What will it take to end the war in Ukraine?
Ukraine and Russia face obstacles to peace talks, but pressure to negotiate will inevitably increase.
More than a year after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the war appears to have reached a deadlock.
Since the liberation of Kherson by Ukrainian forces last November, both sides have been engaged in positional warfare with only minor changes in territorial control. The widely expected Russian winter offensive barely moved the front line and failed to seize long-contested towns in the Donbas region, such as Avdiivka, Mariinka, Bakhmut and Vuhledar.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian army used heavily fortified positions and Western-supplied arms to successfully repel Russian armoured assaults. Even if Russian forces ultimately seize the largely destroyed Bakhmut, the heavily fortified Ukrainian positions around the Sloviansk-Kramatorsk agglomeration would hinder any further movement.
On the other hand, the Ukrainian counteroffensive will likely target the southern areas of the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions where Russian forces have been building layered defence lines since the fall. Given the increased density of Russian forces along the southern front line, it will be hard for Ukrainians to repeat the sudden pincer movements which allowed for the quick liberation of occupied towns in the Kharkiv region and parts of Donbas last year.
If there are no decisive shifts on the battlefield over the next six months, however, the pressure for peace talks from Western governments will most likely grow. So would Ukraine and Russia be ready for negotiations?
Obstacles to peace talks in Ukraine
The string of successful military operations that led to the humiliating retreat of the Russian army last year strengthened public confidence in Ukraine’s eventual victory. In a January survey of Ukrainians residing in the country, 89 percent of respondents said they were optimistic about Ukraine’s future. The majority explained their optimism with their anticipation of victory over Russia.
NATO’s willingness to provide Ukraine with increasingly more advanced weaponry, such as long-range artillery, air defence systems and tanks, has further boosted such expectations.
As a result, while in May 2022, 59 percent of survey respondents favoured negotiations with Russia, by January, the number had slumped to 29 percent, with 66 percent opposing such talks.
Most importantly, the Ukrainian leadership and the public have started defining victory in maximalist terms. For 82 percent of those surveyed, peace with Russia is possible only upon the return of all territories occupied since 2014, including Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.
There is also overwhelming public support for joining NATO with more than 80 percent in favour of it in all regions of the country. Membership in the alliance is viewed by many as a non-negotiable position. Only 20 percent of respondents indicated they would support giving up on this goal for the sake of peace with Russia.
Territorial claims and foreign policy are not the only irreconcilable differences between Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainian leaders have also indicated that a complete victory would require the transformation of Russia’s political regime and reparations from Moscow.
As Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated during the 2023 Munich Security Conference, until Russia changes, the “war will continue in one or another form”.
In a recent interview, the head of the Ukrainian military intelligence service, Kyrylo Budanov, claimed that the return of all territories would mark the end of the first phase of the war only. In the subsequent stage, Russia’s territories bordering Ukraine would have to be demilitarised to establish a “security zone around Ukraine … 100 kilometres in depth”.
These post-war scenarios, thus, presume Russian President Vladimir Putin’s removal from power as the main condition for peace.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had already established this expectation in October when he signed a decree dismissing the possibility of talks with Putin. Such a position, in his view, should incentivise other members of the Russian political elite to “start thinking about what to do internally so that someone would agree to come to a negotiating table with them”.
Obstacles to peace in Russia
While Ukraine is weary of negotiating personally with Putin, the Russian leader sees the war in broader terms as a conflict with the Western alliance and dismisses Ukraine as a Western puppet state. His press secretary Dmitry Peskov argued in a recent interview that by supplying arms to Ukraine, France, the United Kingdom and the United States had entered into a “direct military confrontation” with Russia.
Hence, the Kremlin is willing to accept only Western leaders as counterparts in peace talks. Moscow further rejects the legitimacy of the Ukrainian authorities on ideological grounds, accusing them of “favouring Nazis and promoting Nazi sentiments within the society”.
The only Ukrainian politicians that the Kremlin has indicated as possible negotiating partners have long fled to Russia and, hence, could not realistically represent Ukraine. Since the West insists that nothing about Ukraine can be discussed “without Ukraine”, the prospect of such talks seems particularly remote at this point.
Another crucial obstacle to negotiations is Russia’s rigidity in its war aims, which combine territorial, ideological, and strategic demands. The annexation of four Ukrainian regions last September, only partially controlled by Russian forces, established a pretext for additional territorial demands.
At the same time, a law adopted by the Russian State Duma in 2020 precludes any consideration of territorial concessions by establishing criminal responsibility for calls or actual attempts to yield parts of Russian territory.
Ideologically, Russia remains committed to framing the war as the fight against Ukrainian “neo-Nazis”, which has to end with regime change in Kyiv. Strategically, Putin presents the war as an existential fight to preserve the unity of the Russian state and prevent its subordination by the West.
This, in his view, justifies the need to push back the Western presence from its borders and ensure that Ukraine remains outside of the Western alliance. The latter demand has been indirectly endorsed by China in its newly released 12-point peace plan. While recognising the importance of upholding the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, it calls for respecting the “legitimate security interests” of other countries and rejects the pursuit of security by “strengthening or expanding military blocs”.
Although public opinion has been a weak constraint on the Kremlin’s decision-making, its immense propaganda efforts suggest that Russian leaders still take public attitudes seriously. Over the last year, at least a third of Russians have consistently preferred talks over continued military operations. This share reached a peak of 44 percent in the fall of 2022 when Russian forces suffered a series of defeats in the southern and northern parts of Ukraine.
Similarly, in a February survey, 40 percent of respondents said they would like to see Russian troops withdraw from Ukraine without achieving their goals. Even more, about two-thirds of respondents (66 percent) indicated that they would support the signing of a peace agreement and an end to the military campaign if such a decision came from Putin. This suggests that the Russian leadership has a wider leeway in choosing the direction of this war, including a path of de-escalation, than its Ukrainian counterparts.
The path to peace talks
While both sides currently dismiss the possibility of negotiations, there are five factors that may make them more likely in the coming months.
First, since the start of the war, Russia and Ukraine have repeatedly adjusted their expectations. For Russia, this meant yielding territories that it seized and giving up on certain operational objectives, such as the capture of Kyiv and Kharkiv. For Ukraine, it meant withdrawing from major cities, like Mariupol and Severodonetsk, and restraining its offensive operations.
So far, these adjustments have left both sides confident that they could still achieve their goals through the continued use of force. If the battlefield stabilises and the front lines become static, the idea of talks may become more compelling, especially if the casualty rates remain high.
Second, a substantial escalation of violence and the rising threat of the use of weapons of mass destruction could also encourage the warring sides to engage in diplomacy. The signing of the two Minsk agreements in September 2014 and February 2015 was preceded by swift offensive operations that threatened one of the parties with total defeat.
A similar turn of events may unfold if Ukraine manages to push the Russian army back to pre-2022 lines and threaten the capture of territories controlled since 2014. Alternatively, Russia could expand its offensive to the borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces and threaten new regions in Ukraine’s south or east. In either scenario – a Russian victory or a Russian defeat that could trigger the use of nuclear weapons – Western mediation efforts may be re-energised in order to push for de-escalation.
Third, Ukraine’s continued fighting capacity has become highly dependent on further supplies of advanced weaponry from NATO allies. Western countries, however, have been approaching the limits of their production capacity and have become concerned about the depletion of their own stockpiles.
In addition, some US Congress members have become more outspoken about the need for greater oversight of arms deliveries to Ukraine. Meanwhile, public support for military aid provisions has declined, with a quarter of Americans (26 percent) saying that the US gives too much aid to Ukraine and only 48 percent explicitly in favour of providing it with armaments.
While Europeans largely support further assistance to Ukraine, many, particularly in Germany and Austria, have become increasingly impatient with the war and would like to see it end sooner. In a recent poll, 48 percent of respondents in nine European Union member states favoured quick peace even if Ukraine surrenders some of its territories as a result.
Hence, Kyiv appears under greater pressure to achieve military success by the end of the year. Absent substantial progress on the battlefield, its Western allies might condition further assistance on tangible steps in seeking a negotiated ceasefire with Moscow.
Fourth, Russia may also be more willing to consider diplomatic paths out of the war if it faces a sudden resource shortage. The sharply rising energy exports to China and India have, so far, allowed Russia to offset the losses from the collapse in Russian energy supplies to Europe. Even more so, its total energy export earnings increased substantially in 2022.
The Western economic leverage, thus, proved insufficient to limit Russia’s resources for the war, but may still work if other countries, like China and India, join the effort. Even if Russia keeps receiving windfall profits from energy sales, its declining firepower on the battlefield point to munition problems, such as a shortage of artillery shells and ballistic missiles.
This means securing arms supplies from countries like China may be crucial for Russia’s capacity to wage the war with the same ferocity. If Beijing maintains its current officially stated neutrality and abstains from direct military support to Russia, Moscow will be forced to re-evaluate the long-term viability of its military campaign.
Finally, the moderation in the goals of the warring sides may be another factor leading to the launch of the talks. This, however, will likely require a change in the current leadership in Russia or a reversal of Zelenskyy’s earlier stated positions on humanitarian or strategic grounds. Still, a shift from maximalist to moderate objectives may indicate the opening of a bargaining space for the two sides, which appeared non-existent for most of the previous year.
As it stands today, peace talks between Ukraine and Russia seem outside of the realm of the possible for both sides. However, the prospect of an endless war or a major defeat for one of the sides may make negotiations suddenly appear the only alternative available. Whether both sides then choose to pursue them will depend on the developments far away from the battlefield.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.