“Nobody was preparing for this kind of war,” Russian propagandist Olga Skabeeva decried on her state television show on Friday. “Nobody expected that 50 or so countries would stick up for Ukraine. Our army isn’t massive, and it’s not designed for such ambitious wars.”
Given Moscow was warned unambiguously in the run up to February’s invasion that Western nations would do whatever they could to support Ukraine in the event of an all-out conflict, her realisation is about nine months too late. And yet, even a few weeks ago, Skabeeva’s admission on the airwaves would have automatically been a criminal offense. Times are changing, it seems, and it’s getting harder and harder for Moscow’s elite to pretend their offensive is going to plan.
Beating a hasty retreat from Kherson last week, Russian forces handed back the only Ukrainian regional capital they had captured to date. Kremlin defence chiefs say the evacuation to the east banks of the Dnipro River was necessary to avoid 40,000 soldiers being encircled, and to shore up their frontlines across the territory they still control.
However, analysts predict that the liberation of Kherson puts Kyiv’s US-made missile launchers in range of the roads being used to bring in military hardware from occupied Crimea. Those defending Ukraine were already better equipped, better trained and better motivated than their foes, but now they have the momentum as well. With winter on the way, Moscow is in a weaker position than ever before.
Yet, at the same time, some of Kyiv’s closest allies have been piling on the pressure for peace talks to resume, after they collapsed earlier this year following a series of unproductive summits brokered by Turkey. “There has to be a mutual recognition that military victory is probably, in the true sense of the word, not achievable through military means,” the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley said last week. “And therefore, you need to turn to other means.”
Washington has since clarified that it is fundamentally down to Ukraine to decide when it’s time to talk peace, with the State Department reiterating only Kyiv can come up with a framework for discussions. The statement came in response to a Washington Post report that President Joe Biden’s White House was encouraging Ukrainian leaders to contemplate a compromise, despite having publicly refused to deal with Vladimir Putin.
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Meanwhile, Mail Online cites a controversial Kremlinologist, Valeri Solovey, who claims that the Kremlin has been offered surrender terms that would see it give up the territory of Ukraine it occupies, except for Crimea which would become a demilitarised zone until the end of the decade. Putin would be allowed to stay in power, Solovey insists, and his inner circle would escape charges for war crimes.
In reality though, the chances of a negotiated truce seem slim. With Ukraine’s defenders on course to hand Russia a colossal defeat, anything short of victory would likely seem like unfavourable terms. Russia too has struggled on an institutional level to face up to the scale of the challenges it faces, doubling down on the rhetoric and throwing yet more young men into the breach. Quite how it could justify to the public doing a deal with what Putin insists is a “Nazi regime,” without his authority entirely falling apart, is unclear.
To complicate matters still further, in September the Kremlin published a decree in which is “annexed” the regions of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk following a series of referendums widely decried by the international media as shams, marred by fraud and intimidation. Despite the lack of international recognition for the illegal landgrab, Moscow is now locked into defending those areas as though they were a legitimate part of Russia – with constitutional reforms passed just last year making it illegal for them to be negotiated away.
For many Ukrainians, the idea of doing a deal with Russia is akin to doing one with the devil – what can truly be agreed with a state that can’t be trusted to uphold its end of the bargain? The idea that Moscow would simply use a truce to regroup, re-arm and hatch another plan for conquest won’t be far from the front of mind for Kyiv’s officials. Russia might never admit defeat, but the Ukrainians will likely hand it one anyway.
With neither side ready or willing to put an end to the war straight away, it is likely to continue much as it is already – with Kyiv liberating more and more of its territory each day. Unless Putin is ready to capitulate, or decides to try and change the game with atomic weapons, his own situation will get more and more dire as time goes on. Ultimately, he may end up wishing he’d taken one of the many off-ramps available to him, especially if it looks like his presidency could be just another casualty of the conflict.
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