Ukraine v Russia drags on.
Ukraine saw off Moscow’s attempts to take Kyiv and is now pushing back hard against Russian positions in eastern Ukraine, notably the Kherson area. Western weapons are hitting Russian targets hard, although Russian weapons are doing plenty of damage on Ukrainian targets.
It’s hard for us mere Brits to get a sense of the scale of Ukraine, by a clear head Europe’s biggest country that at some 600,000 km2 is about the size of Germany and UK combined. (For this purpose Russia no longer counts as a European country, of course.) The Kherson Oblast (or province) itself is about twice the size of Yorkshire. Ukraine has a lot of space for military manoeuvring.
It won’t be long now (only ten weeks or so) before the Russian and Ukrainian Winter sets in again. That big freeze and snow will slow down or even in many places stall the military action for both sides. So what can happen between now and then for options for a peaceful conflict-resolution process to start?
On the face of it, not much.
The sheer extravagance of official and semi-official Russian positions that in an almost genocidal way call into question the very existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians as valid categories separate from Russia and Russians mean that the fighting becomes a matter of identity. And identity is the great grandmother of zero-sum issues. Either you exist or you don’t. What’s there to discuss exactly? See also Israel.
It follows that once the issues get reduced to Identity/Sheer Survival, each side’s Pride comes into play. Russia of all states on Earth does not want to appear weak. On the contrary. It’s only by presenting itself as formidably strong if not merciless that it can control it’s own fissiparous tendencies meandering across those many time-zones.
And Ukraine too can not afford to look weak, lest Moscow take that as a sign that slow but sure violent salami-sliceisation of Ukraine eventually will solve the problem that Moscow has defined as the problem, namely how to stop these horrid Ukrainians from drifting away from Russia’s ‘natural’ and bountiful sphere of influence.
So even if Ukrainian forces are edging forward and blowing Russian things up in the East to the point of making Russian tourists flee Crimea, that surely won’t be enough for Russia to ‘lose’ the war. What would losing even be? The withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukrainian territory including Crimea, plus the surrender of Russian-sponsored authorities controlling various areas in the East of Ukraine, all accompanied by a formal declaration of the permanent cessation of hostilities by someone authoritative in Moscow?
Which top Russian(s) might sign such a document while V Putin is still alive? See for example this astonishing and weird clip that shows how Putin uses public bullying and humiliation of his most senior colleagues to impose his will:
Only a messy murky event deep in the Kremlin involving V Putin and his mini-army of food-tasters is going to stop this sort of thing and allow a different track and tone to appear in Moscow.
Likewise an end to the war would pose the Ukraine leadership difficult challenges. How far might it be possible or wise to demand as part of a deal to end the fighting not-so-symbolic concessions from Moscow (eg by including in the official documents a formal acknowledgement of Ukraine’s right to exist within its borders internationally accepted in 1991/92 when the USSR collapsed)?
In many such cases of international conflict, there can be outside heavyweight support to broker a deal. Thus the doomed Minsk II Agreement in 2015 that was intended to stop the then fighting in eastern Ukraine came about in part through the personal engagement of leaders from France and Germany but was signed by the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine and representatives of the Russia-supported separatist Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’.
As this current conflict is far greater, who might preside over any peace talks? Would Russia accept the UN Secretary-General? Would the UN Secretary-General be wise or even want to have a go, given the profound divisions that the war has created within the UN system itself? As most serious EU member states and the UK have helped Ukraine militarily and imposed sanctions on Russia, they would be out as credible mediator-interlocutors. Who else? China or India and other BRICS who in one way or another have given Moscow’s aggression diplomatic cover? No thanks.
Where would the easing and eventual removal of Western sanctions on Russia fit in? Moscow not unreasonably would expect sanctions to fall away if a serious peace process began. Moscow might even press for some substantial sanctions-lifting/easing as a precondition for any process to get started. Western governments of course would have to be very cautious about anything like that: the obvious risk is that a smirking Moscow pockets any concessions and then fails to deliver.
Beyond that one wonders what it will take now for all sanctions on Russia to be formally lifted. Surely at the very least Russia would have to proclaim on the record supposedly ‘once and for all’ that it renounced all territorial and political claims over Ukraine, and that the intricate Soviet arrangements for the dissolution of the USSR that created Ukraine and all the other new independent states were not open to formal challenge by Russia or any other state. Moscow too would have to stop supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine and allow Ukrainian central government processes to resume across those areas.
Maybe Crimea could be treated sui generis, perhaps being set up as a shared territory under a special new international dispensation?
Ukraine in turn could be asked to accept special decentralisation and varying forms of autonomy: designated majority Russian-speaking areas could have plenty of local rights for language and schools etc, as long as they accepted officially that their independence without Kyiv’s consent would henceforth be impossible.
An even more ambitious aim (if somehow all this were achieved and implemented smoothly enough) might be for the EU and NATO and Russia and Ukraine and Belarus to start a multi-year new disarmament and security talks aimed at creating wholly new structures for wider European security, perhaps with the explicit aim of ending in the abolition of NATO and its replacement with something legally and militarily different that brought in Russia and Ukraine too as normal grown-up partners. That could have happened when the Cold War ended. Better late than never?
As we can see, this could be diplomacy on a grand scale. Are Western governments including the waning Biden Administration up to the challenge? And what sort of drastic change in the ‘facts on the ground’ might open the ‘window of opportunity’ for anything like this happening?
One thing that could change (and maybe Moscow counts on it) is Western Ukraine-fatigue caused by the looming energy crisis across Europe. Western governments could come under severe pressure to lean on Kyiv to find a way to stop the fighting, perhaps even threatening to stop weapons-supplies if Kyiv is unwilling to agree. But this plays into Russian hands: why should Russia negotiate in good faith if it thinks that in the coming months it might start to gain some military advantage once again?
In short? A gruesome complex mess that looks likely to resist all our best diplomatic blandishments for a good time to come?