Prospects of Establishing Sustainable Peace in Ukraine
Despite initial Russian expectations to promptly achieve military and political objectives in Ukraine, the war has dragged on for more than a year with no prospects for its resolution in the nearest future. The so-called special military operation turned out to be a series of military failures for the Russian army, while Ukrainian Armed Forces have been able to demonstrate that they are able to quickly incorporate Western weapons into their arsenal and withstand the Russian aggression.
Soon after the beginning of the war, there have been various attempts to achieve some tangible results in terms of conflict resolution through peace talks between Russia and Ukraine as well as the efforts to mediate this process or put forward various proposals for the peace plan. Yet, the war that has been initiated by the Russian President Vladimir Putin with a justification to denazify and demilitarise Ukraine, but in reality to fulfill his ambitions and absorb Ukrainian sovereignty, has not left Ukraine’s political leadership with much choice. The current invasion is an existential war for Kyiv, hence Zelensky’s government is unwilling to negotiate with Russia on its terms.
At this point, when both sides have much to lose. On the one hand, Ukrainians are fighting for their survival at the expense of enormous loss of life and destruction of civilian infrastructure. On the other hand, Putin sees the war in Ukraine as a legacy-defining moment for himself. Although the Russian President may understand that he will be unable to fulfil the initial goal to take Kyiv and fully destroy the Ukrainian statehood, Putin needs to somehow justify his war effort that costs lives of Russian soldiers and is affecting ordinary Russians through imposition of unprecedented Western sanctions.
Despite Putin’s efforts to justify his commitment to continue the war through portraying NATO as the main enemy and an existential threat to Russia’s national security, he may find it difficult to explain the potential Russian loss in the war. Hence, the prospect of making concessions and withdrawing its troops without much success, can be viewed by Putin to be threatening for the longevity and stability of his rule. Throughout his time as the Russian President, Putin has been portraying himself as a strong leader who is able to restore Russian greatness. The success of Ukraine and Russian setback would be a major blow to this image in the eyes of the ordinary Russians. To this day, Putin has never been able to face such consequences. The 2008 invasion of Georgia has been supported and celebrated by the Russian citizens even more so the annexation of Crimea that has resulted in a massive boost in Putin’s approval ratings.
At the same time, the West is still continuing to train and equip Ukrainian forces. The US has already provided $36.9 billion in military assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the war. The UK has committed to around $5.7 billion in military assistance and aims to train an additional 30 000 Ukrainian personnel by the end of the year. The joint efforts to stand by Ukraine, has further emboldened the Ukrainian political and military leadership to set a maximalist agenda to repel Russian aggression and fully liberate the temporarily occupied territories.
Ukraine’s President Volodomyr Zelensky has a principled stance when it comes to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. He understands that Russia can not be trusted to fulfil the obligations that it formally takes. Russia indeed has a very poor track record of abiding by the agreements it signs. From the Budapest Memorandum to the EU-brokered ceasefire agreement with Georgia during the August war of 2008, Moscow has repeatedly neglected its responsibilities. Hence, Zelensky knows that Ukraine needs to negotiate from the position of power rather than weakness and set its own red lines.
In March 2023, the decision of the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for Vladimir Pitin over the deportation of the Ukrainian children to Russia has slimmed down the prospects of negotiations between Ukraine and Russia even more. Adviser to Zelensky’s Office Head, Mykhailo Podolyak stated “an obvious international criminal directly means there will be no negotiations with the current Russian elite.”
At this point, the prospect of regime change in Russia is very slim and the West must be ready to deal with Putin in a long term perspective. However, the highly anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive that may already be underway is very important. After the Russian winter offensive Ukraine is now looking to counter attack and liberate its occupied territories using the Western military equipment and training. Yet, even if Ukraine is able to achieve success and liberate its territories, it does not necessarily mean that any sides will be ready to sit at the negotiation table. On the one hand, Ukrainian success will prompt the leadership of the country to pursue maximalist goals and eventually aim for full-liberation of the country including Crimea. On the other hand, it is already clear that Putin is ready and has been preparing Russian citizens for quite some time for a long war.
During the Victory Day parade in Moscow on 9 May 2023, Putin claims there is nothing more important than the combat effort of Russians. As expected he accused the West of aiming to destroy Russia and echoed once again that Russia’s future depends on the war in Ukraine. Unless Russia is drained of resources, the likelihood that it will commit to peace talks and agree on withdrawal of forces from Ukraine is highly unlikely. Even if Russians may not feel that enthusiastic about the prospects of a long war, Putin is not too concerned about internal discontent that may potentially turn into a revolutionary scenario simply because he has already taken care of the opposition and civil society by forcing them into exile or placing them in prison.
Even if premature peace talks lead to a ceasefire, it is highly likely that Russia would see this as a window of opportunity to gain time to re-equip and regroup its forces and wage another offensive. Hence, the prospect of achieving sustainable peace in Ukraine would depend on long-term Western political, economic and military support to Ukraine, which will enable Ukrainians to negotiate from the position of power.