Once they sat opposite each other at a table, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In 2019, the French head of state Emmanuel Macron invited her to Paris together with Chancellor Angela Merkel. The atmosphere was tense.
In an interview for the BBC documentary "Putin vs the West" that aired a few days ago, Zelenskyy reported that he had sworn Putin to trust him at the time. "I never lie," he assured him. Putin reacted with irritation and replied: "I don't believe that you can never lie."
How will the Ukraine war end: With a clear victory for one side on the battlefield? After endless talks at the negotiating table? Or even, as some fear, in the apocalypse of nuclear war? One researcher who has been studying conflict resolution for decades is Dutchman Hein Goemans, professor of international politics at the University of Rochester in the US. His assessment: If Ukraine continues to be supplied with tanks from the West and also gets combat aircraft, it is possible that the Ukrainian armed forces will recapture large parts of the areas annexed by Russia. "Not this year, but maybe next year," says Goemans of the German Press Agency.
The conflict will then freeze somewhere near the Russian border. "The war would still not be over, but there would be no more big field battles, there would be shooting back and forth from time to time." Goemans only considers peace negotiations to be realistic if Russia has a president other than Putin.
Nicole Deitelhoff, head of the Leibniz Institute for Peace and Conflict Research in Frankfurt am Main, can also imagine that the conflict will become bogged down over time and that a non-formal border will emerge. "We know that from history: think of North and South Korea, but also of East and West Germany. All of this is not a formal peace agreement, no accepted borders, but rather open conflicts that have to be endured and where, in the long term, you can hoping for an agreement, but that could take decades."
Deitelhoff does not believe in peace negotiations because, in her eyes, both Putin and Zelenskyj have given themselves no room for negotiation: Putin by declaring the conquered territories in eastern Ukraine to be Russian state territory, and Zelenskyj by decreeing not with Putin to negotiate.
Goemans: Minimum requirements so far incompatible
Goemans believes that in order to really end the Ukraine war, at least one of the two warring parties would have to change their minimum demands. So far, the respective minimum demands have been incompatible: Russia has annexed the occupied territories and definitely wants to keep them, Ukraine absolutely wants them back. Goemans is convinced that Putin has not yet given up hope that the West will reduce its aid to Ukraine because the burden is too great in the long term. But even if Putin no longer had this hope, he would probably continue the war because he believed he could not afford to lose.
Deitelhoff sees it the same way: "Putin has awakened spirits that he can hardly get a grip on now. Even worse hardliners than himself are taking away his room for maneuver because they are still demanding heavier blows, such as the use of tactical nuclear weapons." The danger of an escalation with such "small nuclear weapons" or with chemical and biological weapons exists above all if Putin sees himself cornered by Ukrainian successes on Russian territory.
Masala: Nuclear escalation is very unlikely
The military expert Carlo Masala, on the other hand, considers a nuclear escalation to be very unlikely. If Putin were to detonate a "small atomic bomb," it would certainly not stop the Ukrainians from continuing to fight, argued Masala in the dpa interview. At the same time, Putin would provoke massive counterattacks from the West - and would ultimately have gained nothing by doing so, but would have made his situation even worse.
Masala also doesn't believe that Zelenskyy and Putin have no leeway for negotiations: "Militarily, the conflict cannot be resolved in the sense that the Ukrainian army drives the last Russian soldier out of Ukrainian territory. That won't work. So, if there is an opportunity for negotiations without Russian preconditions, Zelenskyy is the one who will also sit at the negotiating table." The same applies to Putin once he becomes convinced that continuing the war will do him more harm than good.
The question of how Putin will behave is the great "black box" of this war - the area that largely eludes analysis because nobody can see inside the head of the Kremlin master. However, Gwendolyn Sasse, director of the Center for East European and International Studies in Berlin, agrees with Masala: "Putin decides for himself whether he has room for negotiations or not. He can currently survive various war outcomes as a political figure."
Sasse: Putin could make concessions in negotiations
In the end, Putin will do what he expects most to preserve his power system, says Sasse. That could be an escalation strategy to deter the West after all, or a switch to negotiations. "It is conceivable that at some point Russian elites will put pressure on him to end the war because the costs are becoming too high." Putin could also make concessions to Ukraine in negotiations, for example by ceding annexed areas without risking his downfall.
According to Sasse, this would not be an insurmountable obstacle for Russian state propaganda. "One could always claim that the most important thing has been achieved, for example, or that everything is only provisional. We must not make the mistake of thinking that the majority of the population and the political elite judge Putin by whether he really believes in Zaporizhia and Kherson country can integrate. Much more important for the population would be the signal that you no longer have to worry about being drafted into military service at the front." And apart from that: Putin only has to take the elites into account anyway. "There is no danger for him from the population at the moment."
As different as the individual forecasts of the experts may be, they agree on one thing: the war will last for a very long time and will therefore also affect Germany for a very long time and very directly. "It's a big European war," says Hein Goemans. "A war we thought we would never experience in this form again."