Do not expect any Russia-Ukraine peace talks any time soon

In a recent interview with the newspaper Le Parisien, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba did not reject the prospect of peace talks with Moscow but stressed that they would be possible only after the restoration of his country’s territorial integrity. He also mentioned President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech at the G20 summit last month, with its focus on “world peace.”

The situation in Ukraine was a concern for other world leaders at the G20. French President Emmanuel Macron again expressed his readiness to participate in dialogue between Kyiv and Moscow to end the conflict. The necessity for peace talks was also highlighted by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

While the possibility of negotiations was discussed on the leading global governance political platform, another important route was offered by the Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher. He said last week that the Holy See was ready to act as a mediator, based on the holiness and neutrality of the Catholic Church, given that both Ukraine and Russia are predominantly Orthodox.

But despite these recent comments about possible peace talks by the world’s political and religious leaders, who have expressed their readiness to become involved in the negotiations, in reality neither side in the conflict seems to be seriously considering the possibility of negotiations at this stage.

Zelensky, commenting on Macron’s proposition, said that Russia might seek a “short truce” merely to regroup after the recent recapture of Kherson by Ukrainian forces. Russian presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that for negotiations to begin, Kyiv must have the political will and readiness to discuss demands already made by Russia.

What, then, does each side require before negotiations can begin, what are their calculations, and should we expect to see any peace talks in the near future?

Among the key obstacles is the territorial factor. Despite the retreat of its troops to the eastern side of the Dnieper River, Russia continues to insist that Kherson is Russian land, based on the unlawful annexation of four regions — Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporozhnia and Kherson — in September.

This is also a key point for Zelensky, who has made a clear departure from his softer position adopted in March and is now demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces from Crimea and eastern Donbas. Russia will not accept this scenario and experts fear that if Ukraine tries to recapture Crimea it is possible Russia might use a nuclear weapon, which would further escalate the war.

Western nations seem to be increasingly wary of growing popular domestic discontent stemming from the soaring energy bills and spiraling inflation that have been consequences of the war

Dr. Diana Galeeva

In other words, concerns over escalations and the nuclear threat serve as the factors that diminish the trust necessary for conflicting parties to sit at one table for negotiations.

I believe a third factor can be identified that increases the uncertainty surrounding possible negotiations. Zelensky has emphasized the importance of a proposed “new security architecture” under the Kyiv Security Compact, a treaty with Ukraine’s allies, rather than the possibility of concluding a “new Minsk agreement” with Russia, based on the belief that the latter would provide Moscow with an opportunity for an operational pause but allow it to resume the war in the future.

Furthermore, Zelensky has acknowledged the prospect of peace talks but said he will not participate in any while Vladimir Putin is the leader of Russia.

The leadership factor can be identified as another element on which peace depends, not solely the leaderships of Russia and Ukraine but also the third parties involved in the war.

The future direction of the war can be linked, for example, to the presidential elections in the US on Nov. 5, 2024. Russia might expect a new American president, and perhaps the return of Donald Trump, will affect the course of the war. Some members of the US Congress reportedly have already asked Ukraine to consider participating in negotiations, stressing that Russia has recently been hurting badly.

Both Democrat and Republican representatives in Congress have voiced the opinion that the White House must put pressure on the Ukrainian government to hold peace talks with Russia because of the economic damage that has already been caused, and because the endless supply of weapons and other support to Ukraine is not sustainable. At the same time, the nuclear threat remains of great concern.

Consequently, the role of external parties in the conflict, direct or indirect, and their positions on it remain important factors in determining whether peace talks will take place.

Meanwhile, Western nations seem to be increasingly wary of growing popular domestic discontent stemming from the soaring energy bills and spiraling inflation that have been consequences of the war.

To some extent this can be linked with another factor that might reduce the possibility of negotiations, the so-called “General Frost.” This term was first coined in a British satirical cartoon commenting on Napoleon’s catastrophic Russian campaign. The defeat of his Grande Armee in 1812, during which about 90 percent of his forces were killed or wounded, is commonly linked with the freezing winter temperatures in Moscow.

This iconic “General Frost” actually revealed itself even earlier, in 1708 during the Great Northern War between Russia and Sweden, when the army of Swedish King Charles XII spent the winter in Ukraine. It was the coldest winter in Europe for more than 500 years, which assisted Tsar Peter the Great in winning the decisive Battle of Poltava, during which the Swedes were totally crushed.

Today the situation is reversed, as Ukraine is supported by Western allies in its fight against Russia, but the potential role played by the winter weather remains crucial.

As Anatol Lieven, director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft has stated: “As temperatures fall, Russia has hoped more people will flee Ukraine to neighboring countries, putting pressure on Europe. In addition, the economic and energy crisis could worsen should Moscow further weaponize gas flow to Europe or threaten to sabotage underwater cables and pipeline connections.”

Therefore, although “General Frost” has long been instrumental on battlefields, both the Russian and the Ukrainian combatants have a clear expectation of what the winter will be like, and the average temperatures in Ukraine are higher than in Russia, so low winter temperatures might not play such a crucial factor on the ground in the war itself. Instead, the wider international consequences of winter temperatures, such as a worsening global energy crisis and an increase in the number of Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Europe, might become a trump card in the negotiation process.

Given all of these complex factors, it is very hard to see how we should expect and peace talks in the immediate future.

• Dr. Diana Galeeva

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