The fact that the aggressive party in this conflict has backed waaaay off its initial demands while the defensive party is rejecting peace offers out of hand should give us a clue as to who’s winning.
Although Ukraine isn’t quite rejecting the Russian demand for neutrality out of hand. Their position is less of a “no” than a “no, unless…”
Here’s Lavrov, the Russia foreign minister, on the state of negotiations this morning.
What does “neutrality” mean? Obviously it means not joining NATO, but Zelensky has already swallowed that pill and begun preparing Ukrainians to swallow it too. Does it mean something more?
Seemingly v good news: Moscow signals that it might accept Austrian/Swedish-style neutrality in Ukraine. ie Kyiv would pledge to be nonaligned (no foreign military bases) but retain its own military. Russia might accept this as “de-militarization.” Dropping sanctions will be key.
— Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock) March 16, 2022
“No foreign bases but Ukraine gets to keep Zelensky and its military” is an enormous step back from Russia’s early ambition to “denazify and demilitarize” the country, and likely as close as we’ll get to an admission from Putin that his war is a fiasco. The latest evidence:
A really desperate sign for Moscow here: Russia is pulling not only some of its own forces from South Ossetia to reinforce units in Ukraine, but even some South Ossetian units themselves are leaving for the front https://t.co/I0Mp4LrKE4
— Neil Hauer (@NeilPHauer) March 16, 2022
Zelensky’s team mulled over the offer of neutrality and responded this morning:
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov indicated that Moscow is currently discussing the idea of Austrian and Swedish models of neutrality for Ukraine as part of its talks with Kyiv, but a Ukrainian official rejected the model, saying the security model “can only be Ukrainian.”
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky participating in the negotiations, said in a Telegram post that because Ukraine is now in a war with Russia, the security model has to have “legally verified security guarantees,” adding there can be “no other models or options.”
Podolyak said Ukraine’s model would have “absolute security guarantees, which would mean that the signatories of guarantees do not stand aside in the event of an attack on Ukraine, as it is today.” He also added that Ukraine does not want to “depend on bureaucratic structures” to get a no-fly zone—a request officials have been making for weeks, to little success.
Sounds to me that what Ukraine wants is NATOism without NATO. They know what it’s like to receive vaguely worded “security guarantees” from the west, particularly from the United States, only to see those guarantees evaporate once Russia starts pushing them around. This time they want something binding that would oblige the signatories to ride to their defense next time.
Something like Article 5 but not Article 5 itself, in other words, since letting Ukraine formally join NATO at this point wouldn’t allow Russia to save face before its ignominious withdrawal.
The goal here for Ukraine and its western allies obviously is to deny Russia any ability to try this again in the near future, once it licks its wounds and sorts out the many things that went wrong with the battle plan. Antony Blinken said this morning that the U.S. is open to easing some sanctions on Moscow, which were never supposed to be permanent, but only if Russian withdrawal from Ukraine is “irreversible” so that “this can’t happen again, that Russia won’t pick up and do exactly what it’s doing in a year or two years or three years.” Jake Sullivan went a step further in conversations with the Russian military, calling for a ceasefire right now as a show of good faith while negotiations proceed:
US to Russia: 1) Stop bombing Ukraine to show you're serious about diplomacy 2) You'd better not use chemical/biological weapons in Ukraine.
Curious to see the Russian summary, if there is one. pic.twitter.com/zWhelbTy6D
— Olivier Knox (@OKnox) March 16, 2022
According to the Financial Times, the two sides have made “significant progress” on a 15-point peace plan in which Ukraine would accept neutrality while Russia would accept some sort of western security guarantees for Ukraine. The devil is in the details, of course: Russia will want a say on the nature of those guarantees (note Lavrov’s comment in the clip about weapons that threaten his country) and Ukraine reportedly wants Russia to leave all Ukrainian territory that wasn’t disputed before last month, a return to the status quo ante in Crimea and the Donbas. But if Russia is serious about accepting verifiable security guarantees from the west — NATOism without NATO — then I don’t know how else to read it except as a pledge that they won’t make a move on Ukraine again for a good long while. To do so would mean regional war, and the Russian military will be in no position near-term to win a war like that.
Meanwhile, as negotiations play out and approach an agreement, each side has an incentive to put a hurt on the other to maximize its leverage. Russia is as ruthless as ever…
— C4H10FO2P (@markito0171) March 16, 2022
…while Ukraine’s western sponsors are wondering whether they should get more aggressive with weapons shipments. If Russia’s offensive really is so close to running out of steam that Putin and Lavrov are getting serious about a peace deal then maybe the time has come to twist their arms:
By stepping up military assistance to Ukraine — and making President Vladimir Putin pay an ever-steeper price for his invasion — the United States and its allies will boost the chances of a peace agreement that is not a capitulation to Russia’s flagrant aggression…
Putin is destroying himself. The longer the war goes on, the less will remain of Russia’s military and economic might. Putin’s regime is self-liquidating, if the United States and its allies can help Ukraine stay in the fight. Ukraine doesn’t need to win; like Gen. George Washington in the Revolutionary War, it just needs to survive…
We’re at a potential tipping point now, where each side sees some advantage in a negotiated peace. Paradoxically, that’s the time when the United States should redouble its support for Ukraine, until the last guns of the Russian invaders go silent.
It sounds like we’ve done just that:
That’s news: @RepMcCaul tells me S-300 air defense systems have already been sent into Ukraine.
— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) March 16, 2022
That’s a nice example of how the devil in the eventual treaty is in the details. Will Russia tolerate equipping Ukraine with the S-300, a defensive weapon, or is that “threatening” to Russia insofar as it would make the next attempt to grind Ukraine under its boot too difficult? Escalating with Russia as the two sides move towards a deal is risky business, of course, as Putin’s pride requires that he not be seen as negotiating from a position of weakness and intimidation. But he’s slaughtering enough Ukrainians lately that the sheer body count will hopefully flatter his vanity enough to get him to sign.
Here’s Zelensky trying to prepare Ukrainians for hard concessions. Exit question: Will Ukraine’s pledge of neutrality prevent it from joining the EU? If not, if this war ends with Ukraine’s admission to the European Union and therefore formal recognition of its reorientation from east to west, it’ll be a complete repudiation of Putin’s goal in undertaking this folly.
"It is difficult, but important, because any war ends in an agreement," says Ukrainian President #VolodymyrZelensky in a video address, as talks grind on between #Moscow and #Kyiv in a bid to halt the nearly three-week-old conflict in #Ukraine pic.twitter.com/dhd2KToeP0
— KyivPost (@KyivPost) March 16, 2022