11.01 Review

Phantom Talks: The main challenge is to convince Putin of their necessity, not Zelensky, say experts

The topic of freezing the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the need for negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow has become one of the central issues in the world's leading media in the first days of 2024. Sources claim that officials in both Washington and Brussels are actively discussing this topic, as they consider the current situation to be at an impasse. However, experts view the problem differently: the prospect of a sharp cut in Western aid and talks of freezing the conflict in Western capitals has already undermined the possibility of real negotiations. At the moment, Russia has an advantage, which will only increase with further Western passivity. Therefore, the Kremlin has no incentive to negotiate, except to use them as a cover to build up its own capabilities. Moreover, freezing the conflict along the current line of contact is extremely disadvantageous to Ukraine and reinforces its extreme vulnerability to a possible new attack. For real negotiations to take place, Putin, not Zelensky, must be convinced of their necessity. And for this, the Western coalition needs to implement a long-term strategy in which assistance to Ukraine is seen as part of the West's new security system. This way, Putin will be shown that he cannot win without an extreme depletion of his own resources. Any other scenario would mean Ukraine's defeat sooner or later, and it would follow from this that the West would be unable to protect the international order it has guaranteed in previous decades.

Western officials have begun to discuss with Ukraine a possible freezing of the conflict with Russia, Politico claims, citing senior sources in the US administration and among European leaders. These discussions are said to be a result of both the failure of the Ukrainian armed forces’ counteroffensive and difficulties with the allocation of further aid to Kyiv from Washington and Brussels. As the publication notes, the ongoing war in Ukraine is becoming an increasing problem for Joe Biden, who has recently started a new election campaign. Indeed, at the start of the campaign, Biden is trailing Trump in virtually all polls, and a substantial portion of non-partisan voters are sympathetic to Trumpist criticism of his Ukraine policy. 

Last summer, Biden pledged to support Ukraine 'as long as it takes', but Politico notes that by the end of the year he said that the US would provide support 'as long as it can', adding that Ukraine had already won a 'huge victory' and 'Putin has failed’. Analysts have interpreted this rhetorical shift as preparation for a scenario in which the conflict is frozen but presented as a success for Ukraine and the Biden administration's policies.

In turn, The New York Times, in an article also published in the first days of the new year, claims that Vladimir Putin has been expressing his readiness to freeze the hostilities in Ukraine for several months now. According to sources cited by the publication, the Kremlin no longer insists on the removal of the Zelensky government and is willing to agree to coexist with a sovereign Ukraine, with Kyiv as its capital, if Russia retains control over the nearly 20% of Ukrainian territory it has seized during the war. Finally, Bloomberg reported that a secret meeting was held in Saudi Arabia between Ukraine, the G7 and representatives of the Global South, where Kyiv sought support for peace talks with Russia on its terms. No significant progress was made at this meeting as representatives of the Global South called on Ukraine to engage in direct dialogue with Russia, which was opposed by both Kyiv and the G7 states.

Thus, the topic of 'negotiations with Moscow' and the freezing of the conflict has come to the forefront of global media discussion about potential strategies and scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2024. The main task in this interpretation of events seems to be to convince the Kyiv leadership of the necessity and inevitability of such negotiations. However, the situation looks quite different to experts who, for the most part, doubt both the realism of the 'negotiations' themselves and the results of possible agreements.

Thus, analysts at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) argue in a report that any scenario of freezing the conflict not only requires significant efforts in its preparation and cannot be implemented without a new batch of military aid to Kyiv, but is also strategically unpromising. Putin will not abandon his plans to destroy Ukraine because he has deeply embedded in the Russian political consciousness the idea that it has no political identity of its own, and that any Ukrainian government disloyal to Moscow is a pawn in the hands of the West and a threat to Russia. This means that the line of contact will remain a place of potentially imminent conflict indefinitely. Meanwhile, unlike the borders and contact line that existed at the beginning of 2022, the current ones run too close to vital and densely populated areas of Ukraine. JIndustrial cities like Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro, the country's remaining ports in Odesa and Mykolaiv, as well as the cities of Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, and Konstantinovka, which form the main defensive bastion in eastern Ukraine, are all within 160 km from the front line. This vulnerability will persist, and if active hostilities resume, all of these strategic locations could come under Russian attack. These conditions, in particular, will make it difficult to establish normal economic life in these areas during a ceasefire and will require the concentration of significant Ukrainian forces.

At the same time, the occupied territories are becoming a convenient bridgehead for the Russian army. Any ceasefire would allow Russia to regroup its forces, transfer equipment and ammunition to fortified defensive positions near the front line and deploy reserves along the entire line of contact, according to the ISW experts. At the same time, under the conditions of the official ceasefire, the Ukrainian armed forces would not be able to contain these manoeuvres through strikes and would be forced to respond to Russia by building up its own grouping. As a result, it would be Putin who would determine what financial and social costs Ukraine and the West would incur in the future to deter Russian aggression. Therefore, ISW suggests that the current lines of contact should be viewed solely as a necessary starting point for the further liberation of strategically and economically important Ukrainian territories, without which the existence of an independent and secure Ukraine will be virtually impossible.

Expert Jack Watling from RUSI, in an article for Foreign Affairs, argues that the widespread perception that the war has reached a stalemate is nothing more than a journalistic cliché. The situation remains dynamic, and if Ukraine loses Western assistance, Putin will have an advantage that he will not hesitate to exploit. In fact, the West has already undermined the realism of the very goal of forcing Moscow to negotiate by expressing its doubts about whether to continue supporting Ukraine. As such, the Kremlin now believes that time is on its side and that it can 'overcome' the will of the West. Watling writes that the West has only six months to choose between two possible scenarios. In the first, Ukraine will build up its forces, regain the ability to launch offensives, and demonstrate to Russia the precariousness of its position to the extent that Kyiv can begin negotiations to impose a lasting peace on Moscow. In the second, a lack of supplies and manpower shortages will drag Ukraine into a war of attrition, which it will lose.

Watling believes that realising the intentions of some Brussels and Washington politicians to persuade Ukraine to make concessions for the sake of a ceasefire would have two consequences. First, Russia will simply repeat its actions that followed the 2015 Minsk agreements (preparing for the next stage of expansion), and second, it will demonstrate to its allies that the West can be defeated by persistence. This will, in particular, force many of the United States’ security partners to look for other ways to defend themselves and will sharply reduce American influence in the world. In effect, the Kremlin will thereby achieve its main goal in this war — to demonstrate to the world that the West is no longer able to defend the old global order, which Putin has constantly talked about the need to overturn.

In other words, only the existence of a long-term realistic plan to support Ukraine, which will become an organic part of a new security strategy for Europe, can create the conditions for genuine negotiations, the need for which is being discussed by the proponents of 'pacification’. Watling's conclusions are almost echoed in a column in the Financial Times written by another well-known British expert on international relations, Timothy Garton Ash: in his opinion, in 2024, the West should provide Kyiv with an amount of aid to allow it to convince Russia that it cannot win, and this is the only way to peace.