By Michael Crowley
As the fight in Ukraine has dragged on for the past year, another battle has unfolded in parallel: a war of words between Russia and the West over who is more interested in ending the conflict peacefully.
For now, analysts and Western officials say, serious peace talks are extremely difficult to envision. Both sides have set conditions for negotiations that cannot be met anytime soon, and have vowed to fight until victory.
And Ukraine’s president has ruled out dealing directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin because of atrocities committed by his military forces.
At the same time, both sides also have a keen interest in showing an openness to negotiations.
But far from pointing to a peaceful end, such talk is largely strategic. It is intended to placate allies, cast the opposition as unreasonable and, especially on the Ukrainian side, tamp down a growing desire within Western countries to find an end to the costly war.
Major countries such as India, South Africa and Brazil have not taken clear sides in the conflict, which has raised energy prices and exacerbated a global food crisis.
Russia relies on economic relations with these countries, and benefits when they express impatience with the West over the war’s duration, because a swift end to the conflict now would leave Russia occupying large parts of Ukraine.
By claiming to be more willing than the West to negotiate, Russia gives the countries a pretext for not taking a stance against it. “We are ready to negotiate with everyone involved about acceptable solutions, but that is up to them,” Putin said on Russian state television in late December. “We are not the ones refusing to negotiate, they are.”
Such rhetoric “is aimed largely at India and other nonaligned powers,” said Samuel Charap, a Russia analyst with the Rand Corp.
At the same time, U.S. officials, mindful of their open-ended talk of supporting Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” contend that their goal is to strengthen Ukraine’s hand in eventual peace negotiations, without specifying when they might come.
U.S. officials call Putin’s own talk of peace absurd. They note that Russia is brutally attacking its neighbor and insists that Ukrainians accept Russian annexation of large swaths of their territory as a condition of peace. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference last weekend, Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned of a “false equivalence” between an aggressor and a victim.
“If Russia withdraws its troops today, the war is over,” he said. “Of course, if Ukraine stops fighting today, Ukraine is over.”
Biden administration officials also fear the Russian leader might simply exploit any peace talks for tactical advantage.
And while stressing that Ukraine must make its own decisions about when and how to make peace, Blinken said that Russia’s aggression must not be rewarded with territorial gains, lest it set an example for other would-be aggressors. A United Nations resolution passed Thursday with overwhelming support endorsed the same principle, saying that “no territorial acquisition resulting from the threat or use of force shall be recognized as legal.”
Still, U.S. officials express concern that Putin might be getting the better of the argument, at least with some unaligned nations. Putin blames Western sanctions on Russia for driving up global food prices, and claims that the United States and its allies could quickly relieve the problem by settling with Moscow. (In fact, Western sanctions exempt food products, and Russia’s invasion has made shipping grain and other food from Ukraine more difficult.)
At the same time, support is growing in several countries for more active peace efforts. In a December poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Americans were almost evenly divided on the question of whether the United States should support Ukraine for “as long as it takes” or urge Ukraine to settle for peace “as soon as possible.” Forty-eight percent of respondents favored fighting on indefinitely, with 47% preferring peace efforts.
But pro-negotiation efforts in Western governments have gained little traction. After progressive Democrats released a public letter in late October calling on President Joe Biden to seek a “rapid end to the conflict,” the group’s leader quickly retracted it. Around the same time, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, argued in internal meetings that Ukraine was unlikely to make substantially greater battlefield gains and should move to the bargaining table. The White House quickly squelched such talk.
At the same time, U.S. officials have advised President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine — with the views of nonaligned countries in mind — that it is in his interest not to appear completely opposed to talking.
“Zelenskyy is being told to be diplomatic,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a Russia expert at the Center for a New American Security who advised the Biden transition team. “But I think his instinct is to fight it out on the battlefield.”
Both Ukraine and Russia have outlined broad parameters for a peace agreement with provisions that analysts call nonstarters. Zelenskyy has offered a 10-point plan that would hold Russia accountable for war atrocities, and require it to surrender all captured Ukrainian territory and pay reparations for what could be hundreds of billions in war damages.
For his part, Putin has demanded that Ukraine recognize territories annexed by Moscow as part of Russia.
Russia and Ukraine did conduct direct talks early in the war, first in Belarus and then in Turkey. By April, the two sides were discussing an agreement under which Russia would return its troops to pre-invasion battle lines in return for a pledge that Ukraine would never seek membership in NATO.
But the talks collapsed — poisoned, in part, by mounting evidence of Russian atrocities, including a massacre of civilians in the Kyiv, Ukraine, suburb of Bucha that led Biden to declare Putin a “war criminal” in mid-March.
Even before the war began, Ukrainian officials were deeply skeptical of making deals with Russia. After Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Ukraine and Russia agreed to a cease-fire in negotiations in Belarus, mediated by France and Germany, known as the Minsk accords.
In Zelenskyy’s eyes, Russia’s invasion only proved the futility of striking an agreement with Putin.
Speaking at a Group of 20 summit in Bali in November, Zelenskyy said that his country should not be pressured “to conclude compromises with its conscience, sovereignty, territory and independence.”
“Apparently, one cannot trust Russia’s words, and there will be no Minsk 3, which Russia would violate immediately after signing,” Zelenskyy said, referring to two previous incarnations of the accords.