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Ceasefire Unlikely in Ukraine

Danger lurks for NATO, Washington and Russia

5 mins read
A Taurus cruise missile

Don’t expect a ceasefire in Ukraine, despite the buzz now rippling through European capitals and Washington.  The reason is simple: there is no incentive for Russia to stop the war.

It is quite true that Vladimir Putin tabled a ceasefire suggestion but a ceasefire would require a political settlement in his view.

There is growing recognition in the United States and in Europe, that Ukraine can’t win its war with Russia.  Even pro-Biden administration outlets such as CNBC are talking about a ceasefire. This creates a dilemma from which there is no quick or easy answer.

The dilemma is this: if Ukraine cannot win a war against Russia, what should the US and NATO do next?

One option is to try and get a ceasefire arrangement, hold fake negotiations with Russia, and then resume the fighting after Ukraine trains yet another army and goes on the offensive again.

But Russia won’t buy that bucket of lard, since Western leaders, especially former German Chancellor Angela Merkle publicly said that the Normandy-group negotiations with Russia in 2014 and 2015 (leading to the Minsk I and Minsk II agreements) were a ruse, intended to buy time while NATO trained Ukrainian troops, put huge intelligence assets to work against Russia, and delivered massive armaments to Ukraine’s army, preparing to attack once they were ready.

This lesson was a hard one, especially for Vladimir Putin, who trusted Merkle.  Not anymore.  He won’t trust any European, but especially anyone from Germany.  He now understands that all the “peace initiatives” promoted by German Chancellor Olof Schulz and French President Emmanuel Macron, were intended to deceive Russia.

Dimitry Medvedev, the enfant terrible of Russia and now Deputy Chairman of the Russia’s Security Council, goes further. He has told Tass, the Russian news agency, that Russia will only talk to a new Ukrainian government without the “current clique” of rulers, meaning Zelensky and his cronies.

Sometimes Medvedev goes off the deep end, threatening nuclear strikes and offering proposals that go far beyond the consensus in Moscow.  But Medvedev’s comments can’t all be written off: he does play a role in making Putin look reasonable and responsible, but sometimes he echoes Putin’s thinking.  In the current instance, speaking of the necessity of regime change in Kiev, Medvedev seems to be reflecting Kremlin attitudes toward Kiev and Zelensky in particular.

For sure the Russians won’t deal with a hostile government that has players such as Kyrylo Budanov, who heads Ukraine’s secret intelligence and who is a wanted man in Russia.  Budanov, among other things, has been carrying out political assassinations in Russian-held territory in Ukraine and in Russia proper.  While Russia is no stranger to knocking off opponents, Budanov’s operations, many of them successful, has made him a marked man by the Russians.

Washington and the CIA love Budanov. He is their kind of man.  He gets to destroy critical infrastructure in the Donbass, Crimea and Russia, while killing perceived enemies who include Russian military officers.  He does all this on the cheap, compared to the cost of massive arms deliveries.  He receives targeting support from US and European spies and from dissidents in Russia and Ukraine.  This makes him a hero in Langley.

Zelensky, too, has created a problem which has no exit for him.  He got the Verkhovna Rada,  Ukraine’s parliament, to back up his Presidential decree declaring that it was illegal to negotiate with Russia until Russian troops left all of Ukraine, including Crimea, and Putin and others were put on trial for war crimes.  Obviously this decree not only blocks negotiations with Russia, but even if Zelensky decides to forget it, the Russians will not.

In the coming days Ukraine will organize more and more strikes on Russian assets and renew the bombing of Crimea, intending to send as harsh a message as possible to Putin.  If this comes about, with US and NATO backing, it will be met by a significant Russian escalation and may help Russia decide about the war’s objectives.

Until recently, Russia had two war aims in Ukraine.  One was to get NATO out of the country and demilitarize Ukraine.  In Russia’s proposed outcome, previously Russia thought that once the war was ended on favorable terms, with NATO out and Ukraine demilitarized, Ukraine could seek security guarantees from any country of its choosing.  But Russia’s attitude about the war’s objectives is in flux and may be changing.  Medvedev’s comments about Ukrainian “regime change” is one possibility that could be on the table.  Obviously, Russian territorial gains will also be on the table and Russia may want to consolidate them.  But the “biggie” is Russia’s vision of what a future Ukraine might look like.  One template would be for Russia to keep the territorial gains and demand a change of government in Kiev that is friendly to Russia.  This can’t be engineered by elections, but would have to be by some kind of coup d’etat.  As there are no elections in Ukraine, a change of government can only happen by non-constitutional means.

The second template suggests that Ukraine could be broken up into three parts. Part 1 would be the Russian-annexed territories.  Part 2 2 would be a friendly government in Kiev.  Part 3 would be a Ukraine-run “state” in Western Ukraine which might establish political links to Poland.  The Russians are already talking about the need for a buffer zone to safeguard against attacks on Russian territory.  With long range missiles such as ATACMS, and the possible transfer of German long range cruise missiles, especially Taurus, a buffer zone has to be well west of the Dnieper river.  If the Kiev government is overthrown, its remnants might retreat to Lvov or some other location in the west that can be shielded by NATO, thereby achieving the buffer zone.

The Bundestag has rejected sending Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine although the German government is pushing for political approval.

The wild card in all this is NATO and, in particular, how willing NATO countries might be to engage in conflict with Russia.  

NATO is in no position to physically relieve Ukraine with land forces.  NATO has too few soldiers, and it risks leaving some NATO countries undefended and highly vulnerable, especially the Baltic states.  In practice it means that if NATO actually uses direct military force in the Ukraine war, it will be with aircraft to bomb Russian military positions, or possibly attack Russia’s ally, Belarus or, alternatively try and shut down Russia’s strategic enclave in Kaliningrad.  In 1945 the allies (including the Soviet Union) agreed at Potsdam that Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg ) would be administered by the Soviet Union.  Others have suggested that the allies could attack Transdenistra, which is a breakaway area along the eastern border of Moldova. There is a Russian garrison in Transdenistra, but no direct land bridge for the Russians to defend the territory.  While Kaliningrad is very strongly defended, Transdenistra is not.

But NATO’s dilemma is that not all NATO members will agree to implement Article 5 of the Treaty to start a war with Russia.  They all know they already are on very thin ice, and they lack public support for going to war for Ukraine.  Furthermore, Europe’s leadership ensemble is already in transition, and will be more so approaching summertime and more elections are held.  Given the fact that European arsenals are mainly exhausted, European land forces are mostly in bad shape (outside of Poland), and European air power is overrated, the best NATO policy will be to try and find a way to speak to the Russians, either before or after Ukraine’s collapse.

Meanwhile NATO’s head, Jens Stoltenberg, who is NATO’s Secretary General announced that NATO has given Ukraine permission to strike targets inside of Russia with soon to be delivered F-16 jets. In response the Russians have said that if US made F-16 jets strike Russia, Ukraine may no longer be the only target.

Stephen Bryen

Stephen Bryen is a former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense and is a leading expert in security strategy and technology. Bryen writes for Asia Times, American Thinker, Epoch Times, Newsweek, Washington Times, the Jewish Policy Center and others.

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