that I still think is far.

When I speak of a process, I’m not speaking about something that is somehow theoretical or elusive. I’m thinking about something that already exists. I’m thinking of the fact. We tend to forget about that even in the current situation when Zelenskyy has forbidden himself to negotiate, and Russia says, “Yes, we’ll negotiate but only after all our demands are fulfilled,” which is also associated with why we’re not negotiating.

Military officers are sitting together and discussing the solution to some of the problems brought about by the war. Do you know where they’re sitting together on a daily basis? They’re sitting together in Istanbul. A Russian military delegation and a Ukrainian military delegation sit there permanently shackled to each other, discussing the export of grains in the context of the Black Sea Grain Initiative by the United Nations.

So far, this sitting is very limited to discussing only this particular topic, the export of grain. Is it said that this sitting could not be a little bit embellished by other topics? For example, by protection of civilians and nuclear power plants, attempting local ceasefires, and harvesting or sowing grain. When you come to the whole grain topic, all sides will have an interest in that harvest can go on. All sides will have an interest that sowing will be able to go on.

I’m giving an example that existing sittings could be embellished a little bit. You don’t need to lay the foundation for new settings. You already have a granule of something right there. When I speak about the process, the process could very much look like Ukraine’s allies and mediators would encourage behind closed doors all sides to find certain small areas where certain protection of civilians is possible in both sides’ interest.

It’s the very first step because, as you rightly pointed out, when we think from the result, we say, “That should be a result. This side should get that, and that side should get everything or not everything,” you are taking yourself out of the game about a useful mediation and role in the process. Whatever result at this moment that proclaims to be fair, it will immediately be rejected by at least one of the sides, if not by both, as not being impartial.

I can see that. It is why the only country that has any kind of success is Turkey and Erdoğan, who facilitated on behalf of the UN the letting of the grains to come through the Russian blockade, but also more than 200 soldiers’ prison exchange programs and so on. Turkey is trying to play the role of the mediator. Putin and Erdoğan are meeting. It’s expected that Turkey will make an offer to Putin. This leads to my next question.

I declare 100% that I’m undoubtedly biased. I’m aware of my bias because there’s an emotional response to what is happening in Ukraine, as much as I’m trying to be as objective as I can in this. With everything you mentioned, for example, the civilian losses or targeting of civilians and nuclear power plants, that strikes me as though those, by and large, are being done by Russia.

We’ve got the annexation of the four regions against the advice of the entire world. We saw in the UN that 140-odd member states voted in favour of rejecting it, and only 5 voted against it. Those five were effectively allies of Russia, and the feuds remained. My question is this. I get the sense that Ukraine probably would be willing to come to the table with some strong demands, given that it’s in a pretty advantageous position going forward. How do we bring Russia to the table without the demands that Putin is making?

Russia can only be brought to the table on the battlefield. As observed as it sounds, the best way to come to some negotiated solution is if Russia understands that they cannot win this war and will not win this war, at least in any way consistent with the demands that they have made in the past.

That’s the challenge because if Putin loses this war, then Putin loses a lot of his potential power.

My tiny comment is thinking from the end. You see how extremely difficult it is. It is very difficult not to immediately think about the end because whoever thinks about the end, publicly at least, is out of the process of any type of mediation. His neutrality or goodwill will be questioned immediately. It was a good point to say, “How do we bring Russia to the table?” I posited to you that the best way to bring Russia to the table would be to make very clear to it that a solution on the battlefield or a solution that is in any way consistent with anything that Russia has claimed their war aim is simply not going to happen because Ukraine and the West are standing together, and that will prevent exactly that outcome. Once Russia understands that, its willingness to negotiate is going to grow.

Whoever thinks about the end is out of the process of any type of mediation. His neutrality or goodwill will be questioned immediately. Share on X

We’re already seeing the willingness from the Russian side to come to the negotiating table, except they’re coming to the table with ends in mind.

All sides can come to the table with the end in mind. What I have seen from the Russian position is we keep everything we have and more. We then can come to the negotiation table.

Also, Ukrainian neutrality or whatever that means now.

Whatever that means, Ukrainian neutrality might have been a viable idea ten years ago or ages ago. It’s no longer a viable idea because Ukraine simply does not believe anymore that this would be respected. Ukraine has learned the very hard way that the only way that they can preserve their status as a nation and territorial integrity is by being armed to the teeth themselves, plus being in a very strong alliance with someone who is willing to pack this up. Let me give you the thought process.

VOW 72 | Diplomacy
Diplomacy: Ukraine has learned the hard way that the only way to preserve their territorial integrity and status as a nation is by being armed to the teeth and by being in a very strong alliance with someone who is willing to back this up.


Yes, please, because that was going to be my question. From my perspective, I keep getting bogged down in the ends in mind. Maybe you can explain the process in what it would look like in the various steps. That would help.

With the process in the various steps, there could be two tracks. One track would be the most modest track. The most modest track would mean trying to embellish little by little the already existing mechanism of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. I am nearly certain that certain topics in the interest of all sides can be discussed there.

Let us think about the exchange of prisoners that is also being done in a different process but not between militaries in a very different process. Let us think about the protection of certain infrastructure. For example, the Zaporizhzhia power plant. The first step for that would be this does not require a ceasefire as a precondition. A ceasefire is a goal that’s still remote.

While fighting is going on, this sitting that we have in Istanbul with militaries that do sit on occasion in the same room and talk to each other could be embellished step by step with topics that are in the interest of both sides. A first step for shuttle diplomacy could be to establish, “What could that be? We would like to give 1, 2, 3, or more points to this Black Sea Initiative and the negotiation in Istanbul.” Potentially, it’s leading to an enlargement of these mechanisms.

The second statement, which is in the media more and more, is to deploy something like a UN mission on the ground. I know that you come from Bosnia and that you probably have extremely bad memories of anything that has to do with the UN in an active conflict zone. Let me also remind you that the UN, through this disaster that it experienced in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s, has learned a lot. They have overhauled their methodology for peacekeeping or also peacemaking missions. They’ve tried to learn from this disaster.

An unlimited UN mission is not unrealistic. A UN mission is there to monitor the situation around the Zaporizhzhia power plant. This is something where they could monitor, report, and give unbiased updates. Something like this being negotiated in Istanbul between the sides, the UN would stand ready to do that. Something like that could be a step.

Along with the establishment of certain mechanisms, in a dire situation like this, it already has a positive effect that could grow into something more. Mainly what I’m saying is the pursuit of peace for this by the international community and anybody who would like to reduce or end the suffering of civilians inflicted by Russia has not reached its full potential. The Black Sea Grain Initiative could be embellished with other topics. The UN could think about a role on the ground, and the rest will be dependent on the situation on the battlefield.

Once Ukraine has demonstrated sufficiently to the Russians that they will be able and will be willing to fight this until the end, although this may be a very long time, once this is fully understood, the willingness of the sides to come to the table is not the first step but already the first result. It’s maybe increasing. I want to talk about things that are sometimes a little bit muffled. At the moment, the question is, “What is a win for us, for the West, or Ukraine?” The thing that is usually said is, “This is Ukraine’s decision alone.”

I believe this is a decision that is taken between Ukraine and its partners together in a joint process because we share interests with Ukraine. Although to a much smaller degree, we also share costs with Ukraine in our societies. We share the same vision for a European future for Ukraine. We share the same large neighbour, namely Russia, as Ukraine does. Decisions on this conflict of what constitutes a win, when to go for this win, and when to enter into a negotiated process should be decisions taken by Ukraine and its allies together.

VOW 72 | Diplomacy
Diplomacy: Decisions on this conflict—what constitutes a win, when to go for this win, and when to enter into a negotiated process—should be taken by Ukraine and its allies together.


I wonder whether that might be a point that triggers some people. Going back to the point you made earlier because you said that it should be up to Ukraine, notwithstanding the fact that it is through the support by the West that Ukraine is even in this fight or continues to be in this fight through the supply of ammunition and economic support. Can I clarify what you mean? What you’re saying is that there needs to be a negotiation or an agreement between Ukraine and the supporting parties as to how far and how long that support will go. Is that what you mean?

What I’m saying is that there is an agreement on how to conduct this war between Ukraine and the West. Ukraine and the West are very closely talking about the next steps. Ukraine and the West are very clearly coordinating actions in the economic and information sphere. This joint decision-making should be there until the end of the war.

I’d be surprised if it wasn’t because Ukraine is aware that it’s in its interest to keep the West in the loop as much as possible. The message is also that Ukraine is fighting so that the rest of Europe doesn’t have to fight. In that instance, it’s also in its interest to keep Europe inside and, therefore, involve Europe or the West in its war efforts.

You did make a point that was interesting about the UN mission. I can see in my head that as much as I do acknowledge your point about Bosnia. I do acknowledge that the UN has moved on and learned its lessons. What I can’t see is who would provide any of the troops or observers. The world is quite explicit. Apart from some nations who abstain in the UN General Assembly, it’s very clear that there aren’t too many unbiased nations or could be seen as unbiased that could go in.

When you look at the largest troop-contributing countries of UN missions, you will find that the largest troop-contributing countries are some African nations, as well as Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. While many of them have voted with the West rightly so in condemning Russia’s illegal annexations, I do not think that military personnel from these countries, if it’s African nations or Bangladesh, will be immediately seen as biased. I don’t think that’s a very big danger.

Are you aware of whether this is an ongoing plan or idea from the UN?

I have seen these proposals in the press increasingly. This is part of a general point I want to make. In assessing the situation, I think we are all on the same page. This is an illegal war of aggression by Russia waged against its neighbour in the context of which Russia is committing horrendous war crimes. Therefore, this should be judged accordingly, also eventually, in some transitional justice arrangement.

My view is that conversations like this one about how to eventually achieve peace should take a little bit more prominence over conversations about how to prolong the conflict and create more hatred and suffering to create a much more difficult situation in the long term for millions and millions of people. The millions of people that are often also not being talked about so much are the suffering of the people in Eastern Ukraine in the actual conflict-affected regions.

Conversations about how to eventually achieve peace should take a little bit more prominence over conversations about how to prolong the conflict and create more hatred and suffering and a much more difficult situation in the long term for… Share on X

That is a population that has been suffering for eight years and whose suffering has skyrocketed once again. Get more of the view from the ground and more about how to end this tragedy for the civilians. Let’s be honest also how to aid and mitigate the economic consequences of the war, which in Europe are very dire. It’s nothing compared to the suffering of the Ukrainian people. When you can’t pay your gas bill, and you have to have your apartment cold in the winter, that’s also real. That’s an actual problem.

You’re in Berlin, in Germany in particular. What is your feeling about the sentiment towards the world generally by the everyday person?

The public is very divided. Everybody agrees that Russia is in the wrong and Ukraine is in the right, apart from the lunatic fringes everywhere. I will put this exactly in the way that I would not phrase, but that’s whether to be for peace or justice. Let’s bring the peace as quickly as possible, whatever it takes. That’s a minority position, but growing, or fighting this out until the end, whatever it takes. That is still a majority position but shrinking.

It’s shrinking because of the added pressures that the war is causing both on the back pockets of everyday Europeans.

That’s only one aspect. There is an amalgamation of things. The civilian suffering is in Ukraine, which we’ve seen a lot. What is also seen here in Germany and Austria, where I’m from, is the fear and the horrendous oppression that this war has brought about for the Russian people. Let’s not forget about mobilisation. People are being dragged to what they and others see as a certain grave. They’re being dragged from the street.

Russia is an important neighbourhood in Europe. From an autocratic system, it is becoming a full-on tyranny. People are seeing that so far, things have not become better in Ukraine. Ukraine is more destroyed than it was three months ago. Russia and Europe are in a worse state than it was three months ago. You have this on the one side. On the other side, you have a justice argument. If anything is just, then it is just to repel a full-on aggressor with whatever it takes. That’s the argument on the other side.

As an ethnic Bosnian and someone who is as close to pacifism as one can be while wearing a uniform, I have a natural emotional inclination to go with the latter, and that is the justice piece. As much as I’m trying to force myself more towards let’s explore alternatives to war, but I cannot see it. This is perhaps because I’m falling for the trap of seeing an end in mine. When I think about an end in mind in Bosnia, I see a Dayton Peace Agreement, which is a ceasefire agreement that is standing for nearly three decades.

It has frozen a conflict to a point where even Bosnia remains diverged or violent again. That is, in many ways, because of appeasement. I wonder whether there’s a risk of sending the message that appeasement is back on the table. I want to stress that that’s not what you’re saying. If I’m correct in understanding what you’re saying, you are alerting us to the fact of not talking about the end but rather letting the war go on as it’s going on on the battlefield.

No one is denying Ukraine their freedom to fight and defend and retake their land as is their right. What you’re saying is to start more holistically a parallel process that is going to open up and create, as tenuous as they might be, strands or threads of communication between the warring sides. These are the tracks you’re talking about that can ultimately exist for the peace talks that are going to come at some point, either through a victory of one or the other or a mutually hurting stalemate. We have something there that’s ready to be used to blossom into a full negotiation of full peace talks that can then be signed publicly.

Yes, but I’m also saying that if the fighting is going on. This existing mechanism could take on more topics if the sides agree on having more topics discussed without discussing the overall end of the war. At the moment, discussing the end of the war and what could or should be a solution is counterproductive.

You’re drawing yourself into one side or the other, which as a negotiator, you can’t be.

This is one thing I’m saying. The other thing is many more conversations like the ones we are having now should be happening. Explore further what diplomacy could do. By all means, the military effort is valiant and just, but diplomacy needs to accompany the military effort so that the military effort is ended soon as possible.

The military effort is valiant and just, but diplomacy needs to accompany the military effort so that the military effort is ended soon as possible. Share on X

If you’re talking about the DIME elements of power, diplomacy is the first one. With organisations like Martti Ahtisaari’s Crisis Management Initiative, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, and those types of organisations, I’d be surprised if they weren’t already developing those relationships right at the start discreetly. Are you confident these things are already happening?

I am confident there are certain things happening behind the scenes, but I would be happy if a little bit more public support could come for initiatives like this.

That’s what I wanted to double-click on because I’m trying to find a key message to take away from this. I agree with you that our social discourse around this war has very much focused on the military aspect, and we are forgetting, as much as it’s hard to even say, that we need to be talking to Russia. Regardless of what’s happening at the moment, we need to maintain communication flow between all the different sides and stakeholders to allow for a resolution to take place down the line, whatever that might look like.

You can already see in our conversation how hard it is, even thinking in this direction. There is no clear path to peace. There is no clear path I see for a military’s full victory of either side in the short term. I also don’t see any clear path to peace on any type of negotiation table because there is simply no negotiation as we speak. At least the conversation should be focused on how to combine the military and the diplomatic effort, with emphasis on the diplomatic effort, to bring about a piece that is sustainable.

You said Dayton. Many people will say Dayton was a failure, and many people will say Dayton was a success. I don’t want to even invoke things like Dayton because then immediately you come to something like appeasement. What we need is a conversation that’s, in essence, about achieving a functioning European security architecture and not a conversation about pursuing as much military success as possible.

Can I pick up on the European security architecture? It’s a term that we hear a lot but I’m a little bit confused by what that means. What does that involve? What do we mean by European security architecture?

The European security architecture means that every country in the boundaries of wider Europe is safe and secure militarily and also feels that way. We had this for a long time in the past context. Countries were feeling sufficiently safe. Ukraine was feeling sufficiently safe, at least until 2014. The European Union was feeling sufficiently safe probably until 2022. Russia was also not threatened or giving big signs of feeling unsafe until the middle of the last decade. Re-establishing a European security architecture where countries can feel safe about where they are should be the ultimate outcome of this conflict in the most positive outcome.

At the risk of falling for the end in mind. Many in my audience will say, “A dissolved Russia or a Russia without a military will probably go a long way,” but that’s perhaps too cynical of me to say. On that note, unless there are any other major points you’d like to make, I probably want to leave it here because I do want to keep this a short and sharp episode so that the message is not lost.

Thank you. I wanted to express the need for having a wider conversation on the conflict simply in military terms.

I agree. Thank you once again, Wolfgang, for your time. I do appreciate it. I have no doubt we’ll be talking once more, at least, on this topic and perhaps even other ones, given your work and where you’re travelling in the world. Thanks for taking the time. I’ll be in touch soon.

Thank you, Maz.


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