Peace talks may be little more than Russian tactics, analysts say
By Steven Erlanger
As envoys made progress in peace talks earlier this week, Russia offered concessions that signaled a more realistic course for the war in Ukraine, while indicating it is also in no hurry to end the conflict, according to diplomats and analysts.
Russia’s deputy defense minister, Alexander Fomin, presented the decision to “sharply reduce” military activity around the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and the northern city of Chernihiv as a gesture “to increase mutual trust for future negotiations.”
But the Russian advance in the north had already stalled, with troops around Kyiv taking up defensive positions in the face of Ukrainian counterattacks there and near Sumy, where Russia has been having trouble encircling the main Ukrainian army east of the Dnieper River.
“De-escalation is a euphemism for retreat,” said Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London. “Russia is adjusting its goals to reality, because war is quite empirical,” he said. “It’s not a ruse to say that they are concentrating on the Donbas, because in reality that’s all they can do.”
But retreat is hardly surrender, and others cautioned that the progress made Tuesday doesn’t mean that Russia is ready for serious discussions on ending the war. That would require a better outcome for President Vladimir Putin of Russia to sell at home as a victory.
On Tuesday, the Ukrainians outlined a 15-year process of negotiations about the status of Crimea, and said that control of the Donbas region could be discussed in meetings between Putin and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine. Russia has said it would only set a meeting between the two presidents once a draft peace agreement was ready.
Some analysts say such an agreement would, at minimum, have to give Russia control of Mariupol, a besieged port city in Ukraine that is still somehow holding out, to create a secure land route between two areas that Russia occupies: Crimea to the west, and the Donbas, to the east. And it would also, they say, have to cede control over the two administrative regions in the Donbas, Luhansk and Donetsk, which Putin has already declared to be independent republics.
“Russia is in no place to negotiate seriously because they have to do better in the war,” said François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst with the Foundation for Strategic Research. “This is a chance for the Russians to consolidate, to regroup, to remove themselves from places out of reach logistically, where they have already run out of food and ammunition.”
Some senior Western officials agreed, saying that the Russians were badly short of artillery shells and other ammunition and needed to resupply.
Nor will Putin easily end the war, Heisbourg said. If he takes the area east of the Dnieper, “that may be enough for now, but he will rebuild his army and continue.”
For both sides, said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a London research institution, “the negotiations are not serious, in the sense that negotiations now for both sides are a continuation of the war, not a solution.” Russia can concentrate on the east, and Ukraine will find it hard to move from its agile defense to serious counterattacks, he said. “And Putin hasn’t forgotten about Kyiv.”
Even if Putin can control and “settle” for another partition of Ukraine in the east, “Ukraine has to sign up for it, and if not, I don’t think we lift the sanctions,” Niblett said.
His colleague Mathieu Boulègue, a French scholar who studies the Russian military, agrees that Russia is not negotiating in good faith, but “testing the waters and applying for time, to regroup and reequip militarily and make more gains on the ground.”
The Russian military appears to have taken control of what might be called phase two of a botched operation, he said, which should have been phase one. Taking Mariupol, the land bridge and the Donbas “would have been the grown-up military plan.” Modern warfare is half information warfare, Boulègue said, “and success is what you make of it,” especially in a repressive media environment as in Russia now.
The Russian forces’ inability to capture cities and keep territory is apparent after a month, he said, “so strategic goals have had to change.”
But to completely withdraw from Kyiv would allow the Ukrainians to reinforce the Donbas region and give them a significant victory, Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, a defense research institution in Virginia, suggested in a tweet.
Traveling in Morocco, Secretary of State Antony Blinken also cast doubt on Russia’s pledge to reduce hostilities. “There is what Russia says and there’s what Russia does,” he said Tuesday. “We’re focused on the latter. And what Russia is doing is the continued brutalization of Ukraine and its people, and that continues as we speak.”
Russia did not stop fighting after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but actively supported the separatists in the Donbas, said Ian Bond, a former British diplomat in Russia and head of foreign policy for the Center for European Reform. “I’m a skeptic about the Russians giving up on the war,” he said. “We’ve seen this movie before in 2014 and 2015. I view this as only a pause.”
Ian Garner, a historian of Russian propaganda, pointed out on Twitter that “Putin’s Russia — indeed, post-Soviet Russia — has been engaged in mucky, endless conflicts for years,” citing Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia in Georgia and the Donbas, all areas in other countries where Russian forces back separatist movements. “Not ended, maybe,” he said, but “in the intermission.”
The senior Ukrainian negotiator, Mykhailo Podolyak, suggested after the talks Tuesday that the two sides were talking seriously about neutrality for Ukraine, a treaty guaranteeing its security by NATO member states like the United States, Britain, Turkey, France and Germany, a cease-fire and humanitarian corridors.
Ukrainian and Western officials also suggested that Russia would be willing for a demilitarized Ukraine to join the European Union, so long as it forswears joining NATO or hosting any foreign forces.
But security analysts questioned the sincerity of such an agreement.
Bond said that the problem with Ukraine’s notion of neutrality is that so far none of the countries it wants to guarantee it would agree to do so. It would be like NATO membership with collective defense by another name, so highly unlikely, he said.
As for EU membership, Niblett said, that would represent the largest danger to Putin, who helped stimulate the 2014 revolt in Ukraine when he forced then-President Viktor Yanukovych to renege on a trade agreement with the bloc. If Ukraine joined now, Niblett said, the country would develop economically even faster, in contrast to Russia, “and you would end up with a South Korea next to a North Korea, and I can’t see Putin accepting that.”
Even more, he said, the EU treaties contain a collective defense promise as well.
Still, Boulègue said, the EU needs to give Ukraine a clear response about its prospects for membership. “Whether that leads to EU membership or not is not for Russia to decide,” he said. “But the EU needs to be absolutely clear about the future of Ukraine going forward. It’s the moral thing to do.”