Ukraine - prospects for peace?

19 August, 10:48 PM
Erdogan, Guterres and Zelenskyy at negotiations in the Pototsky Palace in Lviv, August 18, 2022 (Photo:Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS)

Erdogan, Guterres and Zelenskyy at negotiations in the Pototsky Palace in Lviv, August 18, 2022 (Photo:Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS)

The Erdogan - Zelensky meeting in Lviv has brought some optimism that substantive peace talks between Russia and Ukraine could be in the offing.

The Turkish side was certainly banging that drum. 

The Turks have certainly been on the front foot in trying to push the two sides towards peace, with the Antalya and Istanbul peace talks earlier this year, and the grain deal for which the Turkish side must get some considerable credit.

For Erdogan the war in Ukraine just adds to his political problems at home, with elections due by next June, his poll ratings lagging and the war causing a huge hit to the Turkish economy when it is perennially close to a balance of payments crisis with a higher food and energy import bill.

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I worry a bit with the Erdogan administration that they are a little too desperate to push a peace deal, as at Istanbul and Antalya that appeared to be on Russian, not Ukrainian terms. The Ukrainians hence understandably rejected what was on offer back then. There is naïveté in the Turkish approach, but the Ukrainians are not that stupid as to accept anything Putin offers. The Turks should realise that.

Seemingly this time around Putin is willing to offer talks with Zelensky, before the shape of a future peace deal is set - the idea is they meet, talk over the issues and then on the back of this their teams work up a peace deal. This would be a sea change from Istanbul and Antalya talks when the Russian approach was “here are our terms, take them or leave them, but essentially we get everything we currently occupy, and you have to give up NATO aspirations and demilitarise”.

Ukraine was never going to accept those terms, especially after Ukrainians bravely faced down the Russian Goliath in the Battle of Kyiv.

I don’t actually know whether to believe the Turkish side, that Putin is now prepared to meet Zelensky, without prior conditions around a peace plan. 

As I said, the Turks have form in over egging peace deals, again I think partly for wishful thinking for their own domestic political reasons. 

But the grain deal did suggest to me that Moscow wants to deal - I saw no real strategic reason why Moscow would agree to allow the passage of grain shipments out of Ukrainian ports, easing the economic blockade of Ukraine as a result. Perhaps aside from a desire to try and score some international PR points that Moscow is not really responsible for the global food crisis. Perhaps the Kremlin wanted to signal a new found willingness to talk or compromise. Maybe.

What is clear to me now though is Russia is losing the war.

What is clear to me now though is Russia is losing the war.

And it’s conventional military is being shamed in Ukraine - defeated in the Battle of Kyiv, ground to a stalemate in the Battle of Donbas, and now being set up for defeat in the Battle of Kherson, and maybe even Crimea.

Every day that goes by the Russian military is losing further capability. It’s still incredible to imagine that six months into the conflict, and Russia still does not control the airspace over Ukraine.

Ukraine still has air defence capability, and in fact the recent attacks by Ukraine on Crimea shows that Russia’s own air defences are in dissarray/collapsing. This is Russia, that sold itself as a peer military competitor to the USA, and it is struggling to defeat the David which is Ukraine, by their own admissions at the start of this war likely a third or fourth tier military power.

It’s ridiculous that Russia is still trying to sell its air defence systems, S400s, to third countries - actually more incredulous that nations such as India, Egypt and Turkey actually want to buy Russian scrap metal.

Facts are that Russia has lost tens of thousands of troops (likely 100k now KIA, WIA, MIA, or half its starting military force), hundreds, if not thousands, of tanks and APCs, hundreds of fixed wing and rotary aircraft, and its artillery superiority is being eroded now on a daily basis by HIMARS.

It seems to be running out of guided missiles, and is having to resort to lower tech unguided munitions which by their nature are inaccurate. It’s kit, tactics, leadership, morale have been exposed as decrepit, not fit for purpose, and actually absolutely beatable. Ukraine can win this war. And Russia cannot easily replace its kit, given the moribund status of the Russia ecomomy and sanctions. 

Herein Putin faces numerous risks from the continuation of this war:

First, a total collapse and indeed humiliating rout of Russian forces remaining in Ukraine, even extending to Crimea;

Second, and if he continues the war, he faces huge attrition in terms of conventional forces, which will mean Russia has little chance of maintaining any sort of military partity with NATO and the West, and especially now given that NATO members will all be raising military spending to 2% plus of GDP.

And note herein that people like Mearsheimer (who I think is totally and utterly wrong in his read of Putin and Ukraine) say for Putin it’s all about the NATO threat - well if it is, surely Putin will quickly come to the realization that the war in Ukraine is eroding his ability to compete with the West. 

Third, I guess mindful of the first two points, a defeat in Ukraine and against NATO would risk political and social pressures at home for Putin. If he can settle some kind of peace now, where he can keep some territory in Ukraine, maybe Donbas and Crimea, albeit having to give up the southern land corridor, Putin likely now would take it, in order to regroup, and lick his wounds. Maybe he thinks he then can cling to power for some time yet in Russia.

So from Russia’s point of view I can see that he might be more interested in actuslly a negotiated settlement now, or this winter, as opposed to his attempt to impose a peace deal on Ukraine as was his approach at Istanbul and Antalya. Putin now needs a peace in Ukraine.

I do think he comes back to the table this autumn but, and as I have written, I think he does try and improve his negotiating position by further turning the screw on Europe thru the energy channel, to get Europe on its knees by the autumn so that serial appeasers of Putin like Germany and France do everything they can to pressurise Ukraine to accept a peace deal. 

I would add here a concern that Moscow might still do the unthinkable and create a nuclear incident at the Zaporizhzhiya NPP to again focus Europe’s attention on the need to bring peace, on his terms, to Ukraine.

It’s less obvious that Ukraine would want to accept a deal deal at this point, unless as Zelensky says, Russia first withdraws from Ukrainian territory. Note here that at the Erdogan - Zelensky summit, Zelensky adopted a harder line position than previously saying that he would meet 

Putin to talk peace but only if Russia withdraw from all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea. Previously the line ws withdrawal just to positions as per Feb 23.

The hardening in the Ukrainian position reflects a number of facts. First, Ukrainian popular opinion has hardened as the list of Russian war crimes against Ukraine has grown. Around 90% of the Ukrainian population, according to recent polls, now suggest that Ukraine should not make any territorial concessions to Russia.

Too much blood has been shed. Second, Ukraine seems to be winning this war. As noted Ukraine won the Battle of Kyiv, won a stalemate in the Battle of Donbas and there are now expectations that Ukraine might be about to launch the Battle of Kherson with an offensive in the South.

The Russians certainly expect the Ukrainians to launch this offensive in the South, and have redeployed troops and equipment South from Donbas. 

I am actually less convinced that Ukraine will launch this new offensive, at least not via a conventional Ukrainian full frontal, military assault, as perhaps the Russian expect. I actually think the Ukrainian side, with considerable support from its Western allies, might be thinking of a different strategy, but again mindful of the liklihood that Putin will want to sit down to negotiate a deal this autumn.

What I think is happening is that the US, et all are now supplying Ukraine with lots more long range kit. The strategy now is to use HIMARS, et at, in great numbers to erode and degrade Russian supply lines, logistics, air defenses, artillery, and air bases. In effect the idea is to destroy Russia’s war fighting machine in Ukraine, and importantly there extending to Crimea.

The messaging around a new offensive in Kherson was part of the script, to get Russia to move kit from Donbas to Kherson, and put huge amounts of kit in transit and plain view of HIMARS, et al. This works to the new Ukrainian agenda of destroying the Russian military machine in Ukraine, and the assumption is that Putin cares much more about his machinery of war, than his troops.

The Russian ecomomy simply cannot replace the planes, tanks, artillery and air defences that Putin should care so much about, if for Putin this is all about keeping some kind of parity with the West. 

I think the US is on board with this strategy with the view that each tank that the Ukrainians are able to destroy is one less for NATO to have to confront further down the line. But I think the view is also that Putin will have to come to the table this autumn, but max out the use of the meat grinder on the Russian military before then. And if Putin can see his military being destroyed every day in Ukraine, he will be forced to the negotiating table sooner, rather than later.

The new attacks by Ukraine on Crimea are I think part of this strategy. These are important for a number of reasons. First, Crimea has long been a huge barracks, military base for Russia, even prior to its annexation in April 2014. Indeed, under the long term leasing arrangement with Ukraine reached years before the annexation, Russia was able to keep 26,000 troops on Crimea, and it was replete with lots of Russian air bases, the home to the Black Sea fleet, etc. Crimea was a bastion of the Russian military even prior to annexation.

Now the numerous recent attacks on Russian bases in Crimea is an affront to Russian pride - that again its air defences have been breached by the David which is Ukraine. Similar here in many respects to the sinking of the 

Moskva. And second, Russians holiday en-masse in Crimea, they now see it as Russian, and attacks on Crimea send a clear signal that the war in Ukraine is coming home to Russia and Russians. If Crimea, where next? Rostov? Smolensk?

The sight of hundreds of thousands of Russian tourists fleeing Crimea in recent days must have resonated - Putin’s actions are making Russians less safe. Third, the attacks on Crimea imply that Russia’s grip itself on Crimea is not secure. The Ukrainians are saying, as Zelensky did in Lviv, that they don’t accept the annexation of Crimea, and are prepared to fight for it. Russians had assumed Crimea was done, but it is not. Because of this war, Russia’s grip on Crimea is at risk. Again, because of Putin’s crazy and I’ll thought out war. 

So summarising the above into what I think happens. I think we see continued Ukrainian long range attacks on Russian troops in Ukraine, including Crimea, to devastating effects, as the West supplies more long range kit. I think Putin knows he needs a peace deal, but does continue to fuel the energy crisis in Europe over the next few months.

I don’t think there will be a defining battle for Kherson, but the defining battle will be the Battle of Supply Chains - Russian military supply chains in Ukraine, and possible European supply chains disrupted as a result of Putin’s energy war in Europe. It’s ironic that both countries strategies are now based on hitting the other deep behind the front lines but with Ukraine this is in southern Ukraine, and for Russia is it in Central Europe, Germany, et al thru energy.  

And eventually I think the two sides do end up at peace talks this autumn, likely November, when the first snows are falling and when Putin will be nervous about leaving his military in an enemy field during freezing temperatures.  

“Question will be how far Putin will be prepared to compromise, and can Zelensky accept any territorial concessions now, or is he and Ukraine (willing) to fight on until all Ukrainian territory is liberated? And I guess I worry if Putin is willing to play the Z-card - Zaporizhiya NPP?”

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