The headlines in recent days regarding any progress in the Russia-Ukraine peace talks that took place Tuesday in Istanbul should all be taken with a great deal of skepticism – especially the optimistic ones talking of a breakthrough toward a cease-fire agreement.
Most of the Ukrainian proposals made in the talks are not new, and the Russian openness to discussing these proposals is mainly due to their need for more time to redeploy their forces for a new offensive.
The main components of the Ukrainian position in the talks – accepting “neutrality” and the fact that Ukraine will not join NATO; alternative security guarantees from Western powers; and a willingness to negotiate with Russia on the future of the annexed Crimean Peninsula and the separatist enclaves in the Donbas – have already been raised publicly by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in recent weeks and been largely ignored by the Russians.
The only thing that has changed this week is that the Russians have announced that they are prepared to “drastically” cut back their operations around Kyiv in order to “increase mutual trust for future negotiations.”
This is an empty promise. The Russians have been scaling back their ground operations around Kyiv for over a week now – but not out of choice. Meanwhile, there is no perceptible reduction in the air and rocket strikes around the Ukrainian capital.
Senior members of the Ukrainian government say they have yet to see any real sign that the Russians are prepared to seriously negotiate with them and believe the talks thus far are “a manipulation by Putin to buy time.”
Western diplomats who have been involved in the attempts to bring the sides closer concur and say “the distance between them is very wide, and perhaps even getting wider in recent days.”
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On the ground, in the outer suburbs of Kyiv, there are indeed fewer Russian forces right now. But this is largely due to the Ukrainian counterattack, which has not only succeeded in blocking the advance but is now encircling the advanced Russian units whose soldiers are fighting for their lives or surrendering. For two weeks now, the Russian army has not been capable of reinforcing or supplying them. In effect, the Russian soldiers who managed to get closest to Kyiv have been abandoned to their fate.
The massive armored columns that advanced southward in the early days of the war are now regrouping toward the Belarusian border, licking their wounds. The Russian attacks in northern Ukraine now are mainly airstrikes and rockets from a distance. The retreating ground forces are intended for redeployment to the east, where Russia’s campaign to capture the coast of the Sea of Azov – largely by bombing Mariupol into dust and attempting to encircle the Ukrainian forces in the Donbas – continue unabated.
This is a tactical change in Russia’s war plans. Not a strategic one. There is still no indication that President Vladimir Putin has given up on his ambition to end Ukraine’s existence as an independent nation. At most, he may have finally realized that his plan to topple Ukraine in one go has failed and he is now going back to trying to take it over, slice by slice, in a long and grueling war of attrition. In the meantime, talks in Istanbul, and anywhere else, are useful for him to buy some time.
Ukraine’s problem in the talks is not only the lack of seriousness on the Russian side. Their proposal for security guarantees from a future invasion rely on assurances from the United States and major Western European countries. But these are currently unwilling to fight on Ukraine’s side or supply it with major weapons systems such as tanks and planes. Why would they act otherwise in another war with Russia?
It is much too early to predict a de-escalation in the war. The battles around Kyiv will continue as long as the Russian troops in their enclaves there can continue fighting. And for now, they’re still receiving artillery cover. If not much more.
The Russians aren’t going to retreat from other areas they’ve captured either, around the cities of Kharkiv and Chernihiv, unless the Ukrainians commit more forces to counterattack. Even with their army failing to achieve its objectives so far, Russia isn’t taking its foot off the pedal. After five weeks of warfare, Putin is still gambling that Ukraine cannot continue to survive politically, economically and militarily, even if its downfall takes longer than he first expected.