Neither side can afford to take an off-ramp
Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy has told world leaders that “only diplomacy will end the war” raging in his country, as Russia’s invasion stretches into its thirteenth week.
Up until now, the idea that anything less than Moscow’s total military defeat would be acceptable was effectively a taboo. Those, like French President Emmanuel Macron, who have called for Vladimir Putin to be given an ‘off-ramp,’ enabling him to save face with some kind of propaganda victory, have been slammed for carving up a nation that is doing everything to defend itself.
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The atlanticists agree. According to one influential US think tank, The Atlantic Council, a negotiated settlement would be “appeasement” of a hostile power, while Anne Applebaum wrote over the weekend that “the war won’t end until Putin loses.” But despite the tough talk, it is becoming increasingly clear that neither side has the capability to vanquish the other — and the prospect of a long, bloody deadlock is looming large.
And yet, it’s impossible to see what kind of deal Zelenskyy and Putin could do to end the carnage. Having scored major wins on the battlefield, most Ukrainians believe the tide has already turned in their favour and they now want to see justice done. To suddenly give up territory in return for peace would turn Kyiv’s president overnight from popular figurehead to pariah.
For hardliners in the Ukrainian military, like the Azov Batallion, any concessions at all would be a stab in the back when they are ready to lay down their lives for total victory, and a coup attempt might then be on the cards. In an editorial earlier this week, The Kyiv Independent summed up the mood —“Ukraine winning is the only option.”
Meanwhile, on the other side, even though Russian television propagandists like Vladimir Solovyov have admitted to “shameful” errors during the “special military operation,” they tell their viewers that the slow progress is only to minimise unnecessary civilian casualties. As Putin himself said in a speech earlier this month, “as in 1945, victory will be ours.”
Locked into that kind of rhetoric, the Kremlin has too much at stake to walk away empty handed, and recognition of its claims to sovereignty over Crimea and independence for the breakaway Donbas region are likely to be the minimum it could settle for. Those same demands — indeed the fact that the Russians had any demands at all — led to total deadlock the last time talks were held, and neither side has seen much point in reconvening since. Meanwhile, efforts to make the conflict too costly to sustain with sanctions have evidently made Russians more isolated, but failed to dent leaders’ resolve.
Without a realistic shot at a diplomatic solution, things are likely to carry on much as they already have. In the years since 2014, Ukraine has struggled to take back any of the territory occupied by Russian and Russian-backed forces in the Donbas, while Moscow and its proxies have been unable to push further into the region. The result was a bitter trench war that took its toll on people on both sides of the front line.
Now, despite tens of thousands of lives lost, all Putin has achieved is moving that front line a little further to the West, and the region seems set for the same kind of standoff it has seen for the past eight years, only on a larger scale.
The threat of a war nobody can win and nobody can end offers up a whole host of new problems, humanitarian, military, economic and political, for Russia, for Ukraine and for the West. But, for the time being, few seem prepared to contemplate them, given both sides are still intent on snatching victory from the jaws of a stalemate.