Some of the close watchers of the Russia-Ukraine conflict have been talking up the prospects of peace talks. As we’ll discuss shortly, your humble blogger thinks this view is not currently well aligned with reality. Yes, things look to have thawed to the point that the US has backed off of worst-than-the-darkest-days-of-cold-war non-communication with Russia. But while thawing from close to absolute zero to a mere deep freeze is technically warming, it’s still awfully frigid. The two sides have zero bargaining overlap in their positions, which means no basis for discussions. And one of the biggest impediments to any settlement, other than Russia eventually dictating terms, is the leader the collective West has put on a pedestal: Zelensky, with the additional baggage of his Banderite inner circle.
The other big impediment to a cessation of hostilities any time soon is NATO. The US and NATO knows NATO manhood is at stake and that it can’t be seen to lose to Russia. They may be pinning their hopes on Russia leaving a rump Ukraine as a success, when Russia never intended to occupy the entire country.
But the US and NATO seem unable to process that Russia is destroying Ukraine by attacking its energy grid and could do the same to other European countries.1 It’s going to be hard to depict Western-Ukraine-as-failed-state, and a flood of refugees to Europe, as some sort of US/NATO win. But that’s the likely outcome on current trajectories.
Misreading the State of Play
A fair number of Russia-sympathetic, or at least “not buying what Ukraine is selling” commentators appear to have misread some noise in Western press. This may be due to cognitive bias. Anyone other than hardcore hawks in Russia would likely see the war end sooner rather than later. The partial mobilization has brought the war home.
Second, the Ukraine skeptics have a much better view of how the war is going than consumers of Ukraine PR via the Western press, pundits, and policy-makers. To them, it is clear things are not going well for Ukraine and the odds of Ukraine prevailing (pushing Russia out of Ukraine) are zilch, and even regaining much territory, are extremely slim. Surely the people in the West with the inside skinny understand this, and should therefore want to talk terms before things get worse.
The story that kicked off the peace talks hopium was in the WaPo. It was explicit that Zelensky had been told that he needed to look less inflexible about negotiating with Russia but not change his posture. Somehow commentators overlooked the second part of the instructions. The second was the WSJ revelation that National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had been communicating with two Russian officials for an unspecified amount of time. That was interpreted as working on a deal, as opposed to bare minimum keeping channels open. Recall also that Russia reported (before this story) that Russia had been getting regular “Don’t you dare use nukes” warnings from a senior level in the US when Russia had threatened nothing of the kind. Russia interpreted these communiques as escalation, not de-escalation. Colonel Douglas Macgregor had insider intel on Sullivan’s most recent communique and he said Sullivan made a coded or overt threat about deploying US/NATO troops. Sullivan had at least alluded to and perhaps fleshed out a “coalition of the willing” entering the war on behalf of Ukraine, as mooted by former general and CIA chief David Petraeus a few weeks earlier.2
The next bit of news that got the “negotiations are happening” crowd out over its skis was the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley leaking to the New York Times that he’d told the White House that “Ukraine should negotiate while it’s ahead.” First, Milley would not leaked it if he had won that discussion.3 Milley was made to retreat in the following days, depicting Russia as “really hurting bad” and underscoring that the Ukraine was in the drivers’ seat and the US would be there “as long as it takes”.
Milley’s boss, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin took an even firmer position in a speech Why Ukraine Matters last Friday in Halifax, maintaining that defeating Russia was key to US and world security:
The outcome of the war in Ukraine will help determine the course of global security in this young century. And those of us in North America don’t have the option of sitting this one out.
Stability and prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic are at stake. You know, the U.S. trading relationship with the European Union is the largest in the world. So when an aggressor manufactures a huge security crisis in Europe, it hits home for everyday Americans and Canadians.
Regarding the similarly-ballyhooed meeting between CIA chief William Burns and Sergey Naryshkin in Istanbul, the White House was announced before and insisted after there was discussion of Ukraine. I see no reason for Naryshkin to bring it up if Burns didn’t.
Nevertheless, some of the press has been noising about peace. It may be the recognition that stability in Europe is starting to crack thanks to spiraling energy costs, witness none other than the Financial Times today one of its lead stories covering protests in Germany, and depicting the participants as from the left as well as the right. From the top:
Were it not for the banners, it could have been a crowd gathering for an early opening of Leipzig’s Christmas market.
Then came the speeches.
“Please do not provoke the police and note that Russian flags or signs that show support for Russia’s armed forces are not welcome!” an organiser declared by loudspeaker at the event this month.
“Germany is serving as a puppet exclusively for American interests and those of Nato,” the first orator warned to the hundreds-strong crowd, a mix of students, families and pensioners. Some carried banners for the German left, some peace flags and some homemade signs drawing complex parallels between the nine-month war in Ukraine and the coronavirus pandemic. As the anti-American rhetoric soared, the crowd applauded, jeered and whistled.
“The embargo policy against Russia has failed completely and is being directed catastrophically against ourselves,” the speaker continued, invoking the Holocaust and declaring the war in Ukraine a “paradise” for “warmongers, arms companies and profiteers”.
Another important crack in the party line was a New York Times story that tried to ‘splain why Russia had not run out of missiles, despite repeated claims for many months to the reverse. Late in the piece, someone admitted no one really knew how many missiles Russia had. Ooopsie!
And more recently, there was also the surprisingly open criticism of Zelensky for sticking to the well-disproven story that Russia, rather than Ukraine has shot the missile that landed in Poland and killed two farmers. Even though most commentators accept the notion that a Ukraine air defense missile went astray, Scott Ritter, who says he has direct knowledge of how these systems work, argues the reverse, that it would have needed a radar signal to sent it there and it could have been arranged by someone not very high level in Ukraine (or Poland in cahoots). Corriere della Serra based on an account from Poland also claims the landing was no accident.
Regardless of whether this incident was an accident or by design, it was not a good look for Zelensky to look so eager to gin up a direct conflict between NATO and Russia. From the Financial Times:
Responding to Zelenskyy’s comments, a diplomat from a Nato country in Kyiv told the Financial Times: “This is getting ridiculous. The Ukrainians are destroying [our] confidence in them. Nobody is blaming Ukraine and they are openly lying. This is more destructive than the missile.”
In other words, the intensity and unanimity of support for Ukraine is getting a bit threadbare. But that’s still a long way away from the West being willing or able to turn this supertanker around. It’s invested enormous amounts of hard dollars, economic costs in the form of sanctions blowback, and information space artillery on this project. Most of the great unwashed public hasn’t changed its mind as much as is preoccupied with other matters, ranging from the struggle to pay the bills to preparing for the holidays. And for the most part, there’s still plenty of drumbeating that those evil Rooskies are on the verge of failure. From the Washington Post last week:
With its ground forces battered and losing territory, Russia has resorted to long-range bombing, while it struggles to train and equip tens of thousands of new conscripts, many of whom may have no desire to fight in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s failing war.
The Growing Zelensky Problem
Early in the conflict, Scott Ritter pointed out that Russia had strong incentives for Zelensky to remain President of Ukraine. If a peace ever were to be agreed, Zelensky signing off on it would legitimate it in the eyes of the world, since Zelensky had been built up as a true freedom fighter.
Moreover, so far, despite the tooth-gnashing about Zelensky refusing to drop his insistence that Ukraine was not responsible for the missile that fell into Poland, his continued seeming intransigence about negotiating has elicited annoyed remarks only from Russia. That suggests that Zelensky is still acting on Western orders, per the initial Washington Post story, that Zelensky was supposed to feign willingness to negotiate. From a Washington Post story last week:
There seems to be limited or no willingness to give ground from either side, with Moscow insisting that Ukrainian territory it illegally annexed will forever be Russian land. Ukraine, meanwhile, is demanding Russia’s full withdrawal from all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, which Russia annexed illegally in 2014.
The restoration of territorial sovereignty was part of a 10-point peace plan Zelensky presented to G-20 leaders this week. The plan also called for Russia to pay reparations.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Thursday accused Kyiv of setting preconditions for talks, which he said proved Ukraine was not interested in negotiating.
But Ryabkov said Russia’s commitment to its unconditional territorial integrity was unshakable, including “within the constituent territories that were admitted to the Russian Federation recently.” This was not the same as setting preconditions for talks, he said.
Similarly, some interpreted UK Prime Minister running to Kiev with yet another (but only 50 million pound) support package but not noising it up as a sign that Sunak was quietly trying to muscle Zelensky. The UK has been the most fierce supporter of Ukraine and I don’t see a brand new Prime Minister as quickly making a big shift. I agree with Alex Christaforu’s assessment, that Sunak was low-key press-wise because spending more on Ukraine when UK households are hurting is not a great look.
But regardless, events are moving against Ukraine. Russia will continue to take out its electrical grid. It’s very close to the point where large numbers of Ukrainians will have to leave the cities…either to the countryside or elsewhere in Europe. I don’t see how Europe can handle the influx.
But most observers in the West seem unable to grasp that this outcome is possible, even likely. Does Russia turn screws up gradually in the next round, as in whack the power totally in Lvov, triggering flight to Poland, to drive the point home?
The point is that Russia can, relatively quickly, make conditions untenable for Ukraine’s neighbors. Even so, I doubt the West could swallow the terms Russia would want. But even if they did, Zelensky would not agree. He can’t because he is surrounded by Banderite goons and Russia is determined to capture and try them.
One sign of the power of these neo-Nazis (again hat tip Alex Christaforu) is the continued rise of unrepentant Andrij Melnyk, former Ukraine ambassador to Germany. He was shockingly rude and unprofessional in his public statements about Germany. But what forced his resignation was an interview where he praised Stephen Bandera
However, after a short time in the doghouse, Melnyk has been promoted to deputy foreign minister. That’s not a plus for dealing with Russia, evah.
But recall that Zelensky has apparently long been hostage to the Banderite goons, who have beaten up and even killed Ukraine politicians seen as too friendly to Russia. Zelensky campaigned on normalizing relations with Russia and won 73% of the vote. He quickly changed his stance after he took office.
Moreover, the US has helped keep these Nazis a force in Ukraine long after what would have been their likely sell-by date. Scott Ritter recounted how the US funded them after World War II to weaken the Soviets through the fall of the USSR. The US again supported neo-Nazi groups such as Right Sector as part of the Maidan coup. And of late, he US has seen far too many Azov types being feted in the US or having their political stance airbrushed out of press accounts.
Vice Chairman of Russia’s Security Council, in a recent Telegram comment summarized in TASS, correctly depicted how Zelensky is boxed in:
Nevertheless, “Zelensky does not want any negotiations for quite obvious selfish reasons. Moreover, they [negotiations] are very dangerous for him,” Medvedev continued.
“After all, unless he acknowledges the realities of Ukraine’s break-up, it makes no sense to sit down at the [negotiating] table. Once he admits it, he will be bumped off by his own nationalists who are connected with the army top brass, and of whom he is scared out of his wits,” Medvedev said, describing the situation by the chess term ‘Zugzwang’ (in which each move of a player will worsen his/her position).
This scenario also underscores the mess the West is in if it were actually to get serious about wanting to negotiate (per above, my read on the rash of news is they amount to a combination of optics management plus some personal jockeying; there’s no sign Biden, Blinken, Sullivan, or Austin have changed position), they can’t maneuver around the neo-Nazi infestation the US bred. Zelensky will have to resist any peace overtures. If he were killed, the neo-Nazis would blame it on Russia and use it as a pretext for even more radical positions. After all, how much would it cost the US to provide intel and other support for terrorism?4
So I don’t see any alternative other than for Russia to continue on its current path of prostrating Ukraine. And I’m sure the Russians had worked that out a while back and see nothing that suggests it would make sense to change course.
1 Colonel Douglas Macgregor has also pointed out in the event of an official NATO war with Russia, as opposed to the current half pregnant version, Russia could take out all NATO airbases in Europe save one remote one, in Portugal, in the first hour and a half of the conflict.
2 I’m admittedly depending heavily on Macgregor in this reading, but Macgregor made a point of reading all the press carefully, knows the principals, and has additional info from insiders. None of the others opining on this topic have anything approaching his perspective. And given the way Milley was made to backpeddle massively, and his boss Lloyd Austin just took an very hard line position last Friday, Macgregor’s views appear to have been borne out.
3 See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obi849eRuN4, starting at 0:55
4 See the related John Helmer story today, where Russia is rumored to be considering establishing a very large demilitarized zone to prevent missile attacks. That would also make it harder for terrorists to slip in and out.