Russia’s unjust invasion of Ukraine has already wreaked havoc. Kindergartens have been destroyed, hospitals blown apart and cities that have become encircled are running low on food and medical supplies. Millions of Ukrainians have become displaced, many of them fleeing across borders.
That is why the rest of the world is hoping for successful negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. A number of high-profile politicians including Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and French president Emmanuel Macron have all held talks with Kyiv and Moscow. Russian and Ukrainian officials have held a series of meetings, including one between the respective foreign ministers on 10 March.
The results of these negotiations have so far been minimal, except for wavering commitments by Russia to humanitarian corridors. To understand why that is the case and why things are not likely to change, one has to consider negotiations more broadly.
These negotiations should be understood as a means for the two sides to express agreement during a particular stage of the conflict. Negotiations do not replace an agreement about the conflict itself, nor do they supersede it, particularly while the war continues.
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To put it simply, if there is a will by the Kremlin to continue the war and the opportunity for Ukraine to preserve military capability, an agreement to war will have emerged between the two states. Until this is broken, this consensus will make any other agreement expressed in negotiations unfeasible. There are several factors that make just this scenario likely.
If Russia wishes to continue hostilities and Ukraine preserves its military capability, a prolonged and ugly war where both armies remain at least partially operational and civilians suffer significantly is highly likely
First, this arrangement satisfies the primary objectives of the two sides. Whatever the Kremlin’s initial goal in Ukraine was, it is now clear that it has not been achieved. Given that the Russian military has encircled Ukrainian cities and has viciously bombed civilians, the Kremlin’s current goal is to incur as much damage on Ukraine as possible, rather than to solely target Ukraine’s military. Whether negotiations come before or after a certain amount of damage is done does not concern the Kremlin.
For Ukraine, the goal is to defend the country and avoid military defeat, something that can only be done by means of continuous resistance. Ukraine’s defence is now a goal in itself for Ukraine, especially considering the absence of guarantees by the Kremlin to de-escalate either before or after any negotiations take place.
Thus a situation in which the fighting continues is, to a substantial degree, satisfactory to both parties in terms of their basic goals.
Second, Russia’s negotiating stance does not allow for a peaceful compromise. Russia’s ‘all-or-nothing’ attitude is reflected in the list of demands by Russia: official recognition of Crimea as Russian, recognition of the fake republics in Luhansk and Donetsk, no reparations payments, and neutral status and demilitarisation for Ukraine. This could also include the seizure of territories currently under Russian control. It is not the first time Russia has engaged in diplomacy without compromise. Russia’s ultimatum over security guarantees to the West in December 2021 was as unacceptable to the West as the Kremlin’s demands to Ukraine are today.
Finally, the performance of Russia and Ukraine’s armies also shapes this agreement to war. Reports indicate that the performance of the Ukrainian military has been strong and that it has preserved command and other capabilities. That is because the Ukrainian army has chosen a defence strategy that prioritises the capability of the military over territorial control. There is no front line in Ukraine. Rather, the Ukrainian military lures Russian troops deeper into the country only to repeatedly counter-attack from more advantageous positions. In effect, this means that a scenario whereby the Ukrainian military is fully incapacitated by the Kremlin is unlikely.
On the other side, the Kremlin failed to achieve its initial goals and has doubled down on bringing all possible manpower to the table, reorganising the army attempting to occupy Ukraine. When analysing the state of this war, analysts have to make assumptions – the most feasible is that Putin shows no intention of backing down. At the same time, the Kremlin is experiencing heavy losses and has had major supply issues.
If Russia wishes to continue hostilities and Ukraine preserves its military capability, a prolonged and ugly war where both armies remain at least partially operational and civilians suffer significantly is highly likely.
For this scenario to become prolonged, the most important variable to watch out for is the capability of the Ukrainian military, rather than territory that has been ceded to Russian control, and the active supply of weapons to Ukraine. As for Russia, if it chooses to continue the pressure and fall into the trap of sunk costs – i.e. that its ‘investment’ in the war has to be repaid – the agreement to war will be further cemented.