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29th Sep 2022

Column

How to respond, if Moscow now offers peace talks

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We are likely to all remember 24 February as a shocking day. Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine from north, east and south. In those shocking early days, the only consolation was that a group of military analysts, including Phillips P. O'Brien and Mike Martin, concluded quickly that Russia could not win the war.

I was a bit sceptical, fearing my own confirmation bias. But these analysts provided good reasons for their conclusion, in contrast to much of the herd opinion, which argued that Ukraine stood no chance. They were vindicated. If anything, the Ukrainian army is doing even better than they predicted.

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Its success is essential to convince the more sceptical of Ukraine's allies that the costs are worth it. How much optimism is warranted now?

The scenario of a relatively swift Russian defeat looks certainly more plausible than it did in August. Its capabilities are lower than it appeared, it lacks manpower and morale and has no immediate remedies to these deficits. It is difficult to see how Vladimir Putin can survive more major setbacks or outright defeat. Should this happen, Russia will find itself in a major political crisis.

Ukraine's allies should do their part to make this scenario come true, providing more weapons to end the pain as soon as possible. A restoration of Ukraine's globally-recognised borders would be the best outcome for long-term stability, showing that this blatant attack on the European peace order was repelled.

It is, however, not enough to simply bank on this scenario.

The war may still take much longer than we wish. While Ukraine's surprise attack in the north-east was a spectacular success, analysts tell us that it was achieved through deception, mobility and good morale, rather than by overwhelming force.

Russia can still do tremendous damage to Ukrainian infrastructure. And it continues to inflict tremendous damage on the Ukrainian economy every day.

With a longer war possible, the Western discussion of possible negotiations is dangerously simplistic. Some keep arguing that the war could be ended if only Western states or Ukraine start negotiating and are willing to give away some Ukrainian territory.

This is a bad idea.

For one, it has never been clear what this war is about. The Kremlin has given so many reasons for it that it would break the limits of this text to repeat them all. The safest bet is to assume that Putin follows an opportunistic approach. If he could subjugate Ukraine, its culture and language, he would happily do so.

If not, he may claim that the war only concerns issues in the Donbas.

Offering him negotiations now would help him by taking off domestic pressure. He would portray it as Ukraine suing for peace. Domestic opinion in Ukraine also needs to be considered. After all the Russian destruction and atrocities, it's politically impossible for its government to offer negotiations.

What if Moscow blinks first?

The situation would be far more complicated if the Kremlin offered negotiations.

Many people would take such an offer as a sign of weakness and argue that it should be rejected. But that is too easy. Many of Ukraine's allies are democracies with complex public opinions. It is a challenge to keep them united behind this just cause.

A negotiation offer by the Kremlin could split the alliance.

In some countries, Germany and France in particular, it would be difficult to convince a public that faces economic pain to ignore a political exit from the war and insist on a purely military solution.

After all, one major argument for delivering weapons was that only a strong Ukraine could force Russia to the negotiation table. Now that Ukraine is stronger, it would be argued that the possibility of negotiations should not be ignored.

It is therefore important to prepare for the scenario of a Russian offer, not least to inoculate public discussion against the propaganda value Moscow would try to gain from such an offer.

The Kremlin would immediately present itself as the peace-seeking party, portraying Ukraine as a country bent on endless warfare.

An upside-down image for sure, but the Kremlin has quite successfully convinced many people of absurd arguments in the past– not least that this war has some kind of justification. It may be that on balance Ukraine should accept it, in order to keep the supporting alliance united.

The substance of such negotiations would be even more complicated. They would reflect the military outlook at the point at which they started Many friends of Ukraine rightly insist that only Ukraine should decide what it can offer to end the war. It is certainly not for others to discuss which territories Ukraine should give away or what concessions it should make, if any.

It is also true, however, that Ukraine's allies must take decisions on providing support and justify them to their people. In the end, like the war, negotiations can only be successful if Ukraine and its allies stay united.

In short, we need to be careful of political manoeuvring by the Kremlin aimed at exploiting differences in western public opinion. To do so, we need to have more debate and clearer views on how to respond, if Moscow opened a political track to this conflict.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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