In the midst of the war and the brutal bombing of civilian areas, Ukrainian and Russian officials continue to hold high-level talks in parallel in search of a negotiated solution to an invasion that has surprised the world.
Both sides say their negotiators are trying to reach a possible peace deal, but it is unclear to what extent this is a position where each is trying to one-up the other.
Experts see growing signs of a battlefield stalemate as civilian casualties mount and the United States and the European Union step up their military support for Ukraine’s resistance to Russian invaders. Meanwhile, Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II is straining the resources of Ukraine’s neighbours, especially Poland, and fear of a possible nuclear conflict, previously considered unthinkable, is on the minds of millions of people.
So, after three weeks of war in Ukraine, is the end in sight? If so, is there any indication of how it will end?
“The Russian invasion has failed to destroy Ukraine’s statehood,” says Erich de la Fuente, an expert on Russian-speaking Eastern Europe at Florida International University (FIU). “I think we are heading into negotiations not because Russia wants to but because it has to,” he added.
The Kremlin has confirmed that media reports of a possible 15-point peace deal “are on the agenda”, while President Vladimir Putin rejects any suggestion that the invasion does not go according to plan.
Putin’s exit ramp
“We are working on documents that the presidents will be able to discuss further and sign. Obviously this will come soon because it is the only way to end this war,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told PBS.
No one realistically expects Putin to sign a peace deal that could accept his own defeat, and possibly his downfall. So experts say the key will be to find a way for Putin to save face, what he might like to call an “off-ramp.”
“Although they have lost the invasion, Putin needs to win the battle of public opinion at the internal level,” de la Fuente said.
The latest reports from the peace talks suggest that Putin may already be softening his position. Russia is no longer seeking to overthrow President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has won praise from around the world for his leadership during the war. Instead, Putin wants Ukraine to accept that it must be neutral in the future and not become a member of the Western military alliance, NATO.
This is something Zelensky could grant now, to stop the bombing of his cities and save lives.
Zelensky will have to make concessions
After what happened, Zelensky seems to have recognized that his country will never be admitted to NATO as a member: “It is a truth and it must be recognized,” he said recently.
Putin is demanding that Ukraine recognize the independence of parts of separatist-ruled eastern Ukraine and that Zelensky accept that Crimea, seized by Russia in 2014, is now a permanent part of Russia.
That’s harder for Zelensky to digest, but it could be something left over after a ceasefire.
The Ukrainian economy was already heavily indebted, worth $129 billion, and the West could sweeten Zelensky’s cake by simply erasing it.
Other demands from Putin are the alleged “denazification” of Ukraine and a commitment to protect the Russian language. Although the first may seem unreasonable in the eyes of Zelensky, who is Jewish, it could be something that was glossed over in the interest of broader agreement. Zelenksy also comes from the Russian-speaking southeastern region of Ukraine, and grew up speaking Russian better than Ukrainian. The two languages have similar vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, and both use the Cyrillic alphabet, with slight variations.
Does naming Putin a “war criminal” hinder a peace deal?
While Putin’s propaganda machine appears to be working at home, with little sign of a serious threat to his government, he seems increasingly hemmed in internationally, by sweeping economic sanctions and an ongoing war crimes investigation.
On Wednesday, Biden joined others in calling Putin a “war criminal,” possibly making it more difficult for the Russian president to back down. If he ends up being prosecuted by the International Court of Justice (ICC) he would not be able to leave Russia and could end up imprisoned in The Hague with the “butcher of Bosnia” Radovan Karadžić.
This could provide more leverage in the negotiations, but could also become an awkward roadblock to peace.
“Given the pace of ICC activity and the intense pressure to deal with atrocities, it is important to consider how these accountability efforts might intersect with diplomatic efforts to end the war,” according to David Bosco, expert in the international court of the University of Indiana.
“For example, if evidence against senior Russian leaders accumulates just as peace negotiations are at a critical stage, the prosecutor may decide to delay them so as not to disrupt diplomacy,” Bosco wrote in an article for the online publication Just Security.
Russian military is running out of time in Ukraine
Military analysts say Putin’s options may be narrowing. His troops have suffered heavy casualties – up to 7,000 men – including four generals, Western analysts say. In addition, there is the loss of tanks and warplanes and the inability to capture a major Ukrainian city.
Russian forces have been unable to make a “strategic breakthrough” against stiff Ukrainian resistance, Western officials say.
The Russian offensive is reaching “the point of completion,” said Lt. Col. Tyson Wetzel, a US Air Force officer at the Atlantic Council’s Center for Strategy and Security in Washington DC. “They have bit too much and their lines are extremely stretched. They are not to support [a sus tropas] logistically,” he added.
Putin now faces two options. Get serious at the negotiating table or “double down with more brutality,” a Western military official told reporters at a briefing on Thursday.
“It all depends on what happens in the next few days,” de la Fuente said, adding that Putin could still try to make one last push to take the bombed-out cities of Kharkiv or Mariupol, which were seen as the most likely to fall rapidly at the start of the war. the invasion.
Instead, both cities have held on, despite horrific loss of life from indiscriminate Russian shelling of apartment buildings, and hospitals and a theater used as bomb shelters.
Mariupul is considered strategic for Putin’s goals as it is an important port, which also provides a land bridge to Crimea, which was seized by Russia in 2014.
De la Fuente noted that “Putin may have made a mistake by waiting for the Winter Olympics to be over in China before invading.”
As winter turns to spring, Ukraine’s frozen ground begins to melt, making it difficult for Russian tanks and heavy armored vehicles to maneuver, especially in the vast farmlands of the country’s center.
This was the theater bombed by Russia that functioned as a shelter for women and children in Mariupol
US steps up arms shipments to Ukraine
For his part, Zelensky continues to call for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, but it seems that this is not possible. Failing that, Zelensky suggested “an alternative” in his address to the US Congress this week: enough surface-to-air weapons and air defense systems to repel the Russian missile and rocket attacks that are destroying their cities. .
Ukraine is also suffering losses, and it is unclear “how long they will be able to hold out,” a Western official told reporters at a briefing on Thursday.
US President Joe Biden pledged this week to send Ukraine another $800 million in military aid, including bomb- and missile-carrying ‘kamikaze drones’ called the Switchblade, along with Stinger anti-aircraft systems, defense systems S-300 long-range aerial, anti-tank weapons and 20 million rounds of small arms.
That brings the total to $2 billion in such aid since Biden took office more than a year ago, and Congress has already approved a larger package of $13.6 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine.
Can Putin be trusted to abide by a ceasefire?
Above all, Zelensky wants a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops, as well as security guarantees that give Ukraine the protection of a group of allied countries that “actively” prevent any future attacks.
Many remain wary of what a ceasefire might look like in Putin’s eyes.
“For Putin ‘ceasefire’ just means ‘reload’. Sanctions must remain and be strengthened as long as there are Russian forces in Ukraine,” tweeted Garry Kasparov, the exiled former Russian chess master and outspoken critic of Putin.
Instead, some experts say Putin is more likely to find ways to survive in power, rather than create more problems for himself.
The situation on the battlefield has also changed so drastically that the Ukrainian government and army are also now prepared to dig in and hold off Putin’s offensive.
“Everyone is a little bit surprised that no other cities have fallen,” de la Fuente said. “Their psyche went from ‘My God, we can resist, we can defend Kyiv.’ not just hold on,” he added.