War in Ukraine - perspectives on peace talks
Nineteen months into a war that many observers - including critically I think the Russian military - thought would be over in a matter of weeks and understandably I think the consensus has settled on the idea that this will now be a long grinding conflict. A frozen conflict does not really explain it, but the two sides appear well dug in, entrenched (quite literally) and planning certainly for the long haul. But in all this, are there are any real prospects for a peace process? In the text below I try and look at the perspectives on potential peace talks from both the two main combatants but also the views of the others power players, the US, Europe and China.
Russia - hard to see any route to victory
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A narrative still being pushed is that the West will inevitably tire with Ukraine, and that all Russia has to do is to wait all this out. This view is arguably being fed currently by events in the US Congress, as divisions in the GOP delay approval of the latest big financial support package for Ukraine. But irrespective of whether this gets over the line over the next few months, the view is that a Trump victory in next year’s elections will see US support for Ukraine fall off a cliff, then delivering Ukraine on a plate for Putin. So Russia just has to hang in their, sustaining the conflict for another year or so, and then it will inevitably secure victory over Ukraine. Sanctions are hurting, but the Russian economy is proving durable and having been progressively put over to a war economy, guns are being prioritised over butter. So Russia can outlast the West. That’s the narrative at least - albeit I don’t buy it.
So with this outlook, why would Russia want to sit down and talk peace now?
The problem with the above from a Kremlin perspective is that even should US support for Ukraine stop on the assumption of a Trump victory, or even sooner, let’s say the GOP stalwarts manage to stop further US support for Ukraine, Russia still would have to enforce its victory on Ukraine. It is not as though Ukrainians are just going to stop fighting - indeed, in the first initial few weeks of the war they proved adept at stopping the Russian military advance with very limited resources. They now have a lot more higher tech munitions, and it is just hard to see Russian tanks being able to quickly now roll through Ukraine to Kyiv and beyond. Ukrainians will continue fighting as they have no option - nowhere else to go, as it is their country. And I just don’t see how Russia can quickly enforce any win - it would still take months, likely many years, of hard fighting for Russia to suppress Ukrainian opposition. And important to note here that even if US support fell by the way side, European support likely would not, as too many states in Europe, realise now the military threat from Russia, and that the front line in Ukraine is still their best chance of stopping further Russian advances into Europe. So does Russia really have enough resources to sustain a war with Ukraine for not one year but for many years to come? I just don’t think so.
So there is in reality no easy win for Russia, just the prospect of years of more conflict, more loss of blood and treasure and indeed, more risks on the social and political front in Russia itself. The longer the war in Ukraine goes on the greater the risk of another Wagner style event at home. Is that a risk the Kremlin really wants to take? I doubt it. If some solution to allow them to retain some foothold still in Ukraine could be offered, I think they would bite the hand off from those who offered it.
I would also argue that the longer the war goes on the more Russian economic power sags with sanctions, and its international image is further depleted. Global powers are supposed to win wars over lesser powers, they don’t get sucked into wars that they cannot win - or recent US experience in Iraq and Afghanistan is that that is a route to inevitable decline. The longer the war goes on the more Russia’s image as a military power is eroded - more risk of humiliations like the loss of the Mosckva, or attack on the BSF HQ. And it will continue to see power drained to China, and indeed to countries around its borders - look at the declining influence now of Russia in Central Asia and Transcaucasia. Russia’s inability to stop Azerbaijan’s recent victories in NK over Armenia, and now Armenia’s push West in orientation, affirmed the risks for Russia of an extended war in Ukraine. How can Russia stop that continued trend of the “near abroad” just becoming plain old “abroad”, and especially when all its focus and resources are being devoted to Ukraine?
Even militarily there are risks as we are now seeing in Crimea. Sure, lots of focus on the stalling Ukrainian counteroffensive to break the land corridor to Crimea but what’s the point of the land corridor if Ukrainian long range missiles make Crimea itself unsustainable as a base for the Black Sea Fleet. And therein recent attacks have meant that Russia has had to relocate naval assets East to Novorossiysk - making Sebastopol almost worthless as a military asset. Extending the war for Russia just risks yet more attacks on Crimea, further depleting Russia’s strategic position/strength in the Black Sea. And recent Ukrainian military gains establishing a foothold now on the East bank of the Dnepr around Kherson just still raise the risk for Russia that the Ukrainian counteroffensive might just puncture Russian lines more decisively.
Hence for Russia peace talks now might not be unwelcome. Obviously it depends on the terms, but something which included talks over the longer term future of Crimea, DPR and LPR, and offered the potential for attacks on Crimea to stop to make the peninsula again a safe haven for the BSF, plus included some hope of sanctions moderation, could be interesting.
Ukraine - the decision when to negotiate has to be its own
Ukraine is the victim here. It has had its land taken, and it’s population killed, injured and kidnapped. It is entirely understandable that Ukrainians want to win the war, secure the return of all land and secure a just peace and settlement, including payment of reparations by Russia. Opinion polls do still show strong support for the war, and something like 80% plus think the war is still winnable. But if the war is entering a different stage, a longer war of attrition, are Ukrainians still willing to assume the cost? And do risks now around US, or even Western, financial support for Ukraine sustaining change the calculus? On the latter without that support, or with much reduced support, the price surely will be an even higher casualty count for Ukraine. So how would that impact on a willingness to eshrew negotiations and continue the fight?
Important in all this is still the course/pace of the counteroffensive. And, therein, recent commentary from Ukrainian military officials have downplayed prospects - perhaps preparing the population, and perhaps allies, for a longer military haul, or perhaps even peace talks.
The public rhetoric from Ukrainian officials is still that the war will be pursued until all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, DPR and LPR are returned. But with a realisation that the counteroffensive is struggling, and that continued US financial support at least might be in doubt, could the Ukrainian side settle for something less as a starting point for negotiations?
The reality is that after decades of Russian occupation of Crimea, and close to a decade of occupation of DPR and LPR, any military push to take all three back would likely be long and very bloody. Russian positions are very entrenched, and populations have had years of pro-Russian brain washing. Could Ukraine accept a peace push where Russia returns to February 23, 2022 settings, and there are longer term talks over the future of Crimea, DPR, and LPR? I think so, as any such agreement would not be a priori agreement over the loss of Crimea, DPR and LPR, but longer term talks about their future. These might still agree their eventual return to Ukraine at some point in the future.
Some would in any event argue that the early return of Crimea, DPR and LPR to Ukraine would be a Trojan horse as integrating the 6-7 million populations there into the Ukrainian political process, after years of indoctrination would be challenging, notwithstanding the huge financial costs of rebuilding these regions. So a scenario where such regions are not immediately reintegrated back into Ukraine, but are subject to further negotiations over their future could be much more practical when considering political and economic stability and sustainability of Ukraine more generally.
Returning to the Russian perspective, you might ask why would Russia surrender the land corridor to Crimea, hard won since February 2022. Well, that land corridor is worthless if Ukraine is able to make Crimea itself unsustainable by direct long range missile attacks.
And push back also comes with commentary that how would Putin sell any above deal which surely would imply a humiliating withdrawal from the land corridor, from Kherson and Zaporizhiya, et al. Well Putin entirely controls the info narrative in Russia and can sell any such deal however he wants to. He can argue that Russia not only held out against Ukraine, but the whole of NATO for over 20 months. He can also argue that he secured the concession in terms of talks over the longer term future of Crimea, which was never on the table at Minsk 1 and 2.
What about the US: surely a long war suits the US
Well you would think so, which is why it is so perverse that some in the GOP are so set on stopping support for Ukraine, and seemingly then trying to hand victory on a plate to Putin. The costs of the war for the US are small when measured against the gains in terms of the erosion of a global power adversary’s military capability, its global status and reach, and its economic strength. This war has put Russian on a declining power path. Why would the US want to stop that when no US lives are on the line? It’s almost like a dream scenario for the US - and it also also served to unify the Western alliance against what is now clearly a very near and present danger, in the form of Russia. NATO which was brain dead only months prior to the Russian invasion, according to Macron, is no longer brain dead but United and with purpose. And the US leadership of NATO, and over Europe and the Western alliance is now clear again - sending an important signal therein to China.
Adding in here that much of the US and Western financial support for Ukraine, stays in the US via increased orders for US defence equipment, and that the war has proven to be a powerful marketplace/shop floor for advanced US military kit (HIMARS, Javelins, Patriots, et al), and standing in stark contrast to the dismal performance of Russian kit, makes the war a huge win for the US.
The mere fact that Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine has been such a win for the US, might appear as reason enough for Russia to end the war ASAP.
But even for the US now an extended war in Ukraine has its limits. US elections are looming, popular support for the war is ebbing, or at least the US electorate seems to want dollars spent at home. And there are looming competitors for US defence dollars, and indeed munitions, including Israel, the potential for war with Iran and then the threat of China doing something on Taiwan. An early end to the war in Ukraine I think now would be timely for the Biden administration - it could also sell this as a win in the US election.
China - could be the peacemaker
China has had to play a delicate hand over the war in Ukraine. I don’t think that Putin was wholly transparent with Xi over his intentions to launch a full scale invasion of Ukraine back in February 2022. If he was I think the Intel he might have shared which might have suggested a speedy win was flawed. The shock to the global economy and global markets of an extended war certainly was unwelcome for Xi, as it came as the Chinese economy was faltering and he was rolling out his own domestic political coup. Xi I think was careful to set guardrails around the conflict. Telling Putin to limit any tit for tat sanctions escalation from key commodity markets, or use of WMD. Xi has not gone out of his way to help Putin out with military supplies, and arguably has benefited by reaping the reward of securing knock down prices in commodity exports from Russia. Xi has relished the fact that an extended war has weakened Putin and made him clearly the junior partner in the Russia - China partnership with no limits. A weaker Russia, more subordinate to China has its advantages, but China certainly does not want Russia weakened so much to the point of risking a collapse of the Putin regime and something more Western inclined or indeed unstable taking its place - notable there that the last Chinese peace efforts came around the time of the Wagner mutiny. China has been careful not to damage the key relationship with the US in going out of its way to arm and finance Russia. It sees leverage from the war in Ukraine to be taken to its relationship with the US. And indeed, I think the current warming in US - China relations as seen in the Biden - Xi summit is a reflection of US appreciation of the fact that China could have been much more belligerent by providing Russia with more assistance. Clearly now both the Biden and Xi administrations want a better relationship as we head to US elections - both want lower global geopolitical risks, lower oil and commodity prices, and I think Xi would even prefer a Biden to a Trump victory in next year’s elections. The US and China now probably have a common interest in winding down the war in
Ukraine - arguably the upsurge in geopolitical risk in the Middle East now would see both preferring at least one other global conflict (the war in Ukraine) subsiding. And for China being seen as the peace maker would play very well with its push to position its self as the leader of the global south.
So therein I would watch the Biden - Xi summit this week as perhaps offering hopes of some movement around Russia - Ukraine. Notable then that Tony Blinken visited Kyiv this week, on the eve of the Biden - Xi summit, perhaps to figure out Ukraine’s red lines/preparedness for peace talks.
And what about Europe?
Well with the European economy, politics, energy sector and military industrial complex stretched, I think a pause, or even peace, in the war un Ukraine would be well received.
So as we draw towards the year end, and in the aftermath of the Biden - Xi summit I think we might well see new peace initiatives around the war in Ukraine. China, Turkey or even Saudi Arabia might take the initiative here. Watch this space.
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