15.11.22 War Review

Negotiating a Future War: the world wants Ukraine to agree on freezing the conflict, while Putin has already created a pretext for a new invasion

In recent weeks, the topic of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine has been back on the global agenda after a several-month pause. Although it seems there are no preconditions for this, the pressure for negotiations is growing from different sides. The issue is being discussed in American establishment circles; the desire to end the war as soon as possible is strong in the developing countries that are suffering the most from its economic consequences. Public opinion in southern Europe is also leaning toward the same. Realists say that with the return of Kherson and the mobilisation in Russia, there will be a deadlock in military operations. However, opponents of negotiations point out that the pause will be used by Moscow to prepare for a new offensive and as a result, the next conflict could be even more catastrophic than the current one.

The United States president's national security adviser Jake Sullivan during his visit to Kyiv on November 4 (on the eve of the American elections), according to Politico, insistently asked Zelensky to not reject publicly the possibility of negotiations with Moscow. So on November 8th, in his video message, Zelensky named five conditions for the resumption of peace talks with Russia but did not bring up the sixth one, which had been mentioned earlier — that he would not negotiate with Vladimir Putin. Although the American side then specifically emphasized that it was only a gesture from Kyiv, the negotiations topic was picked up by different sides.

A new round of contacts between high-ranking Russian and U.S. officials also gives a hint of some shifts in the situation: first, American newspapers reported on Jake Sullivan's contacts with President Putin's aide Yuri Ushakov and Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, and yesterday CIA Director William Burns and SVR Director Sergei Naryshkin held consultations in Istanbul. Although the American side insists this meeting had nothing to do with discussing Ukraine's future and the end of the war, the sudden resumption of such intense contact between Moscow and Washington makes this doubtful.

The pressure for peace talks is coming from different sides. In the United States, at the end of October, a group of thirty Democratic lawmakers appealed to the White House with a call for direct peacekeeping dialogue with Russia. Since February 24, Ukraine has received about $66 billion from the United States, and Washington cannot but worry about further expenses the American budget has to make and how loyal the voters will be to these spending plans in the light of growing problems in the U.S. economy and a possible global recession (Re: Russia wrote about it in detail due to the Republican success in the midterm elections for the Congress). 

President Putin's verbal "nuclear interventions" should also be considered quite effective. The latest United States public opinion polls show a high level of American citizens' solidarity with Ukraine, while at the same time the majority of Americans (58%) fear a growing threat of nuclear war and 65% believe that supplying Ukraine with long-range weapons capable of hitting targets on Russian territory would lead to a new round of military conflict. And the U.S. administration has to reckon with this voter concern, even though unless Ukraine is provided with more effective weapons, its military operations will quickly come to a stalemate.

Pressure for negotiations is also coming from many developing countries suffering from the economic consequences of the sanctions escalation. South Africa abstained from condemning the annexation of four Ukrainian regions when voting at the UN General Assembly in September, saying that instead of adopting the resolution, the world should focus on facilitating a cease-fire and finding a political solution. Brazil's new president Lula da Silva said that Zelensky is as responsible for the war as Putin. And Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has offered Zelensky assistance in peace negotiations (but has been turned down). 

The traditional rifts run between Europe's "rich" North and its "poor" South, whose public opinion is much more skeptical about the need to unconditionally support Ukraine and broad sanctions against Russia. For example, according to October polls, 48% of respondents in Greece believed that sanctions should be eased or lifted; in Italy, 43% of the respondents thought the same. However, a study conducted in October by the independent GeMAS Institute in Berlin also shows a likely shift in attitudes towards the conflict in Germany: 40% of Germans said they agreed with the statement that NATO has been provoking Russia for a long time, which forced it to invade Ukraine; in the east of Germany the number of people sharing this opinion reached 59%.

The main thesis of Russia-Ukraine negotiation supporters is that tens of billions of dollars spent on military aid to Kyiv contribute to further escalation of the conflict rather than a cease-fire. Meanwhile, sanctions against Russia do not undermine Vladimir Putin's power or his ability to wage war, but they do bring many problems to the rest of the world. The military's pragmatic argument is that after the liberation of Kherson and the Kremlin's "partial mobilisation," the Ukrainian army's advance is likely to stall unless it receives a new class of weapons. Ukraine's resources are quite depleted, and therefore negotiations at the peak of de-occupation give it a good opportunity to mark its military successes. In the same spirit, as far as can be understood from the New York Times article, Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has spoken non-publicly.

However, the arguments of the peace talks opponents are no less convincing. The possible pause would be used by President Putin to regroup troops, strengthen the front lines, train the mobilised and increase the production of albeit obsolete weapons. By annexing territories not controlled by Russian troops to Russia, Putin has created an excuse that he can use to start a new war. At the same time, a resumption of negotiations may lead to a loss of the tactical and strategic initiative on the battlefield that Kyiv currently has. The very fact of a cease-fire agreement would freeze the Kremlin's control over the seized territories and thereby clearly indicate that the invasion will go unpunished, which means that it will be more likely to happen again. And Russia will be more prepared for it.

Volodymyr Zelenski should not agree to "fake" negotiations, writes Sabine Fischer of the German Institute for Security Studies (SWP). They will be "fake" because those negotiations will not be based on a change in Moscow's foreign policy and its position towards Ukraine — this is possible only if there will be a political transformation inside Russia, but such transformations seem unlikely in the near future. Therefore, Western countries need to work toward changing the real balance of power on the battlefield through new arms supplies to Ukraine, which, according to Fischer, will eventually create a window of opportunity for "real" cease-fire negotiations. In other words, only Kyiv's further battlefield successes will change the real balance of power and, as a result, force the Kremlin to actually change its position and start real negotiations. Only this can serve as a guarantee that the agreements adopted at these talks will be respected and will not become a tactical pause before a new escalation.