As we head towards the second anniversary of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the question of peace negotiations is becoming more pressing, especially with the possibility that Donald Trump may be re-elected president in November. Trump opposes US aid to Ukraine.
If it looks likely that Trump is going to win, Ukraine may be tempted to go for a high-risk, high-speed military push while it still has US backing – or it may finally open the door for a negotiated solution before Trump comes to power. That’s the view of Cliff Kupchan, chair of the Eurasia Group, a political risk assessment firm in Washington DC, quoted in the New York Times (NYT) on 17 January.
In late December, the NYT revealed that Russian president Vladimir Putin has been putting out secret peace feelers in relation to the Ukraine War: ‘in a recent push of back-channel diplomacy, Mr. Putin has been sending a different message [to the one he makes in public]: He is ready to make a deal.’
Former Russian officials told the NYT that Putin would prefer a peace deal sooner rather than later, ‘given the uncertainty inherent in war’: he wouldn’t wait for Trump. ‘The ideal timing, one of the people said, would be before Russia’s presidential election in March.’
NATO membership would not be a deal-breaker because ‘the alliance is not expected to admit Ukraine in the foreseeable future’.
“Putin would prefer a peace deal sooner rather than later, ‘given the uncertainty inherent in war’: he wouldn’t wait for Trump”
In contrast, in Kyiv, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy seems to be sending the same message in private as he does in public: no ceasefire, no negotiations, only total victory. There are no signs that he is willing to cancel the law banning peace negotiations with Russia as long as Putin remains president.
Time magazine reported in November that Zelenskyy’s ‘belief in Ukraine’s ultimate victory over Russia has hardened into a form that worries some of his advisers’. One of his closest aides told Time: ‘He deludes himself. We’re out of options. We’re not winning. But try telling him that.’
Therefore, Time recorded: ‘one issue has remained taboo: the possibility of negotiating a peace deal with the Russians.’
In contrast, according to the New York Times (NYT), ‘Mr Putin has been signaling through intermediaries since at least September that he is open to a cease-fire that freezes the fighting along the current lines, far short of his ambitions to dominate Ukraine, two former senior Russian officials close to the Kremlin and American and international officials who have received the message from Mr Putin’s envoys say.’
According to a ‘senior international official’ who met with top Russian officials last autumn: ‘They say, “We are ready to have negotiations on a cease-fire”.... They want to stay where they are on the battlefield.’
A former senior Russian official told the NYT directly: ‘He really is willing to stop at the current positions.... He’s not willing to retreat one meter.’
The NYT also revealed that Putin had made similar ‘quiet’ noises in the autumn of 2022, after a number of Ukrainian successes: ‘Mr Putin indicated that he was satisfied with Russia’s captured territory and ready for an armistice’.
PN did notice some quiet noises at the time, reporting that ‘Putin put pro-negotiations language into both his 21 and 30 September  speeches’, and quoting Russia specialist Anatol Lieven: ‘The fact that Putin explicitly and favorably cited Ukraine’s peace proposal in his speech announcing Russia’s partial mobilization may offer a glimmer of hope for diplomacy.’
That was a reference to the near-miss Istanbul peace deal reached in principle by Russia and Ukraine by early April 2022, but brought down by a combination of factors including forceful opposition by then-prime minister Boris Johnson on an in-person visit to Kyiv (PN 2661).
The latest NYT revelations put Mark Milley’s comments at the time in a new light. As regular readers will remember, the then chair of the US joint chiefs of staff pushed hard in November 2022 for Ukraine to negotiate with Russia.
The NYT reported that he had argued for this in private top-level meetings. After Ukrainian successes in the Donbass region, including recapturing the city of Kherson on 9 November, Milley was said to believe that the Ukrainians had achieved as much as they could reasonably expect on the battlefield, before winter set in, ‘and so they should try to cement their gains at the bargaining table’.
Milley also spoke out for peace negotiations publicly, on 9, 10 and 16 November (PN 2663).
In White House discussions, Milley is said to have referred to satellite images of trenches being dug by Russian forces and pointed to the example of the First World War: ‘when the two sides engaged in years of trench warfare with little change in territory but millions of pointless casualties.’
This is very much where we have ended up.
“Zelenskyy deludes himself. We’re out of options. We’re not winning. But try telling him that”
A journalist for Time magazine reported last October: ‘In some branches of the military, the shortage of personnel has become even more dire than the deficit in arms and ammunition. One of Zelensky’s close aides tells me that even if the U.S. and its allies come through with all the weapons they have pledged, “we don’t have the men to use them.”’
Casualty numbers on both sides of the war are thought to be well past 100,000. Ukraine has had to recruit older and older men, so that the average age of a Ukrainian soldier is now 43.
The government is now struggling with a new mobilisation law to draft half a million more soldiers – something that may lead to serious social upheaval. This may explain why the authorities have backed off (for now) from prosecuting Ukrainian pacifists for their conscientious objection to war (PN 2668).
Russia has a population of 144 million; Ukraine only 37 million. It’s clear who can last longer in a long war.