Russia and Ukraine took one step forward and two steps back in the search for an elusive peace settlement during talks last week. Negotiators met in Istanbul to discuss Ukraine’s potential accession to the EU and Nato, the status of Crimea and Donbas, and security guarantees for Ukraine. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and Russia’s chief negotiator Vladimir Medinsky dismissed hopes of a breakthrough and dashed hopes for a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky.
Russia’s bad faith approach to negotiations with Ukraine is unsurprising and fully aligns with its conduct during previous military interventions. During the August 2008 Georgian War and throughout its post-2015 military intervention in Syria, Russia engaged in diplomatic negotiations only to then escalate hostilities. It’s a tactic straight out of the Soviet playbook. On 3 November 1956, the Soviet Union held talks with a Hungarian delegation led by defence minister Pal Maleter about withdrawing its forces from Hungary. These negotiations were a mere stalling tactic: Soviet troops marched on Budapest the next day and overthrew reformist leader Imre Nagy. For Putin’s Russia, much like the Soviet Union, diplomacy serves as a tool of hybrid war.
Although Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine has stalled, it’s unlikely to take diplomacy more seriously. Moscow-based newspaper Vedomosti obtained exclusive access to Russia’s behind-the-scenes negotiating positions this week. Its stances were drastically at odds with terms that Ukraine could realistically accept. Russia’s insistence on capping the size of the Ukrainian military to 50,000 troops, resistance to Nato Article 5-style security guarantees for a neutral Ukraine and desire to eviscerate what it calls ‘right-wing political forces’ were sticking points.
Even if Russia eventually moderates these demands, territorial questions are likely to unravel any potential settlement. Russia insists Crimea is an inalienable part of its landmass and is supportive of referendums that will eventually integrate the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics into its territory. Using Crimea as a conduit, Russia is also seeking to rope newly occupied cities into its orbit, such as Kherson. Meanwhile, Russia has appointed parallel authorities in Melitopol and Mariupol.
Due to Russia’s expansionist ambitions, Zelensky’s calls for a return to pre-invasion borders as a starting point for talks, and his refusal to cede permanent control of Donbas or Crimea, have fallen on deaf ears in the Kremlin.
As a short-term diplomatic breakthrough appears unlikely, Russia is poised to ratchet up military operations in eastern Ukraine with the long-term intention of partitioning the country. This aim was revealed by Ukrainian intelligence chief General Kyrylo Budanov on 27 March, who stated that Putin wants to divide Ukraine like North and South Korea.
The Kremlin’s rhetoric serves as an affirmation of Budanov’s claims. In 2008, Putin allegedly told Polish prime minister Donald Tusk that he wished to partition Ukraine with Russia seizing the east and Poland grabbing the west. Polish officials subsequently distanced themselves from such claims. But senior Kremlin officials, such as former president and deputy chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev, recently alleged that Poland wants to annex western Ukraine. Given Russia’s repeated use of false flag warnings in Syria and Ukraine, this whataboutism likely reveals Russia’s true intentions.
If Russia’s near-term goal is partition, how might it be achieved? From a military perspective, Russia’s preferred tactics have begun to take shape. Russia is deploying extra manpower from wherever it can find it, such as 1,000 Wagner Group private military contractors, 2,000 troops from Georgia, ‘volunteers’ from Chechnya and South Ossetia, and allegedly, forced conscripts. Syrian mercenaries, which did Russia’s bidding in Libya alongside Wagner forces, could soon be added to the mix.
These forces will likely be used to hold the lines in the Donbas while the offensive forces that attacked cities, such as Kyiv and Chernihiv, resupply in Belarus and are redeployed to the eastern front.
While an amphibious landing on Odesa remains a remote prospect, Russia will continue to leverage its naval supremacy to restrict Ukraine’s access to the Sea of Azov and Black Sea, and capitalise on its growing aerial dominance.
Will these tactics work? Russia’s extensive experience with attritional war and willingness to use scorched-earth tactics, which also defined its 1999-2000 offensive in Chechnya and campaign in Syria, could cause it to gain ground in the short-term.
If Mariupol falls, Russia will secure its elusive land bridge from Crimea to Donbas, and even more importantly, be on the cusp of uniting the Donetsk oblast under its control. The Luhansk People’s Republic is estimated to control 93 per cent of the Luhansk oblast, and Russia has already occupied swathes of valuable terrain in eastern Ukraine. Subjugating larger cities, such as Odessa and Kharkiv, is a harder task, but the prospect of a Russian military success is greater than in its regime-change mission in Kyiv. Russia will also continue striking fuel depots and munitions facilities in western Ukraine to limit Kyiv’s resupply capacity.
If Russia succeeds in achieving a de facto partition of Ukraine, its next moves are uncertain. Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki predicted Russia will return to negotiations from a position of strength once it seizes control of one-third of Ukraine. While diplomacy might be the rational choice, Putin’s legacy to his core supporters could hinge on achieving the seemingly impossible: the subjugation of Ukraine.
During the Istanbul talks, Russian state media featured dire warnings about negotiations with ‘Ukrainian Nazis’ and predictions that a settlement will lead to another war, much like how the 1996 Khasavyurt Treaty with Chechen separatists paved the way for the rise of Islamic extremism and the Second Chechen War.
Key figures in the Russian Ministry of Defence and State Duma, as well as the Kremlin’s regional partners, such as Chechnya’s strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, continue to equate Moscow’s ‘denazification’ objective with regime change. The Russian public has united around the narrative of Nato aggression and Russian officials describe the war in existential terms.
As Putin fears backlash from hawks in his orbit more than anti-war demonstrators, a renewed Russian assault on Ukraine’s major cities remains a possibility.
Prospects for a swift resolution to the crisis appear remote and a long attritional war looms. The West faces a hard choice between decisive action, which will save Ukraine and the existing European security system, or a reversion to the familiar tactics of appeasement and insufficient actions that enabled Putin’s devastating wars in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine.
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