After Kherson, can Ukraine and Russia talk peace?

Putin does not have much to lose from engaging in peace negotiations, but Zelenskyy does.

A boy waves a national flag as he celebrates after Russia's retreat from Kherson, in central Kherson, Ukraine November 13, 2022
A boy waves the Ukrainian flag as he celebrates after Russia's retreat from Kherson, in central Kherson on November 13, 2022 [Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko]

As Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu announced his army’s withdrawal from the key Ukrainian city of Kherson, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said it creates a window of opportunity for peace talks between Russia and Ukraine.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbour has already lasted for more than eight months, and casualties and destruction have mounted day after day. Milley said more than 100,000 Russian soldiers may have been killed and wounded in this war while Ukraine “probably” suffered a similar number of casualties.

To stress his point about peace, Milley evoked the great powers’ failure to negotiate at an earlier stage in World War I – a mistake that led to millions more casualties and catastrophic developments in several countries, notably the Russian Empire.

Milley’s remarks represent a change of tack in the official US rhetoric, raising questions about a possible push for peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv. What is more, in the weeks preceding the Russian withdrawal from Kherson, the United States and Russia resumed communication about Ukraine at the level of top security officials.

But are Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin willing to negotiate? And how would opening a dialogue reflect on their governments?

Ukraine demands a full withdrawal of Russian troops from its territory, reparations and punishment for war criminals. Zelenskyy himself has signed a decree which unequivocally bans him from talking to Putin. Kyiv’s official position effectively amounts to a demand for regime change in Russia as a condition for talks.

Moscow, for its part, has long dropped its earlier goal of removing the Ukrainian government and has officially asserted that it is ready for talks with no conditions.

From the Ukrainian perspective, negotiations are a way for Russia to buy time at the moment when the Ukrainian army has seized the initiative on the frontline and has liberated swathes of Ukrainian territory.

But Zelenskyy’s government is reportedly under pressure from Washington to soften its uncompromising stance. Likely reacting to these signals, the Ukrainian president said in a recent interview with CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour that he was “ready to talk to Russia – but with a different Russia, one that is truly ready for peace”.

Meanwhile, on social media, Zelenskyy’s security adviser Mikhaylo Podolyak has been reiterating that the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukrainian territory is unattainable while Putin remains in power. “Therefore, we are constructive in our assessment: We will talk with the next leader of RF,” he wrote in a recent tweet, referring to the Russian Federation.

It is hard to say whether Kyiv’s “all or nothing” rhetoric derives from a deep conviction that it is going to prevail or if it is just posturing to mobilise people in the face of aggression and avoid signalling weakness to the adversary.

While Ukraine has not exhausted its offensive potential, it is doubtful it can sustain a war of attrition with its more powerful neighbour in the long run, even with all the military and financial support it gets from the West.

The country is expected to lose 35 percent of its GDP by the end of the year, while Russia will see its economy shrink by 4.5 percent, according to the World Bank. Russia’s missile and drone attacks this fall have destroyed up to 40 percent of the country’s energy infrastructure, Zelenskyy recently admitted.

If the air strikes continue, many Soviet-era apartment blocks, in which most Ukrainians reside, will become unlivable because they depend on central heating provided by thermal plants. This could create a wave of refugees that the European Union would not be able to accommodate. Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko has mentioned the possibility of evacuating 3 million people from Ukraine’s capital alone.

Russia is yet to deploy most of the 300,000 men it claims to have mobilised since September. It is also buying more drones and high-precision missiles from Iran, while ramping up its own production. While withdrawing from Kherson, it is slowly restarting offensive operations in the Donetsk region.

The moment when Ukraine appears to be the prevailing side is also the moment when it can make maximum gains in peace talks. If Russia seizes the initiative on the front line again, its appetite for territorial and political trophies will rise exponentially.

Russia’s departure from Kherson and Washington’s subsequent softening of tone on the possibility of talks provides the vague contours of what a future settlement may look like.

By withdrawing from the right bank of the Dnipro River, Moscow abandons the hope of seizing Odesa and turning Ukraine into a landlocked country – at least for now.

But seizing Odesa extends far beyond Russia’s territorial claims over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. After a sham “referendum” in September, Russia also officially annexed the Zaporizhia and Kherson regions, but it left itself room for manoeuvre by not defining their borders. After withdrawing from the city of Kherson, Moscow still controls most of the Kherson region.

For Putin to be able to declare victory, it is sufficient to hold onto the territory Russia is already occupying. He can even afford to lose some more. Russia’s conformist majority has never shown any serious appetite for territorial expansion or has bothered about which bits of Ukrainian territory their country will control once peace is restored.

Putin’s war in Ukraine is more of a punitive operation than an imperialist land grab. As long as the outcome of the war is more humiliating for Ukraine than the implementation of the Minsk agreements, which Moscow tried to impose on Kyiv in the run-up to the full-scale invasion in February, Putin will feel vindicated. The implementation would have resulted in the emergence of an autonomous Donbas region in eastern Ukraine effectively controlled by Russia and would have prevented Ukraine’s NATO membership.

Conflict with the US-led West, as the Kremlin frames the war in Ukraine, is now the main source of legitimacy for Putin’s government, which is why it launched the aggression in the first place. Losing some of the occupied territory will not necessarily undermine the government. On the contrary, it may lead to more people rallying behind the leader in the face of what many Russians perceive as an existential threat.

Meanwhile, the West appears to be both unable and unwilling to reach out to the Russian population with a vision of a better future without Putin. For many politicians, Russia is little more than a convenient enemy. That makes it easier for Putin to maintain power.

Zelenskyy, on the other hand, is on a mission to deliver on maximalist expectations while also facing belligerent opposition which is scrutinising his every move, ready to accuse him of betraying Ukraine’s interests.

He must prove that Ukrainians’ enormous sacrifices were not in vain and they have gained something tangible by refusing to succumb to Russian pressure to implement the Minsk agreements. That will be much harder to achieve, which is why Kyiv is trying to regain as much territory as possible and keep up its momentum.

The trick is figuring out the right time to draw a line and sue for peace.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.