So long as Volodymyr Zelensky is President of Ukraine it is a waste of time and effort to try and get a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine. Zelensky is frozen into an immovable position as his internal support and survival is tied to strident Ukrainian nationalists who oppose any concessions to Russia. They want to fight to the last man (and woman).
If a negotiation between Russia and Ukraine is impossible, is there any solution to stopping the bloody war in Ukraine?
The facts are straightforward. The first, now abundantly clear, is that Ukraine cannot win its war against Russia. It lacks the manpower and firepower to push the Russians out of Ukrainian territory. The recent four month long Ukrainian counter-offensive has yielded almost no positive results other than to sacrifice huge amounts of war materiel and close to 20,000 troops killed and wounded.
It is now reported, on the urging mostly of the United States, that Ukraine will start yet another offensive operation by crossing the Dnieper river in the area of Kherson with the hope of cutting off Russia’s land access to Crimea. Also reportedly this offensive will include an attack on the massive Zaphorize nuclear power plant (Zaporiz’ka atomna elektrostantsiia) in order to create a nuclear incident which Ukrainian propaganda will blame on Russia.
There is little time for any new offensive because seasonal rains and cold weather will soon cover Ukraine. But the tactic seems to be based on the idea that Ukrainian infantry can follow paved roads and survive against concentrations of Russian artillery.
Russia will still retain air dominance over the battlefield, although there is a report that the UK is transferring Typhoon Eurofighter jets to Poland that might be seconded to Ukraine. (The promised F-16s won’t make it to Ukraine in time.)
Ukrainian pilots are not trained on Typhoons and could not operate them, suggesting that they would have to be operated by UK pilots and be based outside of Ukraine.
The Typhoon story is closely tied to a proposal by the UK’s relatively new defense minister Grant Shapps to send UK troops to Ukraine to better train Ukrainian troops in situ and to help the Ukrainians prepare and execute its current offensive and the new one planned for the Dnieper river and Zaphorize.
The British defense minister also proposed to take an active naval role in the Black Sea against Russia. Britain is already planning on sending UK fleet ships to clear mines in the Black Sea put there by the Russians.
The introduction of uniformed UK troops into Ukraine would almost certainly be regarded by the Russians as a casus belli and would mean the expansion of the Ukraine war to Europe. Apparently, this message reached UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who walked back Shapps’ proposal to send uniformed troops to Ukraine. Sunak, as yet, has not addressed either the possible Typhoon deployments nor British naval support for Ukraine in the Black Sea.
Meanwhile the ground is starting to shift in Washington. Responding to US and European efforts to move defense production to Ukraine, Russia carried out at least five separate strikes on October 1st, destroying Ukrainian military depots, retrofit and maintenance sites and manufacturing complexes. Successful attacks included targets in Cherkasy, Kryvyi Rih, Zaphorize (including the Motor Sich engine manufacturing company), Kostiantynivka and Kharkiv. Back in Washington growing discontent in supporting Ukraine is growing, with enough opposition to force Ukrainian aid out of the Continuing Resolution just passed to keep the US government running.
Some of the opposition reflects concern about rampant Ukrainian corruption. However, the bigger problem in Ukraine is a political struggle highlighted by the fact that the current commander in chief of Ukraine’s army, General Valerii Zaluzhny is opposed to the plans for the Dnieper offensive that Zelensky and Washington are pushing. Beyond that, in August and September Ukraine came nowhere near drafting enough men and women into the army because of growing resistance. The firing of recruiters, therefore, was not because of corruption (although there probably was some), but because of bad recruitment numbers.
There are various threats to Zaluzhny. The BBC Ukrainian Service reported recently that the Ukrainian State Bureau of Investigation (DBR) and the domestic intelligence agency, SBU, have launched a criminal investigation against Zaluzhny for the failure of the recent counter offensive in the south.
This investigation could not happen without Zelensky’s support. Zelensky has installed his own people in the SBU and uses it to arrest and harass his opponents.
Zaluzhny is regarded, even by the Russians, as an excellent commander. There are already growing attacks on him, blaming Zaluzhny for blowing up the Nord Stream pipeline (itself probably a CIA fabrication that did not directly blame Zaluzhny). A criminal investigation, however, aimed at his direct military leadership would be a severe blow to Ukraine’s army and to Ukraine’s ability to keep fighting.
Putting aside the cracks starting to show up in Ukraine, the real solution remains whether Russia and NATO can make a deal, not just over Ukraine but over the security architecture in Europe. The Russians believe that NATO expansion threatens them. Russian leaders also believe that along with the expansion of NATO and NATO bases comes the transfer of nuclear capabilities to the front line. Russia is seeking a roll-back on NATO expansion, something that isn’t remotely possible. However, finding a way to offset perceived offensive threats is potentially negotiable and would resemble, in some manner, arms control agreements that either are no longer relevant or have been abandoned, specially the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Force Agreement (INF) which the Trump administration cancelled in early 2019. The US alleged Russian non-compliance, but some think that INF was cancelled because it restricted the US from competing against Chinese intermediate range nuclear weapons. China was never a party to the INF and has steadfastly opposed joining any serious arms limitations agreements.
Ukraine cannot continue fighting for long without NATO support. On the surface, with EU and US politicians running to Kiev, one would assume that Ukraine will continue to get unlimited help from NATO. But support on the level of the past year is hardly possible for structural reasons alone (the lack of supplies, for example). Moreover, Europe is growing weary because all of its interventions have not secured victory. German, which was Europe’s industrial powerhouse, is failing economically largely because it lacks sufficient supplies of cheap energy, mainly Russian gas. Sooner or later the Germans will have to face their economic and political future, probably sooner.
The prospect of a widened war also is beginning to dawn on the consciousness of Europe’s leaders, if not in the United States.
It would seem that if Ukraine under its current leaders spurns negotiations with Russia, NATO and Russia do not operate under any constraints, setting aside local political issues. The Biden administration is unlikely to turn a page and open the door to diplomacy, but that can change if Ukraine suffers more military setbacks or the Ukrainian political structure crumbles.
While it can be said that Zelensky is in a trap from which he can’t escape, Biden is running for election and wants to avoid being blamed for another catastrophe after Afghanistan. It is hard to predict exactly what events or events would drive Biden to the negotiating table, but he does have a choice and can escape a debacle if he chooses.