InternationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 16

What will it take to end the war in Ukraine?

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.

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.

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”.

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.

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.