The reconquest of Kherson seemed like a turning point in the Ukraine war. But while Kyiv and the West can see it as an encouraging sign for the long-term fate of the war, it makes negotiations a veritable non-starter now. A cold, hard analysis from French geopolitical expert Dominique Moïsi.
The liberation of Kherson two weeks ago brought Ukrainian forces closer to Crimea and pushed the Russian army further from Odessa. It was a strategic and symbolic turning point. The images that emerged evoke the liberation of Paris in August 1944. Although it is a show of strength from Ukraine and a sign of Russian weakness, it does not mean that the time has come for negotiations to begin.
Far from it, in fact.
Up until the Ukrainian army retook Kherson, it was still possible to imagine that Russia and Ukraine might reach a compromise on territory, redrawing the borders as they were on Feb. 23, 2022. That is no longer the case today. For Kyiv, there is no longer any question of going back to February 2022, but rather to January 2014: before Moscow seized Crimea by force.
In nine months of war — with nearly 100,000 victims on both sides — millions of Ukrainians have been displaced, towns and cities have been systematically targeted and infrastructure has been destroyed.
Russia has committed multiple war crimes, perhaps even crimes against humanity. Unable to compete on the ground with the Ukrainian forces — who outnumber the Russians, are better equipped (thanks to Western aid) and above all are more motivated — Moscow has had no other choice than to try and bring the Ukrainian people to their knees through hunger and cold, while hoping to sow division among Kyiv’s allies.
So far, this strategy has had the opposite of the desired effect. Now that Ukraine has retaken Kherson, and after the G20 summit in Bali, Russia is more isolated than ever on the global stage.
We may well ask whether Putin himself is not also growing more isolated in Moscow. China and India are starting to distance themselves from Russia. If Russia had stormed to a quick, clear victory, they would have offered only half-hearted protests.
The Russian dilemma
Putin’s “special military operation” will go down in history as the perfect example of what not to do, especially if you are a despot whose position will be made particularly vulnerable by any military defeat. Putin wanted to bring Ukraine back into Moscow’s sphere of influence, hoping to reverse Kyiv's increasingly close ties with the West that compromised its own authoritarian model. In other words, Ukrainians needed to become “Russian” again so that Russians did not start wanting to have free elections like Ukrainians.
Whether to abandon its imperial ambitions, or remain an imperial power was not even a question.
The reality is more complicated. This was brought home to me a few days ago in Paris at a dinner with Russian émigrés who had sought refuge in Latvia. For them Putin is the devil himself, a reincarnation of Stalin. And yet when the conversation turned to Ukraine, they took a more ambiguous stance: They believe the Kremlin’s official version of events that the retaking of Kherson is simply a “tactical retreat."
For them “the Russian dilemma” — whether to become a “normal country” and abandon its imperial ambitions, or remain an imperial power — was not even a question. They cannot conceive of an identity that did not involve exerting control over others.
Volodymyr Zelensky speaking at NATO's 68th Annual Session of the Parliamentary Assembly in Madrid, Spain
Why won't Russia and Ukraine negotiate?
The Russian people’s attachment to their identity as an imperial power is both a strength and a weakness for Putin, and an obstacle on the road to negotiations. Zelensky’s demand that Russia agrees to re-establish the 1991 borders — drawn up when Ukraine became independent — makes Putin’s removal a necessary condition for restoring peace. What Russian leader could stay in power when he has “lost Crimea, if not Ukraine”?
But what Ukrainian leader could — after the immense sacrifices made and the remarkable victories won — be content with re-establishing the borders that existed before Feb. 24, 2022?
A compromise over territory, such as the partition model agreed to in Korea in 1953, is no longer acceptable to Kyiv. And a return to the borders of 1991 is not acceptable to Moscow.
Russia is not in the same situation as Nazi Germany in 1945, even if its behavior is in many way reminiscent of the Third Reich. Russia is a nuclear power, which Germany was not in 1945. And it can still count on support from China, even if this is waning.
It is wrong to claim that this war is not our war
If the time for negotiations is still far off, it is also true that the time for escalation has not yet come. Whoever fired the missile that hit Poland, it was “collateral damage”, not a deliberate provocation.
The difference between winning and not losing
Kyiv’s allies now have to face two realities. The first — by far the most crucial — is the importance of continuing to send aid to Ukraine, whatever it costs and however long it takes, and persisting with sanctions against Moscow. Stopping aid or easing sanctions would show that the West does not understand what is at stake in eastern Europe: the future of our continent, and therefore our own future, and that of the world.
We cannot accept a country — and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, no less — violating international law by seeking to change borders through military invasion. It is wrong to claim — as some are saying — that this war is not our war, and that by helping Ukraine, we are serving the interests of the United States.
The second reality that we must face means understanding the nature of those wielding power in Russia. We cannot seek to maintain at all costs a dialogue with Putin, a man who only understands shows of power. At the same time, we should not engage in the kind of anti-Russian cultural bolshevism shown by those who opposed the decision to have Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov open the season at the Scala Theatre in Milan. This kind of arbitrary decree does nothing to help the Ukrainians’ cause.
How can we find a diplomatic compromise that would make Ukrainians feel they have “won”, while making Russians feel they have not “lost”? It seems to be an impossible task. In the meantime, faced with provocation after provocation from Russia, Ukraine and its allies must show resilience and stand strong.
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