In case you missed it this weekend, Daily Kos’ Mark Sumner took a look at the United States’ latest potential security package to Ukraine, while RO37 gave us a comprehensive battlefield update and what the arrival of mud season means for the front lines.
Today, we’re going to look at Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s new challenge—dealing with increasing calls for negotiations with Russia.
NBC News has the frustrating news:
U.S. and European officials have begun quietly talking to the Ukrainian government about what possible peace negotiations with Russia might entail to end the war, according to one current senior U.S. official and one former senior U.S. official familiar with the discussions.
The conversations have included very broad outlines of what Ukraine might need to give up to reach a deal, the officials said. Some of the talks, which officials described as delicate, took place last month during a meeting of representatives from more than 50 nations supporting Ukraine, including NATO members, known as the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, the officials said.
Zelenskyy joined the Sunday morning talkathon in Washington, D.C., yesterday, arguing against peace talks on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” saying, “We can’t trust terrorists because terrorists always come back.” He’s right, of course. He was less right arguing that the war isn’t at a stalemate, directly contradicting the guy best poised to make that determination—Ukraine’s top military commander, Valery Zaluzhny. Yet there’s no doubt that Zaluzhny’s honesty has put Zelenskyy in a bind as the Ukrainian president continues to beg for military assistance. Politically and diplomatically, Zaluzhny’s words were a disaster, creating serious tension between Ukraine’s political and military leadership. By all indications, Zaluzhny’s personal popularity is keeping him at his post, but it’s clear that a furious Zelenskyy would dump him given the chance.
[The deputy head of Zelensky’s office, Igor Zhovka,] told Ukrainian television that Zaluzhny’s interview will have been “carefully read, noted down and conclusions drawn” by the Russians. He said he had received calls from counterparts in partner countries “in a panic” asking if the war really is at a stalemate, as described by Zaluzhny.
“Is this the effect we wanted to achieve with this article?” Zhovka said.
My guess is that Ukraine’s allies weren’t pressuring Zelenskyy to consider capitulation last month. Rather, they might have been exploring if there was room for a cease-fire or pause that might serve Ukraine’s interests. Remember, Ukraine is still standing up new units and integrating Western gear. It’s also been clear that Ukraine’s units could use significantly more training.
The problem, of course, is that any official pause would give Russia similar advantages—more trenches, more war equipment off their assembly lines, more artillery shipments from North Korea. Given that these supposed talks happened last month, and nothing has come of it, it doesn’t seem as if they led anywhere serious. (And if you look closely, NBC cites only one source supposedly inside the room. The corroborating source isn’t even in government, and they heard it from someone else … supposedly.) But the story and Zaluzhny’s frank admissions are creating a growing uproar that Ukraine should surrender something for peace, and that helps no one.
Territorial concessions are likely not in the cards. And any cease-fire would merely freeze the conflict, pinning all hopes of resolution on some future, hypothetical, negotiated settlement. We all know that would never happen. Both countries claim the disputed territories as their own, and while only Ukraine has a legitimate claim to Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, Russia is not going to surrender any of its claims outside of the battlefield.
But unable to win on the battlefield, Russia would certainly accept another frozen conflict—a term coined to describe exactly what Russia has done through its entire sphere of influence.
Russia has managed to create frozen conflicts in Moldova (Transnistria), Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh), and, of course, Ukraine. (Azerbaijan has just resolved the Nagorno-Karabakh question with a short war ethnically cleansing the disputed territory of the Armenians who lived there and were once protected by Russian “peacekeepers.”)
Frozen conflicts serve multiple purposes:
By encouraging continued strife in its periphery, a frozen conflict justifies Russia’s use of “peacekeepers” to project force and keep neighboring governments in line.
By its rules, NATO cannot admit any countries with existing territorial disputes or active hostilities. This is how Russia has kept Moldova and Ukraine out of NATO.
The European Union has tread carefully with such nations since the big European powers (France and Germany) were loath to upset Russia by entering disputed regions. It took Russia’s gross violation of international norms for the EU to seriously consider Ukraine’s admission into the bloc.
Russia, despite its massive land mass, is weirdly obsessed with territory. It dreams of formally incorporating these territories. Indeed, one of Putin’s original aims in its war against Ukraine was to create a “land corridor” from mainland Russia not just to Crimea but also through Odesa into Transnistria.
Expanding territory has another benefit—pushed out of Sevastopol by Ukraine’s long-range missiles, Russia is setting up a new naval base in Abkhazia, Georgia. You can see in the map above that Abkhazia is as far away from Ukraine as you can get without getting into eastern Turkey.
A newly frozen conflict in Ukraine would reward Russia for new territory taken since Feb. 24, 2022, not only providing additional time to lock in defensive structures, but also to use them as the launching pad for any future invasions (there absolutely would be future invasions). It would also signal to Russia Western weakness, and validate its strategy of attempting to wait the West out.
The current impasse is frustrating, and the changing nature of war is vexing all sides. This was Zaluzhny’s point in his controversial interview and opinion piece—drones, in particular, have created technological parity that neither side can overcome. Deception and surprise have been hallmarks of war since time immemorial. What happens when a drone-saturated battlefield makes that impossible? The side that cracks the code will have the advantage, but there’s nothing in Western weapons stocks that can address that equation. No number of ATACMS or F-16s will allow Ukrainian armored spearheads to punch through Russian lines.
This war is now operating in a gray area. The two sides will continue losing men (and, in Ukraine’s case, women) as well as vehicles and equipment for minor tactical gains here and there. But neither side seems able to deal a strategic, war-winning blow.
Formally freezing the conflict won’t lessen the need to evict Russia. As Ukrainians are fond of saying, they are dying in the trenches today so that their children don’t have to do so tomorrow. A low simmer over the winter and maybe even over next year is preferable as sanctions continue to bite into Russia’s economy and their equipment shortages become more acute. Perhaps, with time, Russia’s populace will someday tire of their needless sacrifice and rise up. I wouldn’t hold my breath, but it’s possible. Russia’s soldiers in the trenches may finally lose their will to fight. There’s only so much abuse a human can take.
In the meantime, Ukraine and its allies can figure out how to fight this new kind of war, developing the weapons and countermeasures necessary to overcome Russia’s drones, and opening up the battlefield to new potential advances while simultaneously building up Ukraine’s offensive capabilities. Ukraine’s 31 M1 Abrams tanks are inevitably a down payment on future deliveries, but the logistical tail has to be managed to support those hungry beasts. There’s no reason why, within two years, Ukraine couldn’t be sporting hundreds of those massive machines, hopefully with new anti-drone technologies to protect them from suicide-drone attacks.
In the meantime, military and economic pressures will keep Russia from consolidating its gains or rearming for future conflict.
That’s the right way to do this, and I would be shocked if Ukraine’s allies don’t see it the same way.
This story is unbearably sad.
Makes me wish I believed in an afterlife, that this poor tortured soul would somehow be reunited with his wife and daughter so brutally taken away by Russian bombs.
Speaking of drones that can see everything, here is a Russian source claiming it has video of Ukraine transporting armored vehicles across the Dnipro River, near Kherson, reinforcing its beachhead on the south side (left bank) of the river.