Expert: To Stop the War a Balance of the Key Players’ Interests Is Required

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Sergiu CEBAN
In the current configuration of the Ukrainian conflict this is hardly feasible
Four long months have passed since hostilities began in Ukraine. Timid attempts by individual influential capitals to at least temporarily stop the armed confrontation between Kyiv and Moscow have so far come to nothing. Despite statements from Russian officials about their willingness to resume talks, the Ukrainian leadership has so far flatly rejected such proposals, believing that the time to return to communicating with the Kremlin has not yet come. As of today, the military situation in the Donbass continues to deteriorate for Kyiv. Russian forces, as before, have failed to achieve a strategic breakthrough on the eastern front or to encircle a sizeable AFU grouping. Still, the Lysychansk-Sievierodonetsk Raion is gradually coming under Russian control, albeit with great difficulty and losses to the advancing forces. At the same time, there are active attempts to establish control over the Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway as well. Meanwhile, “Temporary civil-military administrations” appointed by Moscow are pursuing a policy of annexing occupied Ukrainian territories and adapting the population to the new political, financial and informational reality. Judging by the Kremlin’s actions (issuing Russian passports, preparing for “referenda”), the Russian authorities are determined to gradually absorb the occupied regions and settlements, despite sanctions and political pressure from the West. At the same time, Moscow is preparing to create an illustrative example for the restoration of a relatively prosperous life on the basis of the “LDPR”, to demonstrate its attractiveness to Ukraine’s other regions after the end of the conflict hot phase. The Russian authorities plan to spend tens of billions of dollars on the reconstruction of Donbass alone over the next few years, and Russian propaganda is already advertising the reconstruction of Mariupol. In this context, the negotiations are essentially “dead”, and all that remains of them is separate episodes with the exchange of prisoners and bodies of the dead. The issue of grain exports from Ukrainian ports is also completely stuck, although Turkiye is not losing hope and is looking for ways to ensure the export of the product, while reducing tension in the northern Black Sea. Moscow presumably also wants to solve this problem by flirting with major international players, avoiding Kyiv. Such tactics provoke even more serious disagreements and add to a standstill. However, the other day Ankara said that as a result of negotiations, a consensus was reached to create an operational center in Istanbul to coordinate the process of grain exports in the future. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hasty visit to Kyiv following the visit of the Big Three was intended to balance the EU collective pressure and to prevent Ukraine from softening its position, which is likely to be inclined toward interim arrangements with Moscow. The solidarity exhibited by the West in public is not really as homogeneous as it appears. Geopolitical competition between continental Europe and Great Britain is intensifying, and granting Ukraine candidate status could well be seen as the EU’s intention to strengthen its position on the Ukrainian issue. Therefore, one can expect that negotiations between Kyiv and the EU leaders on further integration and conditions of access to financial resources will be furnished with a certain set of political demands, including the launch of peace talks with Russia. This puts the Ukrainian leadership before a difficult choice: either escalate the military conflict, receiving new batches of weapons to have a chance to liberate at least part of the occupied regions, or start freezing it with inevitable territorial loss and focus on European integration and post-conflict rehabilitation of the country. Amid the events in Ukraine, new zones of confrontation between the West and Russia are gradually emerging on the European political map. These are the militarization of the Baltic region, especially after Turkiye, Finland and Sweden overcame the controversy, the cessation of transit to the Kaliningrad region on the territory of Lithuania. Our country is also included, if we consider the harsh “warning” statements of the Ukrainian president regarding the Transdniestrian region. The Western coalition is likely to look for the Kremlin’s other weak spots in order to stretch the geopolitical front line and force the Russian leadership to spend more resources, losing the existing margin of safety. Despite the extension of the confrontation geography not only to the territory of Ukraine but also to the European continent, Moscow seems to assume that the long-term perspective is on its side. After a spike in energy and food prices, which in turn caused a rise in global inflation, some Western countries are trying to convince the Ukrainian leadership and society that further resistance to Russian aggression is not good for them and therefore they should switch to diplomatic methods of conflict resolution. If the situation on the battlefields does not improve in the coming months and the Ukrainian armed forces are unable to mount a counteroffensive, this “cease-fire” option may eventually become an attractive option for Kyiv, Washington and Brussels, as hardly anyone can seriously enjoy the idea of a years-long war. The further fate of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict will largely depend on the ability of the Ukrainian president and his entourage to come up with a formula for ending it that will ensure a broad balance of interests between the EU, Russia, the US and the UK. In this case, it is important to maintain internal unity of the Ukrainian military and political leadership, where processes of disunity have already been observed due to disagreements in communication strategy, differences in assessments of foreign military and financial aid, and the desire of individual officials to identify those responsible for poor army supplies and the challenging frontline situation.