Ukraine war: Negotiations only way forward

Map of Ukraine

First published at Arguing for Socialism on September 18.

The Russia-Ukraine war has been raging for over six months. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians have died, many more have been wounded and traumatised. Millions have become refugees. The material damage is immense — towns and villages, infrastructure, transport and so on have been smashed up.

How did this happen? 

Russia fired the so-called “first shot” to start the current war in Ukraine. But more fundamentally, the war is actually the outcome of Washington’s push over more than three decades to tear the country away from its connections with Russia and integrate it into the US-NATO anti-Russia bloc.

Things escalated sharply with the Maidan upheaval in early 2014. Backed by the West, the rightist regime of chocolate oligarch Petro Poroshenko came to power. It downgraded the official status of the Russian language. The people in the southeast (the Donbass) and the south rose up against the attempt to strip away the rights of the ethnic Russian population. They formed self-defence units. In the rest of the country the influence of the neo-nazi far-right grew dramatically. The rebellions in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces survived, but in cities like Mariupol and Odessa they were crushed.

The Ukrainian regime signed the Minsk accords in 2014-15. These accords provided for a form of self-government for the Donbass. However the regime ignored the deals it had signed and tried to militarily conquer the rebel provinces. This campaign failed when the Ukrainians suffered some heavy defeats (particularly at the battle of Debaltseve in early 2015).

Ukrainian forces dug in along the line of control and over the years established a very heavily fortified series of trenches and strongpoints. On the eve of the Russian intervention about half of the Ukrainian army was deployed there.

Ukraine’s integration into NATO was moving forward rapidly even without formal membership. NATO countries have trained thousands of Ukrainian soldiers. In May 2021 Ukraine took part in a big joint military exercise with NATO countries. In December last year, Ukraine amended its constitution to allow foreign troops to operate in the country.

In February this year it looked very likely that Ukraine was going to invade the rebel Donbass region. There was a massive increase in shelling across the line of control into the Donbass (see map below). This was probably the immediate trigger for the Russian intervention.

Map Donbas shelling

Military situation

Like it or not, the reality is that Russia is highly unlikely to be militarily defeated. Its armed forces, population and economy are massively bigger than Ukraine’s. It currently occupies some 20% of Ukraine. This land contains the bulk of the country’s mineral wealth and productive capacity. Ukrainian forces are being ground down, taking very heavy and completely unsustainable losses in the face of devastating Russian artillery and air bombardments to which they have no adequate answer.

It is also now clear that Western weapons alone won’t turn the military tide in Ukraine’s favour. The really critical stuff (heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems) has been supplied in relatively limited numbers; it needs highly trained troops to operate; a lot has been destroyed in transit or on the battlefield.

Furthermore, recent reports have highlighted that possibly as little as 30% of Western weapons supplies have actually reached the Ukrainian military — the rest has been siphoned off into the black market, ending up who knows where.

Recent Ukrainian offensives

On August 29, Ukraine launched its much-heralded offensive towards Russian-occupied Kherson in the south. The offensive was reportedly pushed by Zelensky against the wishes of the military high command. He needed a big demonstration for his Western backers that Ukraine’s resistance was still viable so they would keep the weapons coming. Ukraine appears to have suffered a heavy defeat with big losses of equipment and several thousand soldiers killed as they advanced across the flat, open steppe.

There has been a lot of hype about the recent military events around Kharkiv and Izium. This appears to be just that — hype. Russian forces made a premeditated withdrawal in good order to more defensible lines. This withdrawal was actually underway days before the start of the Ukrainian “offensive”. The Ukrainians met little opposition on the ground but still suffered several thousand dead at the hands of Russian artillery and air strikes.

However, supporters of the Russian intervention at home and abroad were not in on the Russian military plans which naturally proceeded under cover of a considerable amount of deception. So the subsequent events provoked great disquiet and protest. But the basic military realities outlined above still appear to hold.

Before the war: What Russia wanted

Before the current war began, Moscow had made crystal clear what it wanted from the West. On December 18, 2021 the Guardian reported on Moscow’s proposals:

The demands, spelled out by Moscow in full for the first time, were handed over to the US this week. They include a demand that NATO remove any troops or weapons deployed to countries that entered the alliance after 1997, which would include much of eastern Europe, including Poland, the former Soviet countries of Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Balkan countries.

Russia has also demanded that NATO rule out further expansion, including the accession of Ukraine into the alliance, and that it does not hold drills without previous agreement from Russia in Ukraine, eastern Europe, in Caucasus countries such as Georgia or in Central Asia …

The Russia document also calls for the two countries to pull back any short- or medium-range missile systems out of reach, replacing the previous intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) treaty that the US left in 2018.

A dispassionate observer might think that the Russian proposals were actually very reasonable and would lead to a safer and more peaceful Europe. However, not surprisingly, the Guardian article described them as “highly contentious” and “aggressive” and said they were “likely to be rejected in western capitals as an attempt to formalise a new Russian sphere of influence over eastern Europe”.

In regard to the Donbass region of Ukraine, Russia was a signatory to the 2014-15 Minsk accords which provided for a measure of autonomy for the rebel provinces. Ukraine signed the accords but repeatedly tried to militarily crush the rebels, with neo-Nazi elements playing the key role in the fighting. As mentioned above, before Russia intervened on February 24 this year, it was clear that Ukraine was preparing a full-scale invasion of the region.

West scuttled agreement in April

According to an August 31 report by Dave DeCamp on a peace settlement was possible back in April but was scuttled by the West:

Russian and Ukrainian officials tentatively agreed on a potential peace deal during negotiations back in April 2022, according to a Foreign Affairs article by Fiona Hill and Angela Stent that cited former US officials.

The article reads: “According to multiple former senior US officials we spoke with, in April 2022, Russian and Ukrainian negotiators appeared to have tentatively agreed on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement.”

The terms of that settlement would have been for Russia to withdraw to the positions it held before launching the invasion on February 24. In exchange, Ukraine would “promise not to seek NATO membership and instead receive security guarantees from a number of countries”.

The tentative deal was the result of in-person peace talks Russian and Ukrainian officials held in Istanbul at the end of March. Virtual talks resumed after the meeting in Istanbul, but the two sides ultimately failed to reach a deal.

A major factor in the failed negotiated settlement was pressure from the West. According to a report from Ukrainska Pravda, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to stop negotiating with Russia when he visited Kyiv on April 9.

Let's consider what this means: Some five months ago the war could have been stopped on quite reasonable terms! So the West and the Zelensky regime must bear a large part of the responsibility for all the carnage that has occurred since then.

Schroeder: Settlement possible

In August, after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder reported that Russia was ready to begin peace talks on bringing the war in Ukraine to a halt.

Schroeder suggested that Ukraine make territorial concessions that would see Donbas become semi-autonomous in a “Swiss canton model”, which is similar to the proposed Minsk II agreement arrangement that was championed by French President Emmanuel Macron in February as a possible solution to the political crisis then.

[Russian Presidential spokesperson Dmitry] Peskov said that the two sides were close to a peace deal in late March as a result of several rounds of talks held in Belarus and then by video conference, but the talks collapsed after Kyiv accused Moscow of committing war crimes and massacring civilians in Bucha on the outskirts of Kyiv.

Schroeder also said that “armed neutrality” for Ukraine would be an alternative to NATO membership — an idea that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself suggested after conceding that Ukraine would never be allowed to join NATO in the first weeks of the war, when a rapid ceasefire still seemed possible to halt the invasion.

Ukraine also should give up all claims on the Crimea as part of any deal, said Schroeder. “The idea that the Ukrainian President Zelensky will reconquer Crimea militarily is just absurd,” he told Stern.

Finally, completing what must be Putin’s wish-list, Schroeder also called on Europe to allow the launch of Nord Stream 2, the second of two gas pipelines that run from Russia’s giant Yamal gas fields under the Baltic Sea to Germany.

Negotiations or endless war?

Negotiations are the only realistic way forward. Above all, that means Washington, Ukraine and Russia must talk seriously. Of course, nothing is guarranteed but talking is better than the endless war that Washington has hitherto favoured.

Whether negotiations take place while fighting continues or whether there is a ceasefire in place is not the key question. The alternative to negotiating is that the war will grind on and a lot more people will die.

First, there is the question of a settlement in Ukraine. The outlines of a reasonable deal have always been clear: a neutral, non-NATO Ukraine and self-government for the Donbass within Ukraine. The discriminatory language law should be repealed: Russian should be an official language alongside Ukrainian (as used to be the case). Russian troops would withdraw once firm guarantees for the necessary referendums were in place.

Then there is the wider question of a NATO pullback, a withdrawal out of range of all short-range and intermediate-range missiles in Eastern Europe and Russia and the other things Russia demanded. In 2019 the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. That obviously needs to be revisited.

How feasible is the achievement of any of the above? The battlefield stalemate and Ukraine’s dire economic position, plus Russia’s need to end a debilitating conflict and normalise its relations with the West are all factors pushing both sides towards serious talks.

As for meaningful talks between the US and Russia on a NATO pullback to the situation of 1997 or revisiting the IRNF Treaty, it is hard to see that happening without the development of a big anti-war movement in the key Western countries.