Why Russia-Ukraine peace talks won’t be happening anytime soon
While there is growing interest in negotiating an end to the invasion of Ukraine, most experts believe that the conditions for establishing a dialogue have not been reached
The war in Ukraine has entered a new phase, marked by a renewed Russian offensive against civilian infrastructure. Given the dramatic consequences being faced by Ukrainian citizens, the prospect of peace negotiations has surfaced in diplomatic circles.
On November 9, during his speech at the Economic Club of New York, American Army General Mark Milley – chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – noted that, while the winter season would likely bring more battles between Ukrainian and Russian forces, the front would remain “relatively static.”
“There is a narrow window of opportunity for negotiation,” he went on to say. “There has to be mutual recognition that a military victory is maybe not achievable… and therefore you need to turn to other means.”
“When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace could be reached, you have to take advantage of the moment.”
A week later, at the G-20 summit, several major non-aligned countries – such as India and Indonesia – called for a negotiated end to hostilities. At the conclusion of that meeting, French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the media: “I am convinced that China can play a more important mediation role in the coming months.”
This past week, on Thursday, December 1, during a joint press conference with Macron, US President Joe Biden said that he was “ready to talk to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.” However, dialogue can take place only after NATO allies are consulted and only if the Russian president shows a willingness to find a way to end the war… something that “he hasn’t done yet,” Biden clarified.
A day later, US spokespeople tried to walk back Biden’s statement. Regardless, since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, it was the most explicit comment made by the American president regarding his willingness to initiate a dialogue with the Kremlin. As an example of how drastically Biden’s position has changed, in March, he called Putin a “butcher” who could not be allowed to stay in power.
Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy – who, in early October, signed a decree ruling out negotiations with Putin – has softened his position in the past few days, showing a willingness to talk, so long as there are strict preconditions to negotiations.
On Friday, December 2, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had a telephone conversation with Putin. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg hinted that “most wars end at the negotiating table… most likely, this war will too.”
In spite of all these public musings, politicians and geopolitical experts agree that the prospect of peace negotiations is still very remote. Ukraine has demonstrated an unwavering will to continue fighting until all of its territory is liberated, while its Western allies remain firm in their commitment to sanction Russia and bolster humanitarian and military aid to Kyiv. Putin’s regime, meanwhile, is stepping up compulsory mobilization and land annexations, counting on winter conditions, new recruits and a rise in Western fatigue to secure a Russian victory.
“I don’t see the window of opportunity that Milley mentions… Ukraine has serious possibilities to regain ground,” says Carmen Claudín, senior associate researcher at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs.
“We have always defended the prospect of peace negotiations but Ukraine has to decide the terms. And we see that there is no serious desire on the Russian side [for talks],” says Peter Stano, spokesman for the Vice-President of the European Commission, who spoke to EL PAÍS via telephone.
However, Borja Lasheras – an expert on Ukraine with the Center for European Policy Analysis – points out that, while it may be too early for the parties to sit down and dialogue, it still makes sense to prepare the negotiating table. This would send a message to the world – especially to countries that have been impacted by the invasion, be it due to rising gas prices or wheat shortages – that there is at least a will to end the conflict.
EL PAÍS has reviewed the positions of some of the key actors that would be needed to bring about an armistice in Ukraine. In the rest of this article, we break down their considerations, preconditions and red lines.
Over the past few months, Ukraine’s armed forces have achieved considerable success at repelling Russian advances and reclaiming territory. Important victories across the eastern front have galvanized morale, while encouraging continued international support. Both Western governments and major private companies have offered Ukraine more humanitarian aid, weapons, technical support and cyber intelligence.
Despite the suffering incurred by Ukrainian civilians – millions of whom are having to endure blackouts due to Russian airstrikes – there is still a strong will to keep fighting.
“Ukrainian leadership has made it very clear that they are seeking total victory – the people don’t expect anything less,” Claudín indicates.
Ukrainians have zero trust in Putin and his regime. Many feel that negotiations with the Kremlin would merely serve as a breather for Russian forces to regroup and relaunch even harsher attacks.
“With [Putin] in power,” Claudín warns, “no durable peace will be possible.” The Russian dictator is known for his unpredictability.
Lasheras points out that 20% of Ukrainian territory still remains under Russian control, including industrialized, mineral-rich regions. “Ukraine still needs to reclaim more of its territory to ensure future security and [economic] viability.”
“Of course, [Ukrainians] depend on Western support. There may come a time when we [the West] force their hand… but we’re not there yet.”
Zelenskiy took advantage of the recent G-20 summit to present world leaders with his conditions to initiate a dialogue for peace. While he is not insisting on NATO membership, he is demanding other security commitments from Western allies.
The complete reconquest of the territory is obviously a full Ukrainian right, but the prospect of Ukraine attempting to recapture Crimea – annexed by Russia in 2014 – has perplexed many foreign ministries and think tanks. This would pose an enormous escalation of tensions with Russia by Ukrainian forces – something that the West is not willing to be a part of. For this reason, NATO members will not be delivering combat planes or certain missiles to the government in Kyiv, as they do not wish to enter into direct confrontation with Russia, a nuclear power.
From justice for war crimes to compensation for the destruction caused, the issues to be addressed in an eventual peace negotiation with Moscow are numerous and complex. However, Ukraine’s ongoing efforts to reconquer all Russian-occupied land will first need to play out.
The Kremlin has been unable to secure victory in Ukraine. It has failed both at achieving regime-change in Kyiv and holding on to all the eastern regions it previously occupied. Meanwhile, Russia has suffered enormous troops losses, while the national economy has been bludgeoned by Western sanctions. Yet none of this has translated into political reconsiderations that could pave the way to a negotiated end to the invasion.
“Putin is ready for a long war,” says Lasheras. “A long war, with the aim of tiring the Ukrainians, exhausting international support. Maybe he’ll go until 2024 – the year of the US presidential elections – to see what happens.”
Claudín concurs, noting that Putin is confident that his air campaign against critical infrastructure will break the spirit of Ukrainian civilians, while winter will give his army enough time to recover.
From the Russian government’s perspective, the calculation of internal politics is fundamental. Conflicts abroad have helped the United Russia party distract the population from domestic concerns and hold on to power for more than two decades. Any kind of peace deal would need to be sold as a success, to avoid humiliation in the face of the Russian people. Meanwhile, the positions of China and India – two of Russia’s biggest energy buyers, in addition to Germany – are constantly being monitored by the Kremlin. Any change in the neutral positions maintained by Beijing or New Delhi could be devastating for Putin.
While the Kremlin is certainly up against the wall, there is still no sign of real willingness to sit down with the Kyiv government.
While the United States is providing the most military support to Ukraine, the EU certainly has major influence in terms of the future of the conflict. While it is a key player in terms of sanctions against Russia and guaranteeing the financial stability of Kyiv, member nations also continue to be major buyers of Russian oil and natural gas.
The latest signs point to continued unity among EU nations in supporting Ukraine. On Friday, December 2, the EU set a cap on the price of Russian crude, in a hit to the fossil fuel-dependent economy. In addition, the latest inflation and labor market data indicate that the consequences of the war may be less dramatic for the European economy than was initially feared.
On a political level, if the Kremlin hoped that the new Italian government – made up of parties with historical ties to Russia – would be sympathetic, the reality is that Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is in total alignment with her fellow EU leaders. With the exception of the authoritarian Viktor Orbán in Hungary – a militarily insignificant country – there don’t seem to be any cracks in pro-Ukrainian sentiment across Europe. Time will tell if the continent can fend off fatigue and economic malaise.
The November midterm elections resulted in a split government: Democratic control of the Senate and Republican control of the House of Representatives. While the pro-Trump Republican leadership indicated during the campaign that they intended to reduce support to Kyiv, come 2023, there will be enough anti-Putin Republicans in both chambers to guarantee continued military and financial support for Ukraine, despite concerns about the state of the US economy.
The conflict in Ukraine is seriously degrading the capabilities of Russia – a major American rival – without the Pentagon having to fire a single shot. However, this does not imply that Washington is interested in an indefinite continuation of the war. The Biden administration has been prudent in avoiding any risk of escalation, wanting to avoid direct conflict with Russia. Biden himself has expressed support for an “off-ramp” that could end the armed engagement.
General Milley’s comments convey the fact that the US military is contemplating when might be the right moment to encourage negotiations. The Biden administration would be in a strong position to bring Ukraine to the table, given its massive year-long support for Kyiv. Elected officials across the progressive wing of the Democratic Party – and even magnantes such as Elon Musk – have demanded that the US help negotiate a peace deal. While they don’t have decisive influence, they are reflecting a changing reality in American political discourse.
Three weeks before Russia launched the invasion, the Asian giant signed a declaration with Moscow announcing an “unlimited” bilateral relationship.
“The two parties share a vision of the world… but the truth is that China has not done anything to help Russia,” says a diplomatic source consulted by EL PAÍS, who wishes to remain anonymous.
“The distance between the West and Russia is enormous: they speak two different languages. An interpreter and mediator is necessary. The only possible one is China. So far, it hasn’t been very active, but that could change.”
The Chinese government – despite buying enormous amounts of Russian oil and gas – has not offered full support to Putin, as China’s economic well-being depends on civil relations with the West. In recent weeks, though, President Xi Jinping’s administration – like Modi’s government in India – has shown growing impatience with Putin’s war, which is agitating a globalization that benefits Asia.
The anti-lockdown protests and economic slowdown within China could encourage Beijing to assume a more active stabilizing role. French President Macron is lobbying Xi to be part of a peace process.
Most experts agree that the West will continue to support Ukraine as it reconquers Russian-occupied territory. At the moment, there is no desire to force Zelensky’s government to the negotiating table, especially as Putin does not appear ready to respect Ukrainian sovereignty. However, the musings that have popped up here and there over the past few weeks suggest that an alternative scenario to total military victory over Russia is indeed being seriously considered.
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