You can take this clip as good news or as bad news.
Good news: If Russia’s own propaganda outlets are warning that anything short of total conquest is a defeat, Putin is in trouble. His prestige at home might never recover if Kiev remains unoccupied with Zelensky in charge.
Bad news: Precisely because all of that is true, Putin may insist on nothing less than total conquest. There won’t be any peace deals or partitions, never mind what the Russian military implied on Friday. The Kremlin’s in it to win it, however many lives that requires.
Are they in it to win it?
End of Russia – that’s what is on the table right now. Consider this talk show of Solovyov – top Putin’s propagandist. Their point is – *any* treaty Russia signs with Ukraine will mark its defeat. That gonna be beginning of the end, not of Putin’s regime but of Russian state pic.twitter.com/QVuOUEPLuH
— Kamil Galeev (@kamilkazani) March 26, 2022
It’s not a great sign for a near-term peace deal that Zelensky held a conference call with Russian reporters yesterday to discuss his terms for a settlement — and Moscow immediately censored news reports about it.
Ukraine is willing to become neutral and compromise over the status of the eastern Donbass region as part of a peace deal, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Sunday, even as another top Ukrainian official accused Russia of aiming to carve the country in two…
But even as Turkey is set to host talks this week, Ukraine’s head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, said Russian President Vladimir Putin was aiming to seize the eastern part of Ukraine.
“In fact, it is an attempt to create North and South Korea in Ukraine,” he said, referring to the division of Korea after World War Two. Zelenskiy has urged the West to give Ukraine tanks, planes and missiles to help fend off Russian forces.
Zelenskiy later said in his nightly video address that he would insist on the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine in any talks.
Zelensky also said he’d be willing to pledge that Ukraine won’t acquire nuclear weapons, his form of a security guarantee for Russia. You can see his negotiation strategy in broad strokes there: He’s willing to make concessions about alliances and weapons that would let Putin save face (no NATO for Ukraine, no nukes, no foreign bases) but he doesn’t want to concede territory. Which is presumably a dealbreaker for Russia.
Another dealbreaker: Zelensky wants the Ukrainian people to ratify the concessions he makes via a popular referendum, and he wants Russian troops out of the country before that referendum is held. What happens if Russia withdraws and then Ukrainians vote down the pledge of neutrality Zelensky agreed to?
The point about North and South Korea in the excerpt alludes to the Russian military’s announcement three days ago that it would focus its warmaking on the Donbas in eastern Ukraine going forward. They have no near-term prospect of encircling Ukraine in the north and the army’s best efforts to advance on Odessa in the south have fallen flat. They’re better off pivoting towards the east and trying to cut off Ukraine’s forces there from the rest of the country. If they can do that, it’ll put pressure on Zelensky to agree to a partition a la Cold War Germany, with the western half aligned with the U.S. and Europe and the eastern half under Russian control. Over the past few days there have been signs that Russia is serious about its new strategy:
NEW: Russia wants to refocus on the Donbas to regain negotiating leverage over Ukraine by cutting off 🇺🇦 troops & establishing an occupying presence in the region: senior US defense official
"It could be now that they are reassessing their strategy goals," the official said.
— Jack Detsch (@JackDetsch) March 28, 2022
Big news here – Russians have broken through Ukrainian lines near Izyum and are pushing SE, that’s going to put a lot of pressure on the thousands of Ukrainian troops defending the city Sievierodonetsk (the current acting administrative center of Luhansk Oblast) https://t.co/Cmk2ynBDbb
— Blake Allen (@Blake_Allen13) March 25, 2022
Mariupol is also in the eastern half of Ukraine and is expected to fall sooner or later despite the Ukrainian army’s valiant refusal to abandon the city. And Kremlin-backed mercenaries are leaving Libya and Syria and deploying to eastern Ukraine, according to the Times. Putin might be calculating that if he can gain control of most of the east while offering the west to Zelensky, Ukraine’s western patrons will begin pressuring Kiev to accept Putin’s terms in the name of ending this war before it escalates further.
Because nothing good can come from having it escalate further:
Ukrainian Defense Ministry Officials today have stated that they have begun to see Chemical/Biological Weapons Antidote Kits be issued to Russian Frontline Forces across Ukraine, Ukrainian and NATO Officials have Claimed they think Russian might use Chemical Weapons in Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/zPzM0Qedwi
— OSINTdefender (@sentdefender) March 25, 2022
Russia hasn’t (yet) redeployed forces from the north or south to the east, as we’d expect if they’re serious about an east/west partition. But evidence is accumulating that they’re losing ground around Kiev, seemingly having given up on advancing on the capital anytime soon. According to the mayor of the town of Irpin, a suburb of Kiev, Ukrainian forces have pushed the Russians out and are back in control. Next up are the nearby towns of Bucha, Hostomel, and Vorzel. I think Phillips O’Brien is right about why Russian forces are staying put around Kiev even though Moscow seems to be giving up on seizing it: They’re decoys, essentially.
Finally. That the Russians are about to restart efforts to take Kyiv made no sense. Their armies are being pushed back; will be exhausted and still having supply issues. They will be lucky to hold their positions. https://t.co/QEj0hpCCEF
— Phillips P. OBrien (@PhillipsPOBrien) March 28, 2022
If Russia pulls out of western Ukraine, Ukrainian troops will be free to move east and contest the Donbas. By keeping Russian forces within striking distance of Kiev, the Kremlin is forcing Zelensky to keep his own units around the city, giving Russia a freer hand in the east. Imagine being a Russian soldier dug in somewhere in the suburbs of the capital, knowing that your chief task now is serving as bait for a Ukrainian counteroffensive. No wonder morale sucks.
Exit question via Jonathan Last: How does relief from western mega-sanctions fit in a Zelensky/Putin peace deal? My guess is that the U.S. and EU will agree to go as far as Zelensky himself is willing to go in the name of making a treaty happen. But what if Russia demands that *all* sanctions be lifted as a condition for withdrawal? And what if Zelensky agrees?