Is Ukraine Pushed into Negotiations?

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Sergiu CEBAN
A number of factors – the start of the presidential campaign in the United States, the frontline positional stalemate, the growing international demand for peace – explains the growing Western pressure on Ukraine to launch ceasefire talks, which may follow immediately after a counterattack by the Ukrainian Armed Forces
For several months now, the current phase of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has been centred on an impending counter-offensive by the Ukrainian armed forces. Despite the reassuring promises to de-occupy Crimea by this summer, it has so far been relatively calm on the fronts. Moreover, for a week now, Ukrainian officials are struggling to quell high expectations from the impending operation, despite a clear nudge from the West. Yesterday, Volodymyr Zelensky personally commented on a decision to postpone a “counterattack” saying that the Ukrainian army is ready for it but needs a little more time to avoid large unjustified losses. Therefore, the Ukrainian leadership is expecting new military aid packages from its allies, primarily weapons, heavy machinery and air defense equipment. Perhaps the entry of Chinese diplomacy is also playing a role. On 15 May China’s special envoy for Eurasian affairs, Li Hui, is to visit Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany and Russia. With Kyiv’s consent to allow Beijing to excercise its peacekeeping capabilities, big military actions are unlikely to happen. A few days earlier, a piece of news was thrown in, most probably deliberately, about the inability of Commander-in-Chief Valeriu Zaluzhnyi and his deputies to attend a NATO military committee meeting even by video link because of the “complicated operational situation on the front line”. Judging by yesterday’s media reports, the Ukrainian generals were preparing several trial military operations, particularly near Bakhmut. Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia’s expectations are so hot that routine local fights were fanned by social media to the level of large-scale counteroffensives. Meanwhile, Western partners are actively nudging Kyiv, reporting on an unprecedented scale of military and other aid to Ukraine. Various US spokesmen claim deliveries of some 600 types of weapons and ammunition, ranging from Abrams and Leopard tanks to Patriot systems. According to U.S. experts, this amount is much larger than that of any other warring army in the world. Meanwhile, despite widespread support, Ukraine in fact continues to lose ground to Russia, including without a decisive manpower advantage. Ukraine lacking aviation to shield its ground operations and of sufficient artillery systems to beat the enemy’s highly entrenched defenses in the occupied territories do not add to its confidence in the success of the offensive. The so-called “grain deal”, essentially the only route for Ukrainian agricultural products, is also at risk of being terminated. Russia has tightened its demands and threatens to disrupt the mechanism after 18 May, arguing that its conditions are not being met. Such a string of agricultural export problems against Ukraine, including from the EU and the US, looks like a concerted effort to gently press Kyiv to make it reconsider its uncompromising stance on politico-military talks with Russia. The Ukrainian authorities make no secret of feeling this pressure and claim that a powerful international campaign and deliberate escalation of the situation has been launched to make Kyiv talk to Moscow. Apparently, Kyiv’s strategists are forced to obey this logic, so they are slowly probing public opinion and bringing the issue of negotiations into public discourse, with a principled caveat that the dialogue will only take place on Ukraine’s own terms. The Kremlin is playing along with this peacekeeping narrative and, through the mouth of Peskov, claims that definite goals have been achieved during the year-long special operation, such as gaining control over a large territory in Donbass. Furthermore, Moscow believes that the Russian army has managed to inflict serious damage on Ukraine's military machine. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation is prone to continue fighting in order to push the AFU back considerably from the ‘LDPR’ cities. The West appears to have started to adjust the strategy for an exit from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Whereas the initial aim was to inflict a painful defeat on Moscow, now the main objective is to prevent Ukraine from being defeated and to keep Russia in its current positions. The positional stalemate on the line of contact since last autumn, with neither side having sufficient forces for large-scale successful offensives, appears to be setting the right conditions to scale down hostilities and shift to a “negotiating zone”. One of the most important factors is the gradual entry of the United States into the election campaign, in connection with which the Ukraine issue should, one way or another, receive at least interim clarity before the autumn. The current head of the White House, who has made the Ukrainian issue one of the core issues of his policy, has to deliver certain results to the American electorate in order to justify the expenses on supporting the Ukrainian resistance. Amid growing doubts about Ukraine’s readiness to de-occupy all its territories, the most realistic scenario for further developments is to start negotiations. There is a high probability that Kyiv will still try to conduct one or more ground operations and achieve maximum success, after which the sides will be forced to sit down and prepare a temporary ceasefire, following the example of the Korean, Indo-Pakistani, Palestinian-Israeli or any other conflict. Such an outcome would, at the very least, enable Kyiv to argue that the Kremlin’s plans have failed and that Ukrainian statehood has held firm and gained a solid geopolitical footing and a clear Euro-Atlantic perspective. Calls to seek a temporary peace formula are getting louder, especially against the backdrop of statements by prominent Western experts such as Henry Kissinger or Francis Fukuyama. This signals a demand from the core of the American establishment, which is looking for ways to put the war in Ukraine on hold in the run-up to the presidential race so as to avoid an unpleasant surprise, potentially demoralizing for the US, akin to the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Besides, Moscow also needs a time-out, since it also has presidential elections scheduled for next spring. By the way, Ukraine is also due to hold regular parliamentary and presidential elections. Obviously, conserving the conflict will only be a respite for Kyiv and Moscow, which both sides will use to amass resources and then try to change the temporary status quo. In the meantime, international diplomacy has a slim chance to prove its worth and show that humanity can solve major continental crises and prevent another global-scale disaster.