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Russia’s war with Ukraine has dragged on for a year. Amid the stalemate, Putin might give peace a chance

Ng Qi Siang
Ng Qi Siang  • 10 min read
Russia’s war with Ukraine has dragged on for a year. Amid the stalemate, Putin might give peace a chance
A pedestrian passes an anti-war mural on Khreschatyk Street in Kyiv, Ukraine / Photo: Bloomberg
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One year is a long time for a war that was supposed to end in a week. As the war between Russia and Ukraine nears its first anniversary, it appears at first glance that Russian President Vladimir Putin has had enough of his self-inflicted farrago in Ukraine. On Christmas Day, he told the world that he was willing to come to the negotiating table if his adversaries would do the same.

"We are ready to negotiate with everyone involved about acceptable solutions,” Putin told Russian state media. The problem, he argues, is that Ukraine and the West are unwilling to meet him at the negotiating table. As if to reinforce his peaceful intentions, Putin called a 36-hour ceasefire on Jan 6 for Orthodox Christmas (celebrated later than Gregorian calendar). Kyiv accuses the Kremlin of breaking the ceasefire with attacks during the truce.

ESSEC Business School professor Cedomir Nestorovic told The Edge Singapore that Putin’s offer is likely genuine. Despite the stunning successes of the Ukrainian army in reversing the Russian invasion, they have yet to penetrate Crimea and the Donbas. Having accepted that he is unlikely to achieve his initial goal of taking the whole of Ukraine, Nestorovic argues that Putin’s offer is for “locking in” Russian gains by getting Kyiv to accept Russian sovereignty over these territories in exchange for an end to the conflict.

As early as November 2022, there had been whispers that Russia sought a negotiated settlement. The Kyiv Independent reports that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had received indications of Moscow’s desire to renew direct talks to end the conflict. Yet, despite the toll the conflict has taken on his devastated country, Zelensky is in no mood for peace talks with the Kremlin. Having initially said that Russia must withdraw to prewar positions before talks can commence, the Ukrainian president has now ruled out talks altogether.

“We had meetings with him in Normandy format before the full-scale invasion. I saw a man who said one thing and then did another,” Zelensky recounted in an interview with Sky News on Jan 26. When asked whether it was too late for negotiations, he described possible talks as “non-interesting”. In October, Zelensky signed a decree that declared no negotiations with Putin himself, though talks with Russia were not completely ruled out. “After [the] full-scale invasion, to me, he [Putin] is nobody,” Zelensky told Sky News.

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“No deal is possible between a Ukraine making steady battlefield progress and a Russia in denial of this reality. Even calling for talks today risks benefiting Moscow,” write Harvard Business School professor James K. Sebenius and Washington Institute for Near East Policy managing director Michael Singh in Foreign Affairs. They argue there are insufficient grounds for talks to succeed, given that Kyiv’s resolve to retake “every inch of Ukrainian territory” is fundamentally at odds with the Kremlin’s hope to retain Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea.

Zelensky’s position has been bolstered by an agreement by Western allies to supply tanks to Ukraine. With previously reluctant powers such as Germany finally acquiescing, Ukraine’s ambassador to France, Vadym Omelchenko, told BFM TV that the country would receive 321 heavy tanks. With these reinforcements including relatively advanced main battle tanks such as the American M1 Abrams and German Leopard II, peace talks now seem less appealing to Kyiv as the balance of power in Ukraine looks to shift when these “game-changing” weapons arrive in March.

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The German army showcasing Leopard 2 A6 battle tanks, destined for Ukraine. / Photo: Bloomberg

War of attrition

Despite Kyiv’s resolve and the arrival of Western armaments, Ukraine cannot hold out forever. Andriy Pyshnyy, Governor of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU), told the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Country Focus that Ukraine has likely lost at least one-third of its GDP in 2022 while ESSEC’s Nestorovic reckons that 70% of the Ukrainian economy has been destroyed. The United Nations estimates that half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure has been destroyed.

Ukraine has also experienced significant military casualties. US chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley estimates 100,000 Ukrainian troop casualties. BBC reports that Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Zelensky, claims that 10,000 and 13,000 troops have died. In an interview with The Edge Singapore, Nestorovic believes that Zelensky is in a weak position. “He depends greatly on the help coming from the Western countries,” he says. Should Western resolve to support Ukraine begin to wane, Kyiv’s ability to continue its resistance will likely weaken. Notably, Zelensky became less willing to pursue talks with Russia once the West had agreed to send tanks to Ukraine.

Much of this resolve will stem from public opinion within Ukraine’s democratic supporters, with popular sentiment towards the war potentially affecting whether or not Western help can continue. In France, bakers have already begun protesting higher energy costs, with Nestorovic noting that energy disruption from the war has affected the cost of producing the French baguette and many bakeries producing this staple are at risk of closure. In the US, most Americans (42%) see the war as a stalemate, with 47% of Americans urging a negotiated settlement “as soon as possible”.

Negotiations with Russia will very likely involve the loss of Ukrainian territory. “At the end of the day, if (Zelensky) is pushed by the Western countries to negotiate with Putin, Putin will insist on the new reality,” says Nestorovic. Drawing parallels with the conflict settlement in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, he notes the possibility of a reasonable compromise where the existing territories exercise a significant degree of autonomy, albeit under Russian sovereignty.

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However, any attempt by Zelensky to pursue negotiations will likely result in significant backlash from Ukrainians. A poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal in June 2022 suggested that nine in 10 Ukrainians opposed trading land for peace. A more recent late October survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology suggested that only 10% of Ukrainians would trade land to stop Russian attacks on cities, while 86% supported continuing armed resistance.

“The Ukrainians think that [Putin] wants both provinces and will keep going. As a result, the only way to defeat him is to prove to him that he can’t have even a sliver of territory in Ukraine, and they’re going to keep fighting until he’s out,” says William Antholis, director and CEO of the University of Virginia’s (UVA) Miller Center for Public Affairs.

Fortunately for Kyiv, Europe’s “unseasonably mild” winter has meant that energy demand has not been as high as expected. Energy journalist Aura Sabadus writes in an Atlantic Council report that liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies have proven adequate due to lower Chinese demand in the wake of Covid-19. “Many European companies have been turning to Ukraine to place surplus gas volumes in local storage facilities,” she adds, noting that Europe has quickly ramped up LNG importing capacity to access global supplies.

Winter of discontent?

Putin’s position, however, is also precarious. Watching from the Kremlin as his economically isolated country groans under the weight of Western sanctions, the avowed Russian nationalist recognises the chilling parallels of his situation with Tsar Nicholas II during the First World War. Slightly more than a century earlier, the economic deprivation of ordinary Russians in the face of a war gone dreadfully wrong exploded into the February Revolution, bringing with it the collapse of the Romanov Tsars.

While the bread riots of Saint Petersburg more than a century ago have not yet occurred, ordinary Russians are certainly feeling the full brunt of the conflict at home. Russia’s economy has been badly hurt, with inflation surging to a peak of 17.8% y-o-y in April 2022 despite eventually falling to 11.9% in December 2022. Large consumer brands such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola have withdrawn from the Russian market, leaving consumers without access to these staples of post-Cold War middle-class existence.

Worse still, non-oil and gas revenues fell 20% y-o-y in October 2022. A US$60 ($78) price cap on crude oil imposed by the G7 on Russian seaborne oil saw a January collapse in oil revenues, costing Moscow EUR160 million ($228 million) per day, despite Russia taking home a substantial EUR640 million daily. Independent analyst Alexandra Prokopenko notes that most of the oil and gas revenue growth has come from an increase in mineral extraction tax from oil and gas firm Gazprom. Nestorovic of ESSEC sees the G7 extending this cap to refined oil in February, hurting Moscow by preventing large customers like India from buying Russian oil.

“The Russian economy’s prewar potential was not overly large, with growth at 2% to 3% per year. The war against Ukraine and external restrictions have lowered it to about 1%. For now, the economy’s development will be reversed, and it will take three to five years for that decline to come to a halt,” writes Prokopenko for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an American think tank.

Some recent estimates do not put Russia’s economy at the doldrums as widely seen. From an earlier projection of a 2.3% contraction this year, the IMF on Jan 31 revised its projection to a slight growth of 0.3% instead, citing resilient oil and gas sales.

Even so, many Russians are angry about being conscripted to fight in Ukraine. “The situation is precarious in Russia because there are many people who are not satisfied,” says Nestorovic, “They don’t want to go to war; they don’t want to die in Ukraine.” The Russian-allied Wagner Group — a mercenary company — has even resorted to recruiting convicts in Russian prisons, many of whom have subsequently deserted.

Antholis of UVA is pessimistic about Putin being able to deliver victory in Ukraine. He says that the Russian military lacks discipline, technology, strategy, and absolute trust in Russia’s leadership. Divided over tactics, if not a strategy and lacking the operational capabilities to achieve victory, all Russian generals can do is “throw more bodies at the problem” and hope for the best.

Most Russians seem to support Putin and the war. The Levada Center, an independent organisation labelled by the Kremlin as a “foreign agent”, found that Putin’s approval rating remains high at 81% as of December 2022. A joint survey conducted with the University of Chicago found that three-quarters of respondents back the “special military operation” — the euphemism used by Putin when announcing the invasion — while 53% think it has succeeded.

More than half of the respondents have indicated a desire for the government to commence peace talks. Opposition to returning Crimea and the Donbas stands at 78% and 66%, respectively, potentially making it difficult for Moscow to make concessions to Kyiv in the event of peace talks.

“We do not expect Russia to go to the negotiating table if there are any real risks to Vladimir Putin’s regime. Suppose a potential peace deal leaves Russia without any meaningful gains from the war. In that case, this will likely stir negative sentiment from the country’s ultra-nationalist factions,” says Mario Bikarski, analyst, Europe for EIU.

Ultimately, it is not for Putin, the White House or anybody to decide whether or not negotiations take place. As the “victims in this war”, argues Brookings Institution senior fellow Steven Pifer, it is for the Ukrainian people to decide whether or not to end their struggle for freedom at the negotiating table. Until then, the war in Ukraine will take its natural course, whether to victory, defeat, or the tragedy of a bloody stalemate.

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