Wars end. One day. It never feels like that in the heat of battle, but they do. And the survivors, including the mutilated and the bereaved, are forced to ask, “What now for relations with our enemies?” Is reconciliation possible, especially when the aggressor is so clear? 

That question was posed last year by some in the West almost as soon as it became clear that Russia would not swiftly re-establish imperial rule in Kyiv. An accommodation would have to be found. Peace talks would occur — surely that should come sooner rather than later, to avoid death and suffering? France mentioned this, and Germany too. And Henry Kissinger proposed a plan. 

Logical? Not really. According to Ukrainian journalist and historian Vitaliy Portnikov, expectations of Ukraine-Russia reconciliation will be disappointing as long as the average Russian considers the lands of modern Ukraine part of Russia.   

The prospects of reconciliation are made more challenging by the scale of the atrocities and war crimes committed by the Russian army against Ukrainian civilians, as well as the Russian population’s tepid opposition to the war. Most Ukrainians — 78% — have relatives or friends who have been injured or killed by Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine. The war has created almost 7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and just as many refugees globally (from a pre-war population of 44 million.) 

And critically, Ukrainian and Russian officials are reluctant to entertain the idea of reconciliation. “Reconciliation, cooperation? No, not in the next hundred years. Russia must first change, be democratized, demilitarized, and denuclearized,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said in an interview with the German newspaper Focus. First Deputy Chairman of the Russian State Duma Committee on International Affairs Alexei Chepa argued that reconciliation directly depended on how the war unfolds. 

Having withstood 17 months of Russian full-scale aggression, Ukrainians do not feel an urgency to reconcile. However, if some preconditions are met, that may set the ground for future dialogue.  

An online survey of relations between the citizens of Ukraine and Russia over the last decade was conducted among Ukrainian citizens between May 1, 2023, and May 31, 2023, by a group of independent researchers and sociologists: Olena Buchynska, Elena Davlikanova, Iryna Lylyk, and Oksana Yashkina. (The survey had 1,088 respondents).  

Many Ukrainians find the recommendations for reconciliation by Western institutions “deeply colonial and arrogant.” Some of these visions of peace and reconciliation involve concessions that might temporarily appease Russia but would betray Ukraine, and endanger Europe.  

So, what went wrong, and what can be done about it now? 

For starters, Russian narratives — “NATO enlargement,” “Ukrainian nationalism,” “oppression of the Russian-speaking population,” etc. — should not be considered as problems that need to be solved to enable reconciliation. Russia has been making territorial claims on Ukraine since 1992, long before Ukraine even started considering NATO membership. Much has been written about the anti-colonial nature of the Ukrainian liberation struggle, labeled “nationalism,” and even more about the use of the Russian language as an instrument of “Russian world” expansion.  

The real root cause of the war should finally be accepted: Russian revanchism and a desire to prevent a post-Soviet republic from becoming a positive example of democratic development. 

Consequently, the international community should shift its focus from what Ukraine needs to do to facilitate reconciliation to the obstacles on the Russian side with regard to already-tested transitional justice and reconciliation mechanisms — including acceptance of historical wrongdoing, implementation of truth and reconciliation commissions, information sharing, justice for victims and reparations, etc. 

Get the Latest
Sign up to receive regular emails and stay informed about CEPA’s work.

Denial of guilt and collective responsibility is widespread. Surveys of Russians demonstrate support for the Russian leadership’s actions in Ukraine and fear of defeat in the war. So, before dialogue with Russia is considered, it may be beneficial to start with Russian grassroots initiatives aimed at uncovering the truth about the war, similar to the work done in the past by the Russian human rights organization Memorial, and rethinking Russian collective identity. Later, joint initiatives may pave a path for reconciliation. 

Any rituals conducted by Russians in commemoration of the Ukrainian war victims are symbolically important, however hard they might be to imagine. The gesture by then-West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who knelt at the memorial of the Warsaw Ghetto on December 7, 1970, is still remembered. Reparations and compensation may also demonstrate the state’s acknowledgment of wrongdoing.  

Apologies mean nothing without accountability. Initiatives like Russian lawyers’ support for the “Tribunal for Putin” and open letters and petitions published by Russian organizations and individuals are useful as they help in the search for entry points for a dialogue. The same is true for any Russian grassroots initiative to find Russian citizens who committed war crimes in Ukraine.    

As for factors seen as favorable for reconciliation — knowledge of the Russian language; family, friends, and business ties across the Russian-Ukrainian border; and a long joint history — these should also be treated with caution. Many Ukrainians simply refuse to use the invader’s language. It would make more sense and have more effect to use interpretation or English — the foremost language of international cooperation and of many countries promoting democratic values. 

Ukraine and Russia have strong cross-border ties. Almost 50% of Ukrainians have relatives living in Russia. These familial bonds have suffered significantly as a result of the war, which for Ukraine is existential and for Russia ideologically rooted.  

An online survey of relations between the citizens of Ukraine and Russia over the last decade was conducted among the citizens of Ukraine between May 1, 2023, and May 31, 2023, by a group of independent researchers and sociologists: Olena Buchynska, Elena Davlikanova, Iryna Lylyk, and Oksana Yashkina. (The survey had 1,088 respondents). 

In many cases, after unsuccessful attempts to convey the truth about Russia’s invasion to their Russian friends, relatives, and counterparts, Ukrainians terminated communication with these people for not having found the empathy or courage to at least admit wrongdoing by Russia’s leadership.  

The habitually superior attitude of Russians toward Ukrainians is rooted in distorted interpretations of history. Comprehensive work with Russian society on historical memory and remorse are essential for a nation that has not even undergone de-Stalinization, let alone de-Sovietization or de-Putinization. In the long run, this will be key to ensuring peace in Europe and Asia and can help Russia integrate into the Western world.  

In 2020, the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission between Russia and Ukraine with the mediation of the European Union was “convinced that Russia will one day have to be reintegrated into the big family of democratic nations. But, it must first carry out work within itself to integrate the democratic principles that it accepted theoretically after 1991, but without having questioned the practices of the homo sovieticus, and repair the wrongs committed against its neighbors.” 

There is also an obvious problem with reconciliation mechanisms like economic cooperation and cultural exchanges, as both have been used by Russia for decades to interfere in Ukraine’s internal affairs and establish control over its ex-dominion.  

Last, but not least, the demand for reconciliation should come from the parties to the conflict. It is essential that external facilitators remain impartial and objective. Any hidden economic or political calculations by third parties would simply create a risk of failure.  

An online survey of relations between the citizens of Ukraine and Russia over the last decade was conducted among Ukrainians between May 1, 2023, and May 31, 2023, by a group of independent researchers and sociologists: Olena Buchynska, Elena Davlikanova, Iryna Lylyk, and Oksana Yashkina. (The survey had 1,088 respondents). 

Elena Davlikanova is a Democracy Fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) Her work is focused on analyzing opportunities for Ukraine-Russia reconciliation with regard to fascism and totalitarianism in Russia and their effects on Russia. She is an experienced researcher, who in 2022 conducted the studies ‘The Work of the Ukrainian Parliament in Wartime’ and ‘The War of Narratives: The Image of Ukraine in Media.’