All sides are hinting at peace talks — but the obstacles may be too great
For us Europeans, Armistice Day has a certain edge this year. For the first time in many years on our home continent, soldiers lie huddled in their trenches, sheltering from the munitions rained down on one another in such vast quantities that both the United States and Russia have outsourced their production to their respective Korean allies. The risks of a global conflagration have not been greater in any of our lifetimes; the prospect of rationing of heat and electricity looms as the cold winds begin to whip in from the East. But in Ukraine itself, as the war smoulders towards its first anniversary, is there a prospect of a winter ceasefire?
The Ukraine war has so far vanquished even the most confident predictions. From its very first days until the ongoing, ignominious retreat from Kherson, the Russian army has singularly failed to translate its seeming advantages in manpower and materiel into battlefield success. Russian propagandists, once confident of victory, are now ranting on state TV about Putin’s failure to shoot his top commanders. With the imminent loss of Kherson, a city conquered almost without a fight in the war’s opening days, Russia will have lost the one Ukrainian provincial capital it managed to seize, formally absorbed into Putin’s Motherland just six weeks ago.
No wonder the Russians are beginning to offer the prospect of a truce once again, with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova proposing peace talks “without preconditions” in “recognition of the current reality.” While Zelensky has restated his willingness to resume talks — though only once Russia has relinquished its hold of its remaining Ukrainian territory, a condition Putin is unlikely to accept — negotiations are once again no longer a dirty word.
Recent briefings from American diplomats strongly imply that Kyiv is being leaned on to show willingness to negotiate from a position of strength, with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s recent trip to meet Zelensky framed as Washington “testing the waters a bit” to see if the prospect of talks could be realised. Sullivan’s recent resumption of communications with the Kremlin’s Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev — a product of Putin’s recent nuclear threats — perhaps indicates both sides’ willingness to compromise.
Certainly, the recent disclosure from the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, that each side has suffered around 100,000 casualties in the war so far — “a lot of human suffering” — has been framed as an opportunity to pause and reflect on the war’s outcome. As the New York Times notes:
But wars have a logic of their own, and rarely end when their participants want. The Russian retreat to fortified positions across the broad Dnieper river may dampen the prospect of any further Ukrainian offensives in the country’s south, but the accumulation of newly conscripted Russian forces and materiel in Belarus will cause Kyiv to rightly fear that any pause in hostilities will be used by Moscow to gather strength for a second northern offensive in the spring. On the other hand, given Russia’s lacklustre performance so far, there is little reason for Moscow to feel confident that its demoralised and poorly-equipped new conscript army will fare any better in 2023 than its best troops did this year.
As Russia continues to degrade the living standards of Ukraine’s home front through its long-range assaults on the country’s infrastructure, and both sides attempt to exhaust each other on frontlines made static by the coming winter, hope remains in short supply. Barring a Christmas miracle, the chances are that the year will end as it began, as both sides hammer the opposing troops in their frozen trenches, wagering that the punishment they can inflict will eventually outweigh the punishment they can bear.