Why Negotiating With Russia Would Be A Disaster For Ukraine — And The World
A month into Ukraine's counteroffensive, claims that it has failed are wildly premature. Even more troubling are the steady whispers that Kyiv must sit down with Russia to negotiate. But it's clearer than ever that only complete Ukrainian victory can bring lasting peace.
KYIV — "The quickest way of ending a war is to lose it," George Orwell once remarked.
We're reminded of those words recently as we hear more and more calls for negotiations. Since mid-June, about 10 to 12 days after the Ukrainian counteroffensive began, a number of Western political scientists and journalists, claiming to cite anonymous government sources, have argued that the Ukrainian offensive is proceeding too slowly. If it continues to stall, they say, the West will reduce or completely withdraw support from Ukraine, forcing Kyiv to agree to a ceasefire and enter into negotiations with Russia.
American political scientist Graham Allison argues that if Ukraine does not seize the chance presented by the recent Wagner coup “to break the stasis that governs the battlefield in eastern Ukraine, we will enter a very different chapter in this conflict... Many of Ukraine’s supporters in Europe and even in the United States will join the Global South’s chorus calling for both sides to stop the killing and begin serious negotiations about a cease-fire."
Russian voices, including those who consider themselves in opposition to the current regime, echo the Western skeptics.
The reasoning behind this type of thinking is straightforward: if the Ukrainian Armed Forces were unable to achieve immediate success by overpowering the enemy's defenses, penetrating operational territory, and capturing Melitopol and Mariupol in one decisive strike, it would be more prudent to avoid sacrificing the lives of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers.
Instead, it would be preferable to engage in diplomatic negotiations. This outcome would please activists from the Global South, left-wing pacifists, and certain circles in Western countries who may desire to maintain Russia's presence, possibly by replacing Putin with a more acceptable dictator.
Most importantly, the phrase "the Ukrainian offensive failed" aligns perfectly with the Kremlin's interests, as its propaganda consistently emphasizes the failure of the Ukrainian offensive and urges recognition of the current "geopolitical realities."
The Kremlin's interests and Ukraine's existential threat
Arguments revolving around the “slow progress” of Kyiv's forces cause nothing but rage in Ukraine.
"Ukraine is fighting for its life. This is an existential battle for Ukraine."
"It pisses me off when they say that the offensive is going slower than expected," even Valery Zaluzhny, the usually well-mannered commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, cannot restrain himself.
“This is not a show,” Zaluzhny told the Washington Post. “It's not a show the whole world is watching and betting on or anything. Every day, every meter is given by blood.” Zaluzhny explains the counteroffensive is underway even though Ukraine has not been provided with modern fighter jets and other weapons badly needed for the offensive.
The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, understands his Ukrainian counterpart. In Milley’s view, the offensive could last six, eight, 10 weeks: "It will be very difficult. It will be very long and very, very bloody... Ukraine is fighting for its life. This is an existential battle for Ukraine."
Regrettably, the Pentagon's acknowledgment of this reality has not yet translated into providing Kyiv with combat aircraft, ATACMS missiles, and other weaponry that could significantly shift the balance of power on the battlefield. Such provisions would enable Ukraine to effectively counter and neutralize the "existential threat".
On the front
What is currently unfolding on the front? Is it a stalemate where neither side can achieve victory, or is it an unstable balance where the situation can dramatically shift with even a relatively minor push?
According to leaks from confidential Pentagon documents, as reported by Western media, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have prepared 12 mechanized brigades for an offensive, with nine of them equipped and trained by Western allies. Additionally, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry has formed eight assault brigades.
Assuming that each mechanized brigade comprises the standard strength of 4,000 soldiers and officers, equipped with standard weaponry and military equipment, the Ukrainian leadership has prepared approximately 80,000 personnel and 500-600 tanks and infantry fighting vehicles for the counteroffensive. It is likely that around half, if not more, of these resources were supplied by Western allies.
The offensive group of the Ukrainian Armed Forces faces significantly superior enemy forces. According to Ukrainian data, there are up to 370,000 soldiers and officers engaged in combat against Ukraine, including 47 brigades (around 180,000-190,000 personnel) assigned to active operations, while the remainder belongs to material support and auxiliary units.
Apparently lacking confidence in the defensive stability of their troops, the Russian authorities have constructed hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometers of trenches and fortifications in the Zaporizhzhia region. They have heavily mined the ground, creating substantial obstacles for advancing troops.
May 21, 2023, Hiroshima, Japan: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy holds a bilateral discussion with U.S President Joe Biden.
Pool /Ukrainian Presidentia/ZUMA
The state of the battlefield
At first glance, given the balance of forces between the advancing and defending sides, the Ukrainian offensive may appear doomed to failure. However, this assessment only holds true at the surface level. Russian troops are spread along a several thousand-kilometer front line. If the Ukrainian Armed Forces can concentrate their striking force in a narrow area, they have the potential to breach defenses and penetrate into the Russian rear.
Consequently, the Russian command's crucial task is to figure out where the Ukrainian Armed Forces will attack, where the concentrated offensive group will be deployed, and mobilize their main reserves to counter the offensive. Simultaneously, Russian troops are attempting advances in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Although these attempts have not been successful in terms of territorial gains, their purpose is to tie up as many Ukrainian forces as possible, diverting them from other sectors of the front.
In the Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine is conducting a relatively modest offensive in multiple directions, stretching from the village of Lobkovo in the west to Velyka Novosilka in the east. The advancing troops are clearly insufficient to break through the well-prepared, deeply entrenched Russian defenses. But that is not their task either — it is to keep the enemy troops stretched along the entire front line.
A critical situation is developing around Bakhmut. Even before the "Wagner group" mercenaries claimed their occupation of the city on May 21, and amid Moscow's triumphant announcements of an almost decisive victory, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian land forces, Oleksandr Syrsky, unveiled a plan to "tactically encircle" Bakhmut.
Instead of storming the city head-on, as the Russian forces had done, suffering thousands of casualties, the Ukrainian Armed Forces began maneuvering along the city's northern and southern flanks, seizing strategic positions and cutting off communications. If successful, the Russian grouping in Bakhmut would be left without supplies and forced to either capitulate or retreat.
A premature idea
Lastly, and most importantly, of the 12 brigades prepared for the offensive, only three have been committed to combat. This means that Ukraine has a substantial force comprising several tens of thousands of men, capable of breaking the stalemate.
Should they be able to break through the enemy's defenses, a "cascading collapse of the front" — as military experts call it — may well begin.
Currently, the Russian and Ukrainian conditions for a ceasefire are incompatible.
“Everyone wants to achieve a great victory instantly and at once,” General Zaluzhny told The Guardian. “And so do we. But we have to be prepared to have this process take some time because there are a lot of forces massed on each side, a lot of materiel, and a lot of engineered obstacles. Our main force has not engaged in the fighting yet, and we are now searching, probing for weak places in the enemy defenses. Everything is yet to come.
In other words, the idea that the Ukrainians did not succeed in their offensive is at the very least premature.
Black swan event
There are various reasons why certain individuals in the West insist on negotiations. Some are driven by pacifist motives, aiming to end the war as quickly as possible to prevent further loss of life. During the Cold War, among the supporters of the "peace movement," the slogan "Better red than dead" was also popular.
However, it is not solely about pacifists. What is more important is that influential forces within the political circles of Western countries fear Russia's defeat. Some see a weakened but still militarily and economically capable Russia as a geopolitical counterbalance to the United States. Others hope for democratic transformations following the resignation or removal of Putin. Some fear that a defeated Russia would disintegrate, leading to chaos, with nuclear weapons falling into the hands of irresponsible field commanders or regional criminal leaders.
These arguments in favor of a ceasefire and political resolution are well-known. The question is how convincing they are. Currently, the Russian and Ukrainian conditions for a ceasefire are incompatible. Kyiv demands the withdrawal of occupation forces from all territories seized by Russia since 2014, while Moscow insists on recognizing the "geopolitical realities". The latter implies that Ukraine should not only relinquish Crimea and Donbas, but the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions as well.
Let's assume that a black swan event occurs, leading to some sort of interim political solution, such as a return to the front line of Feb. 23, 2022. However, such a compromise would not satisfy either Russia or Ukraine. In Russia, the Versailles syndrome would undoubtedly intensify, with searches for traitors blamed for the lost war and power struggles at the highest levels, leading to a deep political crisis. The outcome of this situation is unpredictable — it could result in disintegration or the establishment of a fascist regime, with the dominant ideology centered around the idea of historical revenge.
In Ukraine, a Karabakh syndrome can be expected, similar to what emerged in Azerbaijan after the wars of the 1990s. Seeking retaliation for aggression and reclaiming lost territories would become a national ideal. Building a durable peace in such a politically and ideologically charged atmosphere would be challenging.
Furthermore, if Russia manages to emerge from the war without being defeated or stripped of its nuclear weapons, Ukraine, Poland, and other frontier states will not feel secure, even if Ukraine, Moldova, and potentially Georgia are admitted to NATO. Doubts about the reliability of security guarantees stemming from Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty will push these countries towards establishing their military-political alliance, which may seek to acquire nuclear weapons.
A potential shift towards a European security system built upon a military alliance among neighboring states, rather than the existing NATO-centered framework, would not be a tragedy for Europe. It is conceivable that such a system could be more dependable. Nevertheless, this course of action does not align with the interests and intentions of those currently advocating for negotiations with Russia.
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