Why time isn’t ripe for Ukraine talks

Russia warns that Patriot missile defence systems will be legitimate targets should Washington supply them to Kiev (File photo) 

A Russian-American “consensus” is forming that the Ukraine conflict is far from a climactic stage leading to peace talks. Russia’s stance is that any settlement will devolve upon Kiev recognising “realities” — namely, acceptance of Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporozhye and Kherson regions being integral parts of Russian Federation. 

But wouldn’t Russia know that no government in Kiev can afford to concede a demand that entails loss of over a quarter of the country’s territory? On the other hand, Kiev wants to vacate the Russian occupation and restore Ukraine’s 1991 borders and the Biden Administration is supportive. Wouldn’t they know that is a pipe dream? 

Truly, since four of the erstwhile Ukrainian oblasts (excluding Crimea) are far from under Russia’s total control and the Kremlin intends to fully “liberate” them, the fighting continues in Donbass and further Russian moves to gain full control over Zaporozhye and Kherson regions will depend on its outcome. 

But the big question remains: How could any government in Kiev surrender vast tracts of Ukrainian territory after such sacrifices by the people? That may leave Russia with no choice but to seek total victory.

The attitude of the Biden Administration is crucial. The clearest indication that the US is far from in a hurry to negotiate comes from none other than the White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan whose visit to Kiev last month (just before the US midterms) had triggered a flurry of speculations that Washington was pressuring President Zelensky to negotiate. 

Now, Sullivan’s remarks at an appearance at the Carnegie last weekend made it clear that the US is in Ukraine for the long haul. He said: 

“We don’t know when this is going to end up. What we do know is that it is our job to continue to sustain our military support to Ukraine so that they are in their best possible position on the battlefield, that if and when diplomacy is ripe, they will be in the best possible position at the negotiating table. 

“That moment is not ripe now, and so, as a result, we’ve gone to Congress and asked for a substantial amount of further resources to be able to continue to ensure that Ukraine has the means to fight this war. We’re confident we will get bipartisan support for that… 

“I am not going to precept the future, I’m only going to assure that in the present we are doing everything we can to maximise Ukraine’s chances of defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity… yes, it is likely to go on for quite some time…”

Basically, the US claims to have a winning hand in Ukraine. Sullivan’s prognosis is broadly in sync with an essay penned by the former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger this week in the Spectator magazine where he presented his latest set of proposals on Ukraine. 

Interestingly, Kissinger claims, “Ukraine has become a major state in Central Europe for the first time in modern history. Aided by its allies and inspired by its President, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine has stymied the Russian conventional forces which have been overhanging Europe since the second world war. And the international system – including China – is opposing Russia’s threat or use of its nuclear weapons.” 

Apparently, Kissinger has shifted from his earlier assessment and tried to synchronise his watch with the Biden Administration’s prognosis of the conflict situation. From such a one-sided perspective, Kissinger now advocates a peace process that would “link Ukraine to NATO, however expressed” and a Russian withdrawal to the lines before February 24, while the other territories Ukraine claims – Donetsk, Lugansk and Crimea – “could be the subject of a negotiation after a ceasefire.”

However, an extraordinary thing about Sullivan’s remarks is that he concluded by underscoring that the US intervention in the Ukraine conflict should not be seen as a stand-alone affair. As he put it,

“Look, at the end of the day, the approach of the Biden Administration is really to try to fix our eyes pretty far out into the future to say where do you want the United States and our like-minded allies and partners to be in a decade from now, two decades from now, how do we put ourselves in a maximally, strategically sound position vis-a-vis our competitors (read Russia and China.)” 

In that line of thinking, Sullivan explained that the metrics by which to judge the Biden administration should be a 5-10-20 year metrics rather than 1-2-3 metrics, and, judging by that, the Biden Administration feels good about the set of investments it has made in Ukraine. (Who knows, the conflict in Ukraine may have its uses in President Biden’s bid for a second term.) 

Sullivan flagged that 2022 shows that the “US is going to play the long game” both in the geopolitical competition and in addressing the transnational challenges of our time. In the Biden administration’s estimation, this overall approach “is beginning to pay off.” 

What emerges is that if Russia’s strategy is to “grind” the Ukrainian military, the US strategy is also to “grind” the Russian military. In Sullivan’s reckoning, the Ukrainian nationalists are a winning card, since, so long as they are the country’s ruling elite, there is no question of the Ukrainian state “collapsing,” and it remains cost-effective for Washington to keep the conflict going. 

After all, much of the arms aid is actually going to upgrade the capability of the NATO allies by replacing their old stocks that were being diverted to Ukraine, and therefore, doesn’t “the metrics of 5-10-20 years” makes greater sense?  

Equally, if the Russian calculation is that the longer the conflict continues, the greater the possibility of Europe disengaging from it out of exhaustion, in the US estimation, on the contrary, a protracted conflict will only rally the western allies, as Europe abhors the prospect of a Russian victory, and left to itself, without such massive American involvement, European countries lack the capability and wherewithal to take on the Russian juggernaut. 

Simply put, Europeans are relegated to a subaltern role and the plain truth is that they have nowhere else to go. One salience here cannot be overlooked, namely, within the European Union itself, it is the countries of Eastern Europe that have taken a lead role on the Ukraine conflict, and they are hardliners who wish to see an abject Russian defeat militarily. 

This is causing a major shift in European politics with far-reaching consequences, which can only work to the advantage of the US’ transatlantic leadership. The US aligns with the countries of Eastern Europe, whereas Russia has no friends out there. The bottom line is that Washington has made sure that Russia also cannot count on a lifting of western sanctions for the foreseeable future, aside the issues of territory. 

Therefore, in the prevailing circumstances, Russia’s option narrows down to inflicting a crushing defeat on Ukraine in the coming months and installing a government in Kiev that is not under Washington’s control. But that requires a fundamental shift in the Russian military strategy, which would factor in the real possibility of a confrontation with the US and NATO at some point. 

(Scroll down the video, below, to the 32nd minute for White House NSA Jake Sullivan’s remarks on Ukraine conflict at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington on Friday.)