Let’s play out commonly-held views among non-mainstream, close watchers/commentators on the Ukraine conflict. Keep in mind they are increasingly confirmed by the orthodox press (see Ukraine Isn’t Ready For Its Big Offensive, But It Has No Choice from the Sunday Times for a fresh example). Mind you, we need to offer a big caveat up front: the hawks are sufficiently well entrenched (Biden himself, Blinken, Sullivan, Nuland, as well as the key players in the UK Ministry of Defense) that it may prove to be extremely difficult to open a line to Russia. Not only, as we will discuss, is there no bargaining overlap between probable Collective West and Russian positions, but there hasn’t been any between the US/NATO hawks and the realists. And it’s not clear that the prospect or actuality of a Ukraine defeat will change that. You would expect such a loss to dislodge the war-mongers, but look at their positions in decision-making.
Ukraine is going to launch a counter offensive, with the latest rumors pegging it for mid-May, but as late as June is possible. Ukraine can’t back down because its coalition partners have spent money on it and they and Ukraine have talked it up too much.
It will probably go badly. Ukraine can’t muster up a very large force, even with expected NATO types and mercs adding to the ranks. It is very short on ammo. It lacks air support. It is operating with a hodge podge of armored vehicles and weapons systems. There’s good reason to expect it to be a worse bloodbath that the Kherson offensive (not to be confused with the later Russian evacuation of Kherson city), where Ukraine hospitals as far as Odessa were overflowing with the wounded.
Even if goes better than expected (due to a monster Russian screw-up, Ukraine successfully deceiving Russia as to the size and target of its attack), Ukraine is too short on men and materiel to sustain an offensive. Even if Ukraine gained some ground, most expert observers agree this would be Ukraine’s final throw. As Obama said, Russia has escalation dominance, and Ukraine’s forces are weaker than they were when the war started. Many argue that Ukraine’s current force is effectively a second army built by the US and NATO. They lack the ability to create a third one.
If Ukraine does particularly well, or alternatively pulls off a nasty terrorist stunt, the Russian government will be under pressure to hit back hard and quickly, at a minimum with more destructive air strikes. Russia has now sufficiently degraded Ukraine’s air defenses that it can deploy massively destructive glide bombs, which has further tipped the table to Russia’s advantage.
Aside from the scenario of unexpectedly good performance by Ukraine leading Russia to need to hit back fast and hard for domestic purposes, Russia is likely to decide the nature and pace of what to do next based on the information it gains from Ukraine’s conduct of the offensive. I still believe Russia will not change from an attritional approach until it has at a minimum cleared all of Donbass and eliminated Ukraine’s ability to shell Donetsk city. That is still a way away on current trajectories. The Ukraine counteroffensive should accelerate the timetable by burning up men and materiel faster, particularly if Ukraine follows its established pattern of pulling troops and machines from other parts of the front lines to shore up crumbling positions.
So Ukraine’s counteroffensive, even if it fails to dent Russian positions much/at all, could conceivably go on for a bit due to Bakhmut-level efforts to dig in. But I am not sure any of the conceivable lines of attack would offer Ukraine any where near as good holdout opportunities as Bakhmut has.
Below is a map from a few days ago from the Financial Times. It has the advantage of being relatively current and not being cluttered up with deployment porn.
My understanding from the various English-speaking war watchers is that once Russia takes Bakhmut, the last line of defense is at Slaviansk and Kramatorsk, and for reasons over my pay grade, will be easier to surmount than Bakhmut. Russia also needs to take Avdiivka and Marinka, two cities to the west of Donetsk city that Ukraine is using to shell Donetsk. It’s a big embarrassment to the Russian military that this is still going on, so that needs to be cleaned up before anything big happens.
Let’s throw in a few other issues:
The sharp divisions between the hawks and realists mean that even if the Ukraine counteroffensive is a complete fiasco, to the degree that the press can’t and won’t cover it up, the warmongers can’t beat their own retreat that quickly. So any decision to talk to Russia likely won’t be coming soon (if at all).
A slower timetable for the Collective West coming to its senses again suits Russia. For appearances with the Global South, it least has to look like it is willing to end the war. But Russia for reasons of formal commitments has to take all of the four annexed oblasts, even if territorial acquisition is not a primary objective (prostrating Ukraine, whatever that looks like, and now bleeding NATO white, are).
Despite China publishing a peace napkin-doodle (its proposal was at best an apple pie and motherhood statement of principles, which Zelensky immediately jumped upon, asking to meet Xi, which eventually led to Xi relenting and taking his call, China is an interested bystander. The most important part of the readouts to me was China making it very clear it was ready to help rebuild Ukraine. There are a lot of observers who are attributing more significance to this call that it has. The Kremlin poured cold water on the idea that this was anything more than a China-Ukraine chat. From TASS:
“We are ready to welcome anything that could help bring an end to the conflict in Ukraine closer and, actually, also help Russia achieve all of its goals. We are ready to welcome that. As for the fact of their communication, it is a sovereign matter for each of the two counties that pertains exclusively to their bilateral dialogue,” the Kremlin spokesman [Dmitry Peskov] told reporters on Thursday.
So I don’t see how peace talks get anywhere. The hawks are still in the driver’s seat and will either balk at negotiations or set preconditions. Recall Russia previously rejected preconditions; even if they were to entertain them now, the odds are very high the West’s initial demands, like an immediate ceasefire, would be rejected, or quickly vitiated by Russian counters like “Only if you suspend the sanctions.”
That does not mean there won’t be backchannel chatter, but don’t expect it to go far.
The sort of thing that could provide real impetus for a negotiation initiative would be:
1. Evidence of Ukraine military failure, like Russia marching to the banks of the Dnieper, encircling Dniepro, and/or parking on the eastern side of Kiev. That sort o big change in the look of the maps would focus some minds.
2024 US elections could also produce a big change in personnel which could open up a lot more options, but I would not bet on that.
2. In connection with some sort of large-scale, undeniable success, Russia could up the ante and play to the Global South by making an ultimatum of sorts: “We’ll entertain stopping here [subject to some conditions like a rollback of some sanctions, ideally the ones that make poor countries collateral damage], otherwise we continue.” Russia is not big on signaling its targets but it would not be hard to see that as a barely-coded threat to take the Black Sea coast and leave rump Ukraine even less viable than it would otherwise be.
Mind you, Putin does not seem to be all that keen about taking Odessa; he’s called it an apple of discord. Others have pointed out a dearth of nearby geographic features to help in creating a barrier between presumed-future Russian Black Sea coast acquisitions and rump Ukraine.
Let’s charitably assume, despite all that, that the West actually does ask Russia to negotiate. Unless the request is made in an obviously unacceptable manner, Russia has to entertain it.
But I don’t see how this goes anywhere until leaders in West have really, really internalized that Russia holds a great hand and does not have good reasons to stop until it has subjugated Ukraine.
And all Russia has to do to substantively sabotage negotiations is to bring up the demand that Putin has been making in different forms since the Munich Security Conference of 2007: security guarantees. Who will give them? The gleeful French and German admissions of duplicity with respect to the Minsk Accords means no NATO state can be trusted, save maybe Turkey (and if Erdogan survives, he’ll likely be deemed too close to Russia to be acceptable). The US clearly can’t be trusted. China would not be acceptable, and is not suited to the role (it’s not a land power and does not have a presence in theater).
So unless some tail events happen (and Taleb warns tails are fat), we still look to be on course to Russia prosecuting the war until it can impose terms on Kiev.
1 I do not attach the significance that others do to China using a Russian translator for Zelensky. Zelensky was born and raised in a Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine and by all accounts, his Ukrainian is really not very good. I suspect his not-bad English is at at least as fluent. To me, it’s more telling that Ukraine did not clear the language to be used first (I would assume that customarily both sides have their own translators to assure no misunderstanding; can any readers confirm?). The use of a Russian translator looks much more like a wink and nod Chinese courtesy than an official statement.