“Russians will be happy to have negotiations, and they will be very happy to fix the lines where they are standing now,” a senior European official based in Poland told the Washington Examiner. “So at this moment I don’t see any serious reason why Ukrainians should be interested.”
Ukrainian forces have waged an effective counter-offensive throughout the fall, culminating in Russia’s decision to abandon Kherson — a city that Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed to be part of the Russian state in September. Faced with the failure of that purported annexation, Russian officials have signaled in various ways their desire for a negotiation to halt the fighting, even as the Kremlin continues to insist that either peace talks or the war can only end one way.
“The conflict in Ukraine can be ended after achieving its goals or by means of achieving the same goals through peaceful negotiations, which is also possible,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday. “Kyiv does not want negotiations. The special military operation continues.”
Russian state media publications have promoted Western media outlets’ reports that seem to suggest that the officials in the United States or other Western countries also see the reclamation of Kherson as a watershed. And U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered a rare echo of that idea as Russian forces withdrew from the western side of the Dnieper River on Thursday.
“We’ve seen the Ukrainian military fight the Russian military to a stand-still,” Milley told CNBC while traveling in New York. “Now, what the future holds is not known with any degree of certainty, but we think there are some possibilities here for some diplomatic solutions, and we’ll see where that leads us.”
Biden and other world leaders have tried to weigh their support for Ukraine against anxiety that Putin would use nuclear weapons in response if the Ukrainian counter-offensive proves too successful. India’s top diplomat, External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, traveled to Moscow this week to discuss the prospects for “a return to dialogue and diplomacy,” as he told reporters following a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. That public gesture toward a peacemaker role for India was paired with a firm warning that Putin must not use nuclear weapons of any kind against Ukraine, a South Asian official familiar with Jaishankar’s plans told the Washington Examiner.
“We maintain regular contact, which reflects the pace that our leaders are setting for our relations, the relations of a special privileged strategic partnership,” Lavrov said. “It is certainly important to compare our stances in the time of change that the international community is going through.”
Jaishankar’s warning against nuclear weapons usage may carry more weight with Moscow than his bid to broker a peace agreement.
“I really don’t think India has the type of leverage to play a meaningful role in bringing Russia and Ukraine together to the table in a sense to talk about these issues,” Observer Research Foundation senior fellow Raji Pillai, a foreign policy analyst in New Delhi, told the Washington Examiner. “Russia has been drifting [toward China] for a while. So I don’t think India has … the capacity to influence Russia.”
The prospect that Milley outlined is one that Russian state media and even military sources have identified as a priority for Moscow, although voices within the Russian system doubt its likelihood.
“Some rumors about agreements with ‘partners.’ They say, we will give Kherson, and they will leave us alone. Like, everything will be as it was before February,” a Russian military veteran wrote in an anonymous column for a well-known Russian military social media platform. “Everything is fine in these plans, but they forget to ask the enemy [Ukrainians]. Why should the enemy give up when he has the initiative and has victories, when he has a consolidated society, unlike ours? What motivation does he have to meet us halfway?”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s team has tried to strike a balance between signaling Kyiv’s desire for “a fair and just peace,” as Zelensky put it in recent days, and insisting on their determination to press their apparent advantage on the battlefield.
“It is clear why Russia needs ‘negotiations’ and ‘war freezing:’ generals are begging for a break for an exhausted army, and Kremlin wants at least some territorial ‘victories’ [so that they] do not look like complete losers,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mikhail Podolyak wrote Thursday and Friday in a series of Twitter posts. “‘Russian World’ knows how to effectively … flee. From Kyiv, from Kharkiv, from Kherson. Now it is important to ensure a large-scale escape of Russian occupiers — from Ukraine. From all over our territory.”
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan signaled an endorsement of that posture this week, striking a different note than Milley, despite persistent rumors that he has tried to set the table for a ceasefire in recent conversations with Russian, Turkish, and Ukrainian officials.
“It is ultimately up to Ukraine to make determinations about its diplomatic course,” Sullivan told reporters at the White House on Thursday. “It is our job to put them in the best position on the battlefield so that when and if there is an opportunity for diplomacy, they’re in the best position at the bargaining table. I don’t have anything to offer you today about the likelihood or the proximity of any kind of negotiations.”
That statement is more emblematic of U.S. government policy, according to former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, a retired diplomat who remains in contact with American and Ukrainian officials.
“The Ukrainians are pushing them out,” Taylor told the Washington Examiner. “I’m not surprised that the Russians would like to negotiate a ceasefire right now, to lock in what they’ve got. I would be very surprised if the Ukrainians agreed to allow the Russians to lock in what they’ve got because the Ukrainians are winning.”
Zelensky and the wider Ukrainian public feel confident about their ability to build on recent military successes, but some of their allies feel some misgivings about how the conflict will unfold as the scene of the battles shifts back toward the parts of Donbas that Russia has occupied since 2014.
“Every meter of this liberated land, from my point of view, will require much more energy, much more casualties, unfortunately, so it’s not going to be easy,” the senior European official in Poland said.
That continuing struggle could force either Russia or Ukraine to make a new calculation depending on the performance of the “hundreds of thousands” of Russian conscripts that Putin plans to throw into the fight.
“We must wait for another turn, when either Russians understand that these hundreds of thousands do not help, or, let’s say, that the Ukrainians realize that they cannot break through,” the senior European official said. “It’s clear now the war will continue, at minimum, until next summer, most probably. At minimum. This is what I have heard, also, from the Ukrainians.”