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War in Ukraine: Is the Time Ripe to Negotiate? 

War in Ukraine: Is the Time Ripe to Negotiate? 
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Mr. Putin is racking up one stinging setback after another, whether this relates to his troops' defeat in Kherson, the preservation of the pro-Ukraine majority in Congress following the US midterm election, or the increasing isolation faced by Moscow following the G20 summit in Bali.

Americans in favor of negotiations 

One might think that the Kremlin would be the side feeling tempted to wrap up the Ukrainian adventure and start peace talks. Especially since Russia’s retreat on the battlefield is at least partly offset by the massive strikes targeting Ukrainian energy (and other) infrastructure that has left the country in a dangerous position just as the harsh winter begins to set in. From this angle, a lopsided balance is taking shape on the battlefield: Russian military forces are on the back foot and Ukrainian citizens are bracing for the worst.

Moscow could therefore be calculating - at least in theory - that it is high time to "cut its losses" and head to the negotiating table in order to stabilize a situation that, while far off from unfolding as initially planned, is not yet, in spite of the string of failures, a desperate one. 

Yet the call for negotiations did not come from the Kremlin but from the Pentagon. General Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced the appeal twice, on November 9 and November 16. The nation's highest-ranking military officer stuck to what he knows best, the balance of power, indicating that both sides had suffered substantial casualties (around 100,000 soldiers killed or wounded in each camp), Russia had no chance of conquering Ukraine as initially envisioned, and Ukraine's new offensives to regain territorial integrity would become increasingly costly. According to him, winter could offer a window of opportunity to negotiate an end to the conflict. 

Yet the call for negotiations did not come from the Kremlin but from the Pentagon. General Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced the appeal twice.

His Ukrainian counterpart, General Zaluzhnyi, made it immediately known (on Facebook) that "our objective is to liberate the whole Ukrainian land [...]. We will not stop on this way under any circumstances". Ukrainians certainly have every reason to believe that, at this stage, a lull in fighting would only serve to give Russia the time it needs to rebuild its offensive capabilities. Instead of loosening its grip, Kyiv wants to take advantage of the favorable momentum to prevent Russia from bouncing back.

The general's remarks made waves for two reasons. First, US National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, visited Kyiv in early November. The perception emerged that Washington would prefer that Mr. Zelensky adopt a more flexible stance on possible negotiations. In addition, CIA Director Mr. Burns traveled to Ankara on November 14 to meet with his Russian counterpart, Mr. Naryshkin (before traveling to Kyiv too). Americans suggest that these discussions are intended to avoid any misunderstanding on the nuclear dimension of the war. But we cannot exclude that other topics were addressed. Second, the Ukrainian missile that accidentally struck Polish territory in Przewodow on November 15, killing two civilians, should be viewed as a warning signal.

A Ukrainian missile strikes a Polish village

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed throughout the Polish government, NATO machinery, and allied heads of state and government. But the emotional reaction to the incident revealed the general public's fear that the war might spread to neighboring countries and lead to a direct clash between NATO and Russia. In addition, Mr. Zelensky made the faux pas (perhaps his first) of blaming Russia for provoking Poland. His words were immediately manipulated by a litany of critics who suspect and sometimes downright accuse Ukraine of trying to drag Atlantic allies into the war by any possible means.

One thing to remember is that Russia could very well manufacture a similar incident in the future - in Poland or the Baltic - to feed off public anxiety and attempt to sow division in the pro-Ukrainian camp. Of course, in addition to military force, Russia also has other levers it can pull on to pursue the still rather measured "global war", such as cyberattacks and acts of sabotage on Western energy and communications infrastructure, or triggering crises in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

One thing to remember is that Russia could very well manufacture a similar incident in the future - in Poland or the Baltic.

This brings us to what was probably in the back of General Milley's mind when he spoke: political circles around the world (including some Washington leaders) are increasingly concerned about the sustainability of the war. The challenge is twofold. First, figuring out how to maintain the supply of weapons (not even the United States has endless stockpiles), economic aid, public support, and cohesion among allies, including between Kyiv, Washington and other capitals. Second, determining how to assess the risks ahead, which by no stretch of the imagination could very well surge. In addition to the possibility of a NATO-Russia confrontation, many leaders also believe that if Ukraine were to invade Crimea, Putin could once again threaten to use nuclear weapons and send the world into a nuclear crisis. 


Has the time come to negotiate? The short answer is no if we have in mind a negotiation aimed at reaching comprehensive peace. But, based on what we have discussed, three recommendations and one question can be formulated.

Continue arming Ukraine

The priority for Kyiv's backers must be to help Ukrainians bolster their anti-air defense systems and offensive capabilities. Understandably, the West wants to ensure that Kyiv is able to negotiate from a position of strength when the time comes. For this to happen, Russia must not be allowed to regain a military advantage. 

The priority for Kyiv's backers must be to help Ukrainians bolster their anti-air defense systems and offensive capabilities. 

Two additional points on France. Paris is organizing an international conference on December 13 to coordinate and amplify support for Ukrainian civilians through the oncoming winter. This initiative has the potential to be a major contribution. And while France and Germany have both been criticized for supposedly not delivering enough weapons, a ramp-up in aid (e.g. shipments of Leopard and Leclerc battle tanks) could prove invaluable if and when the fighting intensifies (in the spring?). War is oftentimes a game of the last inches…

Think in terms of "conflict management" rather than "negotiations"

As things stand, the greatest danger is that the Kremlin will take the initiative to offer negotiations and ask for an immediate cease-fire. That would create the space for a suitable "pause" allowing the Russian army to regroup and increase the risks of division among Ukraine’s supporters. In view of this scenario, "calls for negotiation" are likely counterproductive. 

That being said, having or creating channels for dialogue with Moscow appears, on the face of it, useful. Particularly if the focus becomes less on the conflict’s "endgame" than how it is "managed", such as setting boundaries that both sides must respect to avoid an uncontrolled escalation. The approach seems to have produced results when handling nuclear concerns and could also mitigate other risks (e.g. geographic contagion of the conflict, energy and food security, and reciprocal self-restrictions in hybrid warfare). This could very well be what President Macron has in mind when repeating his calls for China to play a "mediating role".

Structure the dialogue between Ukraine and its main allies

Obviously, multiple lines of communication already exist at several levels between Ukrainians, Americans and Europeans. But perhaps the time has come for a more structured dialogue - including at the level of Heads of State and Government - by gathering, as one example, the Euro Quad (Germany, France, US, UK), Ukraine, Poland, and the European External Action Service (EEAS).

A framework such as this would foster a more conducive environment for pondering the question of "eventual negotiations". On the one hand, while it is imperative that Ukraine has the final say on if and when to pursue negotiations, Kyiv may have an interest in sharing the burden of choosing when and how to exit the war given that their backers also have their own interests to defend. On the other hand, as shown by the Ukrainian missile incident, future developments are likely to test the unified view shared by the governments most involved. 

A question: can Kherson set a precedent?

We are now entering unknown territory. In Kherson, Russia and Ukraine appear to have struck some sort of tacit understanding. Russia had known for weeks that its troops wouldn't be able to hold the line. And Ukraine had witnessed the benefit of postponing (and sparing themselves) a large-scale offensive that would have proven very costly for its own soldiers. 

Was this not a form of "conflict management" between the two sides that could be replicated elsewhere? Does this not provide an incentive to take a different approach to Crimea (so crucial for the West, rightly or wrongly) and stop thinking of it as a black-or-white issue like we seem to have grown accustomed to?


Copyright: Andrew Harnik / POOL / AFP

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