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Ukraine after Victory Day: Will Putin Shift to Negotiations? 

ARTICLES - 13 May 2022

Vladimir Putin’s Red Square speech on May 9 felt anticlimactic, with several observers expecting a symbolic announcement regarding the war in Ukraine. On the historic "Victory Day", however, no such announcement was made. 

That is not to say that the speech lacked clear messages.

First of all, we should question what exactly was meant by those "announcements" that many were expecting. Some foresaw the Kremlin leader declaring victory in Ukraine. This would indeed have been the case had the initial invasion plan succeeded, and Kyiv had fallen., Or even if his colonels’ "Plan B" - comprising a concerted attack on the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine - had produced results that could feasibly be presented as a victory. The Russian armed forces are not there yet; they may never get there. Putin also resisted the temptation to call the near capture of Mariupol a "victory". 

Due to the absence of a decisive success, some predicted that the Russian president would announce an escalation of the war. These predictions ranged between a general mobilization, formally declaring war, the annexation of occupied territories, or the renewal of nuclear threats that would raise fears of a third world war. 

General mobilization would undoubtedly be unpopular and would not guarantee immediate success on the battlefield. The other potential announcements would have amounted to little more than ineffective declaratory posturing, even if allusions to nuclear strikes have been part of Russia’s discourse since the start of the conflict. In fact, far from threatening World War Three, Putin explicitly stated that a global war should be avoided. 

However, we should remember that any of these options could still be announced in the near future, though not necessarily by Putin. The shift in Russia’s tactics-from a multi-pronged attack on several fronts to a concentration of attacks on more limited targets-was announced by a relatively low-ranking military official. Other strategic developments may occur in the coming days and weeks without Putin reporting them himself.

What, then, are the primary messages to take away from the Russian President’s speech? Three significant points can be distinguished: 

An explicit message: a preventative attack to defend Russia. 

The Russian president once again referred to Russia’s "casus belli" for war: the Ukrainian government’s preparation for an offensive into the "Russian lands" of Donbas and Crimea with the support of the Americans and their allies; there was even talk in Kyiv of acquiring nuclear weapons. An intervention was the only solution to such a threat to Russia’s security-the only possible option "for a great independent, sovereign country".

With this speech, the war in Ukraine-even if it may not bear this name in the official Russian vocabulary-truly entered every Russian household.

In the West, this argument is dismissed as ridiculous. Domestically, however, the story is received very differently, something that has only been intensified by the President’s admission of heavy losses, as well as his impassioned announcement that the families of fallen soldiers would be assisted. With this speech, the war in Ukraine-even if it may not bear this name in the official Russian vocabulary-truly entered every Russian household.

In the West, this argument is dismissed as ridiculous. Domestically, however, the story is received very differently, something that has only been intensified by the President’s admission of heavy losses, as well as his impassioned announcement that the families of fallen soldiers would be assisted. With this speech, the war in Ukraine-even if it may not bear this name in the official Russian vocabulary-truly entered every Russian household.

Moreover, the justification of the invasion as both defensive and preventative is widely accepted in the "global South"-several countries that may not necessarily approve of Russia’s aggression, but neither have any wish to participate with the West in isolating Russia. It is no exaggeration to say that Putin’s speech was addressed not only to his own people but also to the "emerging powers." The Kremlin leader’s reminders of American imperialism and self-proclaimed "exceptionalism" were clearly aimed at both audiences.

An implicit message: an admission of weakness.

However, the most striking element of Putin’s speech was his inability to respond to developments on the Ukrainian battlefield that have occurred during the last two weeks. In addition to the slowing momentum of the Russian offensive, another development has been the increased willingness of the West-in particular the United States-to significantly boost their military assistance to the Ukrainian armed forces.

It was both a quantitative and qualitative change when, on April 28, Joe Biden delivered a $33 billion budget request to Congress, including $20 billion for military assistance to Ukraine. 

On April 26, forty countries that are allied with the United States-many of them non-NATO members-met in Rammstein, Germany, under the chairmanship of Lloyd Austin, the US Defense Secretary. After this meeting, arms shipments intensified (as did the provision of training for the Ukrainian armed forces), with France delivering Caesar cannons and Germany sending Leopard tanks. As for the British, they were ahead of other allies in providing massive military aid to Ukraine.

It was also apparent that the increase in military aid for Ukraine was accompanied by a broadening of America’s war aims. On April 25, the Defense Secretary declared in Kyiv that the Americans wanted a "new military force" aimed at "weakening Russia and its military apparatus to the point where it cannot repeat such aggression". This was a far cry from America’s original intention to help Ukraine defend itself. 

Faced with the increased means at Ukraine’s disposal, the fact that Putin has not announced a hardening in Russia’s offensive posture appears to be an implicit admission of weakness. Timing would obviously be important, but it is conceivable that the Russians would be able to achieve significant breakthroughs on the ground and launch attacks on arms supply routes from the West in the two to four weeks it will take for Ukraine’s reinforcements to become fully effective.

The fact that Putin has not announced a hardening in Russia’s offensive posture appears to be an implicit admission of weakness. 

However, respected military commentators believe that Russia’s forces are now so degraded that it is unlikely they can go much further into Donbas-they appear unable to push back further the Ukrainian defensive lines. 

With the Ukrainian army boosted by deliveries of increasingly effective weapons systems, what will happen next? 

A subliminal message: the need to turn to negotiation? 

We cannot yet jump to conclusions over a war that appears, on the face of it, to be falling out of Russia’s favor. But in light of the May 9 speech, three hypotheses are worth considering:

Firstly, that Putin may, to some degree, be "bluffing." As we have previously mentioned, it is possible that the lack of significant announcements in the speech could be followed in coming days by announcements or acts that mark a significant raising of the stakes.

Secondly, Putin is aware that, at least so far, his mission has largely failed. However, he is prepared to play a long-term game, and will continue to count on the support of the "global South," as well as China, against a West whose decadence he condemned in his speech. In both of these scenarios, the war in Ukraine could last a long time. Putin is prepared to continue as long as necessary in order to secure his control of Donbas, Mariaupol, and the long corridor to Crimea. 

Finally, we cannot rule out the possibility that Moscow’s leader is preparing the Russian people- as well as himself-for potentially requiring a negotiated settlement. Putin will still give his military the chance to decisively change the situation on the ground. However, if they fail, and Russia is unable to build up a more substantial offensive capability, he may be forced to propose a ceasefire-while claiming victory, of course. With his back to the wall, he may then have some interest in genuine negotiations-in contrast to the sham talks that have taken place so far.

If this final hypothesis is correct, some of Putin’s words could have had another meaning. In his speech, he recalled "Russia's constant efforts to establish a security system in Europe" and the "proposals for security assurances" that he put forward at the beginning of the crisis. Above all, he repeatedly referred to Donbas as the main issue and theater of the war, not the rest of Ukraine. Might it be that Putin was messaging, perhaps subliminally, the parameters of a potential negotiated settlement?




Copyright: Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP

 

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