As Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the withdrawal of his army from the key Ukrainian city of Kherson, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said it created a window of opportunity for peace talks between Russia and Ukraine.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbor has already lasted more than eight months, and the casualties and destruction have multiplied day by day. Milley said more than 100,000 Russian troops are believed to have been killed and wounded in that war while Ukraine “probably” suffered a similar number of casualties.
To underscore his point on peace, Milley referred to the failure of the great powers to negotiate at an earlier stage of World War I – a mistake that resulted in millions of additional casualties and catastrophic developments in several countries, including the United States. Russian Empire.
Milley’s remarks represent a shift in official US rhetoric, raising questions about a possible push for peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv. Moreover, in the weeks leading up to the Russian withdrawal from Kherson, the United States and Russia resumed communication on Ukraine at the level of senior security officials.
But are Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin ready to negotiate? And how would the opening of a dialogue reflect on their governments?
Ukraine demands the total withdrawal of Russian troops from its territory, reparations and sanctions for war criminals. Zelensky himself signed a decree that unequivocally forbids him to speak to Putin. Kyiv’s official position effectively amounts to a demand for regime change in Russia as a condition of the talks.
Moscow, for its part, has long since abandoned its earlier goal of deposing the Ukrainian government and has officially affirmed that it is ready for unconditional talks.
From the Ukrainian point of view, the negotiations are a way for Russia to buy time at a time when the Ukrainian army has taken the initiative on the front line and liberated large swathes of Ukrainian territory.
But Zelenskyy’s government is reportedly under pressure from Washington to soften its hardline 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, a Russia truly ready for peace.”
Meanwhile, on social media, Zelenskyy’s security adviser Mikhaylo Podolyak reiterated that the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukrainian territory is impossible as long as Putin remains in power. “Therefore, we are constructive in our assessment: we will speak with the next RF leader,” he wrote in a recent tweet, referring to the Russian Federation.
It is hard to say whether Kyiv’s all-or-nothing rhetoric stems from a deep belief that it will prevail, or whether it is just arranging to mobilize people in the face of aggression and avoid point out the weakness to the opponent.
Although Ukraine has not exhausted its offensive potential, it is doubtful that it can sustain a war of attrition with its most powerful neighbor in the long term, even with all the military and financial support it receives from the West.
The country is expected to lose 35% of its GDP by the end of the year, while Russia will see its economy shrink by 4.5%, according to the World Bank. Russia’s missile and drone attacks this fall have destroyed up to 40% of the country’s energy infrastructure, Zelenskyy recently admitted.
If the airstrikes continue, many Soviet-era apartment buildings, in which most Ukrainians reside, will become unlivable as they rely on central heating provided by thermal power plants. This could create a wave of refugees that the European Union would not be able to accommodate. Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko has raised the possibility of evacuating 3 million people from the Ukrainian capital alone.
Russia has yet to deploy most of the 300,000 troops it says it has mobilized since September. It is also buying more drones and high-precision missiles from Iran, while increasing its own production. While withdrawing from Kherson, it slowly relaunched its offensive operations in the Donetsk region.
The moment when Ukraine seems to be the dominant party is also the moment when it can make maximum gains in the peace talks. If Russia regains the initiative in the front line, its appetite for territorial and political trophies will increase exponentially.
Russia’s departure from Kherson and Washington’s subsequent softening on the possibility of talks provide the vague outlines of what a future settlement might look like.
By withdrawing from the right bank of the Dnipro River, Moscow is giving up hope of seizing Odessa and making Ukraine a landlocked country – at least for now.
But the capture of Odessa extends far beyond Russia’s territorial claims to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. After a sham “referendum” in September, Russia also officially annexed the regions of Zaporizhia and Kherson, but it left itself room for maneuver by not defining their borders. After withdrawing from the city of Kherson, Moscow still controls most of the Kherson region.
For Putin to claim victory, it is enough to keep the territory that Russia already occupies. He can even afford to lose a little more. Russia’s conformist majority has never shown a serious appetite for territorial expansion and has never cared about what portions 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 justified. Implementation would have resulted in the emergence of an autonomous Donbass region in eastern Ukraine effectively controlled by Russia and would have prevented Ukraine from joining NATO.
The 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 he 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 more people to rally behind the leader in the face of what many Russians perceive as an existential threat.
Meanwhile, the West seems both unable and unwilling to reach out to the Russian people with a vision of a better future without Putin. For many politicians, Russia is nothing more than a convenient enemy. This makes it easier for Putin to stay in power.
Zelenskyy, meanwhile, is on a mission to meet maximalist expectations while facing a belligerent opposition that scrutinizes his every move, ready to accuse him of betraying Ukraine’s interests.
He must prove that the enormous sacrifices of the Ukrainians were not in vain and that they gained something tangible by refusing to give in to Russian pressure to implement the Minsk agreements. This will be much more difficult to achieve, which is why Kyiv is trying to regain as much territory as possible and maintain momentum.
The trick is to figure out the right time to draw a line and ask for peace.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.