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Even with the war at a stalemate, and as far away as victory may be for both sides, negotiations are an absolute non-starter for both the presidents of Ukraine and Russia.
Updated Dec. 6, 2023 at 7:20 p.m.
The Russian-Ukrainian war appears to have reached a strategic impasse — a veritable stalemate. Neither side is in a position at this point to achieve a fundamental change on the ground in their favor. Inevitably, this has triggered no shortage of analysts and politicians saying it's time for negotiations.
These conversations especially intensified after the results of the summer-autumn counteroffensive were analyzed by the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valerii Zaluzhny, with not very optimistic details.
Though there are advances of the Ukrainian army, it is mostly “stuck in minefields under attacks from Russian artillery and drones,” and there is a increasing prospect of trench warfare that “could drag on for years and exhaust the Ukrainian state.”
Zaluzhny concluded: “Russia should not be underestimated. It suffered heavy losses and used up a lot of ammunition, but it will have an advantage in weapons, equipment, missiles and ammunition for a long time," he said. "Our NATO partners are also dramatically increasing their production capacity, but this requires at least a year, and in some cases, such as aircraft and control systems, two years.”
For the Ukrainian army to truly succeed, it needs air superiority, highly effective electronic and counter-battery warfare, new technologies for mining and crossing minefields, and the ability to mobilize and train more reserves.
China and most countries of the so-called global South have expressed their support for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. Meanwhile in the West, certain influential voices are pushing for negotiations, guided by a purely pragmatic principle that if military victory is impossible, it is necessary to move on to diplomacy.
The position of the allies is crucial: Ukraine’s ability to fight a long war of attrition and eventually change the situation at the front in its favor depends on the military, economic and political support of the West. And this support, at least on the scale necessary for victory, is not guaranteed.
Still, the question of negotiations is no less complicated, as the positions of Russia and Ukraine today are so irreconcilable that it is difficult to imagine productive negotiations.
In Ukraine, both the people and political leaders have an extremely negative attitude towards the idea of negotiations.
Public opinion polls show that about 80% of the Ukrainian population are in favor of the complete liberation of the occupied territories. Period.
The idea that an enemy who committed unprovoked aggression and set as its goal the destruction of the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian nation can avoid defeat and punishment is unbearable to even imagine. Not only Putin, but also Russia is perceived in Ukraine as a product of a base evil, communication with which is both impossible and pointless.
Is it difficult on the battlefield? Yes. But be friends with Russia or sit down with them at the negotiating table now? No.
President Zelensky has directly said many times that he shares this position. This is how he articulated it in a recent interview with the British tabloid The Sun: “Is it difficult on the battlefield? Yes. But be friends with Russia or sit down with them at the negotiating table now? No.”
Russia's President Putin at the Kremlin on Dec. 4, 2023
Vyacheslav Prokofyev/TASS via ZUMA
Kremlin propagandists and Vladimir Putin himself like to repeat that Russia strives for peace. “Russia has never given up on peace talks with Ukraine,” Putin said at the recent G20 summit. Many, including in Western academic and political circles, believe this (in vain).
But how does Moscow imagine the outcome of the negotiations? Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said back in the summer that Ukraine’s “neutral, non-aligned and nuclear-free status” should be confirmed at the negotiations, “new territorial realities should be recognized... demilitarization and denazification should be ensured.”
Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin also recently stated that "the special military operation will continue until the set goals are fully achieved."
These "goals" he lists as stopping “Nazism, which is once again rearing its head in Europe, and the genocide of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine,” and to prevent “its transformation into an anti-Russian springboard.”
Retired Defense Ministry General Yevgeny Buzhinsky is more objective in his statements: “It seems to me that we don’t need these negotiations,” he admitted. “We need capitulation, peace on our terms: recognition of the new borders of the Russian Federation, the neutral status of Ukraine and its demilitarization... If we carry out a good offensive operation, then in the summer of 2024 we will be able to complete everything.”
The message is clear: there is no readiness for compromise. By military or diplomatic means, Ukraine must be turned into a kind of demilitarized space, which has neither the right to enter into defensive alliances with states capable of protecting it, nor the possibility, albeit theoretical, of creating its own nuclear weapons to deter the aggressor.
When asked “Will the war last long?” he replied: “I think we have to spend enough time here to get the job done. There is no point in talking about specific deadlines. If we are talking about Eastern Europe, which we will have to... Of course, it will be longer.”
The interviewer asked in response: “Ukraine is only an intermediate stage?”
“Yes, that’s absolutely right. This is just the beginning. I think that all the ideologists of this war will not stop there.” By “ideologists,” the general means enemies of Russia. The message, again, is clear: one of the goals of the invasion of Ukraine is to create favorable strategic conditions for the subsequent invasion of other countries in Eastern Europe.
Ukraine is only the beginning.
Starting the war, the Kremlin intended to occupy Ukraine entirely and turn it into a springboard for further military-political expansion into Europe. If the unexpected resistance of the Ukrainians had not derailed the original plan, then by the summer of 2022, Russian attack divisions could have been deployed along the Romanian and Polish border, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and in conditions where NATO was clearly not ready for full resistance.
Today, one might assume, the Kremlin understands that a complete takeover of Ukraine is impossible. But if the West agrees with Moscow's demand for a neutral and non-aligned Ukraine and twists Kiev's arms into accepting this demand, the chances of a successful Russian invasion of Europe increase significantly.
Indeed, experts at the German Foreign Policy Council warn that “Russia will need six to 10 years to rebuild its army to the point where it can dare to attack NATO. The clock will start ticking as soon as intense fighting in Ukraine ceases.”
By excluding Ukraine from the military-political system of the West, be it NATO or some other system of alliances, turning it into a demilitarized zone, Moscow can methodically concentrate its forces against Finland, the Baltic countries and Poland and achieve a significant military superiority.