Would Ukraine be willing to give Russia a piece of the divided Donbas region in exchange for a guaranteed fast track to full NATO membership?
Might Kyiv consider dropping its demand that Russian military officials face international war crimes charges in exchange for Moscow’s funding for the reconstruction of Ukrainian cities devastated by missile strikes? Or could the Kremlin agree to pull its forces out of Ukraine if the West offers some form of security guarantees, such as a limit on American military assets stationed in Eastern Europe?
And what about Crimea?
Those questions and a host of others are being debated in military and national security circles in Washington, Kyiv and capitals across Europe as Russia and Ukraine signal that they recognize their grinding 9-month-old war will likely end only at the negotiating table. The two sides remain far apart, and the prospects for a deal in the immediate future appear slim at best.
The notion of peace talks seems as close now as it has arguably been since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. Neither side is apparently on the verge of a definitive victory, with Russia running low on ammunition and troops and with Ukrainian civilians bracing for a long, difficult winter as Moscow relentlessly targets energy infrastructure.
National security and foreign policy analysts warn that the days ahead are fraught for diplomacy. They say Ukraine and its Western partners should not consider a scenario in which Ukraine cedes any territory to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin has claimed annexations of four eastern Ukrainian provinces, and Russia has effectively controlled the Crimean Peninsula since 2014.
Putting a chunk of eastern Ukraine on the table likely would be the fastest way to get Moscow into serious negotiations, but analysts warn that such a move would set a dangerous precedent and essentially would reward Russia for launching a needless, illegal invasion.
SEE ALSO: Kremlin: No withdrawal from Ukraine before end of year
“As the Ukrainians think about how this ends, which is exactly the right question, their first answer on how it ends is the Russians have to be out of their country,” said William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and now vice president, Russia and Europe, at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
“There is no moral reason for them to be there. There’s no strategic reason. There’s no threat to the Russians,” Mr. Taylor told The Washington Times in an interview. “There’s no justification in any circumstances for the Russians to expect to stay in the country.
“I think it should not be a part of the conversation from a moral perspective,” he said.
Mr. Taylor and other analysts stressed that Mr. Putin, faced with mounting and at times scathing criticism in domestic military circles over the way he has prosecuted the war in Ukraine, is desperately seeking an off-ramp from his “special military operation” that would allow him to save face to at least some degree. Mr. Putin seemed to confirm that line of thinking at a press conference late last week when he said the two countries eventually will need to strike a deal.
“Negotiations will have to be made,” Mr. Putin said, according to English-language media reports of his remarks, noting that “the realities that are taking shape on the ground” could fuel peace talks.
Mr. Putin, at least in public, insists that the war is going well for Russia. He said he remains skeptical of any deal with Ukraine or its Western partners and expressed cynicism toward NATO, its motivations and the seriousness with which it would consider Russia’s positions.
Russia has suffered strategically from the war, with NATO agreeing to accept Finland and Sweden, Europeans turning to alternative markets for oil, and sanctions dragging down the country’s vital defense industry and the broader economy.
In a remarkable acknowledgment last month, the Kremlin’s top spokesman said it could live with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his government in power. Part of the justification for the war was to “de-Nazify” the Ukrainian government and depose its leaders.
Mr. Zelenskyy also seemed to suggest in recent days that he may eventually be willing to sit down at the negotiating table. He held numerous calls with top Western officials over the weekend, including President Biden on Sunday.
During the call, Mr. Biden “reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to continue providing Ukraine with security, economic and humanitarian assistance, holding Russia accountable for its war crimes and atrocities, and imposing costs on Russia for its aggression,” according to a White House readout of the call.
Mr. Zelenskyy said he had spoken with French President Emmanuel Macron and that “we are coordinating steps, preparing for the implementation of our peace formula.”
Ukraine in the driver’s seat
Despite its much larger military, Russia has failed to achieve key strategic goals in Ukraine. Its campaign early in the war to capture Kyiv failed spectacularly, and a Ukrainian counteroffensive has pushed Russian forces out of Kharkiv, Kherson and other key cities.
Last week, a series of apparent drone strikes — widely believed to be the work of the Ukrainian armed forces — targeted military bases and airports inside Russian territory, demonstrating that the war could bring pain to the Russian heartland. Pentagon officials said Monday that the Russian army is rapidly running out of ammunition for its rockets and artillery, meaning it can maintain its current pace of attack for only another few months at best.
All of those factors, combined with growing dissatisfaction inside Russia over the country’s war plan, would give Ukraine the clear upper hand if peace talks began today. That means the Zelenskyy government could stick to its most important demands, including that Russians be held legally and financially responsible for the consequences of the invasion.
“There’s got to be some kind of Russian reparations. And also Russians being held [on trial] for war crimes. That’s got to be on the table,” said Jim Townsend, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration. “They’re going to have to pay for the atrocities they’ve performed.”
“There’s not a whole lot Russia is going to get out of this,” Mr. Townsend told The Times.
Indeed, Mr. Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials have insisted that they will not cede any territory to Russia. They also have said they expect Russian troops and pro-Russian separatists to give up their claim to Crimea, which Russia forcibly annexed in 2014, rather than return to the status quo before the February invasion.
Mr. Zelenskyy also has insisted that top Russian officials be tried for war crimes for the continued targeting of civilians. Ukraine has widespread support in the West for forcing Russia to make financial restitution for the damage it has caused.
That leaves little in terms of what Russia could realistically hope to get out of any peace deal. Perhaps the West would consider agreeing to delay indefinitely Ukraine’s hopes of joining NATO, but the U.S. and Europe would almost surely offer concrete security assurances to Kyiv in place of full NATO membership.
“How do they ensure that after this war ends … they’re not invaded again?” Mr. Taylor said. “When [the Ukrainians] win, if they win, they know as long as Putin and Putinism are present in Russia, they’re vulnerable. The question is, after the victory, how do they ensure over the next five or 10 years or longer they’re not invaded again? One answer is NATO. Another answer is a commitment on the part of the West, led by the United States, to make the Ukrainians invulnerable, make the Ukrainians so strong, so militarily powerful, that the Russians will not be able to invade.”
Russia likely would seek security guarantees in the form of limits on U.S. military assets in Eastern Europe and a cap on the size and strength of the Ukrainian armed forces. Those demands are likely non-starters for the West given Russia’s clear willingness to attack a neighbor in contravention of international norms.
The U.S. and Europe could offer to lift some economic sanctions if Moscow fully withdraws from Ukraine, but even those concessions would surely come with significant strings attached and would likely be enacted only after Russia proves it has ended its days as an aggressor.
For Mr. Putin, the lifting of sanctions may not be enough. The Russian leader has shown little willingness to accept defeat in Ukraine and will surely try to secure some concessions that allow him to claim a victory, limited as it may be.
He already has taken to claiming some successes. He noted this month that the Sea of Azov was now an “inland sea” for Russia after the annexations in eastern Ukraine. Mr. Putin said even Peter the Great failed to achieve that.
Some analysts say the war could drag on for months or years and may come to an end only if and when Mr. Putin is replaced. Mr. Biden suggested as much in an offhand remark on a visit to Warsaw, Poland, in March, only to be quickly contradicted by his aides and allies.
Yet much has changed since Mr. Biden spoke.
“The resolution is that Putin isn’t in the chair anymore,” Mr. Townsend said. “It’s not as much a matter of him backing down as it is a new boss who may be as bad as Putin, but he has some room to maneuver” politically and diplomatically with respect to getting out of the war in Ukraine.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC.
Please read our comment policy before commenting.