Endgame in Ukraine struggling to be born

Kherson resident kisses a Ukrainian soldier, Kherson, Nov. 13, 2022.

At the White House press conference on November 9, when asked about the evacuation of the Russian forces from the Kherson Region and Kherson city, the US President Joe Biden said, “First of all, I found it interesting they (Moscow) waited until after the (midterm) election to make that judgement, which we knew for some time that they were going to be doing.” 

Biden added, “at a minimum, it will lead to time for everyone to recalibrate their positions over the winter period.” But Biden reserved  judgment as to whether Ukraine would be “prepared to compromise …( and) what the next steps may be.” 

What Biden implied was “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” — to borrow Antonio Gramsci’s famous line. 

Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. And, the seeds of peace lie in choices that are made. Looking back, indeed, Russia’s decision to vacate the occupation of Kherson on the western bank of the Dnieper River was a masterstroke. (See my blog Russia’s Kherson withdrawal is tactical.) 

It achieved three things. First and foremost, it presented itself to the regime in Kiev as a “victory” over Russia. Second, it signalled that Russia had no intentions of conquering Nikolaev and Odessa, and, furthermore, would visualise Dnieper as a buffer. Third, most important, it opened a window of opportunity for the US to nudge Kiev towards the peace table. 

The Russian tactic proved right, as subsequent developments testified. The US has moved fast to build on the Russian withdrawal from Kherson. On the one hand, Washington urged Kiev publicly that it should “seize the moment” (to quote General Mark Milley, chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff) and begin negotiations with Russia, flagging openly that the Ukrainian military has reached the high noon and it is unrealistic to expect more territorial gains. 

Biden himself on utilised the visit to Bali for the G20 summit to engage with the G7, EU and NATO interlocutors to forge a consensus to wind down the war. It was not particularly challenging since 

  • the US’ allies, gripped with ‘war fatigue’ are acutely conscious that it is not feasible to accede to Ukraine’s seamless demands for weaponry; 
  • the prospect of bankrolling the hollowed out Ukrainian economy for the foreseeable future is far too daunting; and,  
  • the crisis in the European economies threatens to lead to social unrest and political turmoil, and, therefore, addressing it becomes the all-consuming priority in the short and medium term, which would necessitate avoidance of wasteful foreign engagements.  

To what extent the western leaders touched base with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at Bali on November 14-16 remains unknown but the fact that Biden sat through his speech and listened attentively to the Russian viewpoint was a meaningful gesture in itself — as indeed, Lavrov’s decision not to make the drafting of the Bali Declaration a bone of contention. Lavrov had brief exchanges, away from the limelight, with the leaders of France and Germany. 

It is against this complex backdrop that Biden directed the CIA chief William Burns, a former envoy to Moscow, to reach out to his Russian counterpart Sergei Naryshkin (a senior Kremlin politician who was previously the head of the Presidential Administration and speaker of the Russian Duma.) 

The Turkish President Recep Erdogan has since disclosed that the Burns-Naryshkin meeting in Ankara on November 14 can be expected to ‘play a crucial role in preventing an uncontrolled escalation on the ground’ in Ukraine. 

That is to say, if the nascent US-Russia cogitations gain traction, the rumoured winter offensive by Russian forces, augmented with hundreds of thousands of additional troops following the recent mobilisation, may now get relegated to the backburner. 

That said, there is much unfinished business in Donbass with Ukrainian military entrenched in substantial portions of the region. Putin will likely redeem his pledge to the Russian people to ‘liberate’ Donbass from the oppressive occupation by Ukrainian nationalists. 

The “X” factor is going to be the attitude of the regime in Kiev headed by President Zelensky who would be sensing already that the ground beneath his feet is shifting. What adds to the volatility of the situation is that Zelensky is surviving virtually on American backing. Any signs of the Biden Administration distancing itself from him can unleash his rivals waiting in the shade to settle scores. 

Zelensky is a terrific stage performer to create optics in front of TV cameras and the world audience, but is hardly the statesman to hold Ukraine together in its present existential crisis. The halo built around him by carefully orchestrated western propaganda is essentially unreal.

Besides, he has to conduct the negotiations with Moscow with the ultra-nationalist groups in no mood to compromise with Russia. The deficiency in not having a power base of his own is Zelensky’s Achilles heel. Equally, the nationality question in western Ukraine remains a can of worms and there is bound to be revanchist claims by neighbouring countries, especially Poland. 

For these reasons, presumably, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has  emphasised the high importance of communication with the West as “the directing, supporting and reinforcing element” in the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.  

That is also the reason why the incident of two missiles from Ukraine falling on Poland at this juncture becomes a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Politico reported that “top U.S. officials have reached out to European leaders and officials in Zelenskyy’s office,… In a series of urgent phone calls, American officials requested that NATO allies refrain from issuing definitive statements until the completion of the investigation in Poland…” 

Interestingly, one of the first to comment was Zelensky himself. He jumped the gun to place the responsibility for the “missile strike” squarely on Russia. Zelensky alleged that it constituted an attack on collective security and a significant escalation, clearly suggesting that it amounted to an assault on a NATO member. 

Clearly, for Kiev, the incident carried more political than military significance, and Zelensky’s eagerness to drag Poland and the US into the conflict is apparent, so that there could be grounds to invoke Article 5 of the NATO Charter. 

However, the US, Poland, and NATO are manifestly eager to downplay the incident and are uninterested in invoking the article on collective security. Biden personally stepped in to refute insinuations of Russia’s involvement, conscious of the fragility of the peace process he strives to put together. 

The US and its alliance partners have no intention to fight Russia. That message has reached the Kremlin leadership. In turn, it will help rein in the hardliners in the Russian establishment as well who regard the annexation of entire eastern and southern regions of Ukraine upto the Dnieper as the logical end of the war, which is a sentiment that is widely shared in the Russian public opinion as well.