There was a big step forward on Tuesday, as the start of a concrete deal has been thrashed out and more importantly, the Russian side seems to be happy enough with the progress that it has ordered its troops to pull back from Kyiv.
But it's important to be clear on a few points. The war is not over by any means and the offers made by the Ukrainian side have not been accepted by the Russian side. The Russian delegation has now retired to Moscow to consult.
There were still reports of explosions in Kyiv yesterday, but some of that was reported to be the Ukrainian army exploding mines in the suburbs. The US intel reported they were already seeing troops pull back from Kyiv, but there are still a lot of troops nearby, so everyone is recommending a measure of caution.
Personally I’m optimistic, as this all fits with how I see the conflict developing – and it is still very confusing. The Russia-watching community immediately divided into those that say: “huge victory for valiant Ukrainian defenders who beat Putin”, and those that take the line “Massive defeat for Ukraine, as Zelenskiy gives away our heritage”.
From a Western perspective the “we won, Putin blinked” line will probably dominate, as it neatly allows Nato to dodge the fact that it didn't come to Ukraine’s aid in its hour of need, something Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is clearly very bitter about. (Here he is blaming Nato for Ukrainian deaths “from this day on”.) US President Joe Biden's administration is certain to spin this line, as the US president’s numbers in the polls are crashing and he needs a “win” in Ukraine.
As for Crimea, Kyiv offered a guarantee that it would never try to retake the peninsula militarily. This is a very elegant formulation of the “let’s agree to disagree” on the status of Crimea, which I said was needed to resolve the conflict a few weeks ago. On the one hand it affirms Kyiv’s claim on the sovereignty of Crimea, but on the other it also implicitly concedes that Russia will never leave and Kyiv is not going to do anything about it.
What remains to be seen is if Putin will accept this, as he clearly wants Ukraine to formally concede it's Russian. However, this is pointless, as even if he gets this, no one will ever recognise it as legitimate, so it is a worthless piece of paper, useful as a rhetorical device and nothing else. Putin may feel he needs this for domestic political purposes, so he may push for it, but the fact that Russia has made the gesture of pulling back from Kyiv suggests that he may go for it; he should, as it is the best offer Kyiv can possibly give.
But the really tricky point was dodged completely: what to do about the Donbas. The delegations simply put this off for a meeting between Putin and Zelenskiy. Moreover, part of what Kyiv was asking for is “Nato-like” individual security guarantees from Russia and partners like the US, UK, France and others.
The little that was said on this topic made it clear that there is a big dispute about what “Donbas” is. Interestingly, Kyiv said the security guarantees would not include Donbas, which is also a sop to the Kremlin, as it suggests Kyiv does not expect – almost certainly correctly – to get Donbas back either. The Russian side made it clear that it thinks “Donbas” is bigger than just the territory around the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are under separatist control, whereas Kyiv is suggesting the term covers a more limited area.
Another big question mark is if the Kremlin wants to keep Mariupol (as the new Donbas Republic will need a port) and other cities like Kherson, which is under Russian control. Or even if it will revive the “Novorossiya” idea – basically hiving off all of southern Ukraine and all of its access to the Sea of Azov and Black Sea as far as the Moldovan border in the west. I think that is highly unlikely, as that would be impossible for Kyiv to accept and the war would continue.
Given the “passportisation” that has already happened in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions I think it is certain that Russia will keep the two regions, but Zelenskiy has already offered to hold a referendum on the issue within a year. Here it boils down to whether Putin will accept this; how confident he is that he could “win” that referendum, taking into account the local residents really are fairly pro-Russian after being shelled by Ukraine’s forces, including during the last month’s conflict.
As for the Nato-like idea, this is elegant too and I’m optimistic that the Kremlin will accept this. Putin’s objection to Ukraine joining Nato is not Nato membership per se, but the possibility Nato will put missiles on Ukraine’s borders with Russia. So Russia can accept Ukraine does security deals with Nato members, but if it doesn't join Nato itself then Nato won’t include it in its security infrastructure like it has done with stationing missiles in Poland and Romania. The Kremlin side was specific that any such Nato-like deals have to include “no weapons” and “no bases” to be acceptable.
It's the same with EU membership: when the talks on the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) began at the start of the last decade, the Kremlin said it had no objection to Ukraine improving its trade deal with Western Europe, but as it had an open border with Ukraine, it insisted that these trade talks be three-way, so Russian interests could be taken into account. The EU refused in a colossal blunder that has fuelled the current conflict. As the Russo-Ukraine border is now effectively closed the Kremlin has no reason to object to Ukraine’s membership, as long as the relationship remains purely economic.
Finally, there is the issue of why Russia is pulling back from Kyiv. A popular meme is that it tried to take the capital to decapitate the Ukrainian government in the first week of the war, but failed. Then it tried to encircle the capital and failed to do that too. So now it's giving up as a lost cause to concentrate on “liberating” the Donbas.
There may be an element of truth to this, as clearly the war in the north didn't go according to plan, and casualties have been high. But I still think that the Kremlin pulled its punches and never made a serious push to take Kyiv. An assault was always a threat as a final card Putin would play if talks went badly.
What makes me think this is several-fold.
First is the fact that Russia offered peace talks on day three of the war, on February 27, and wouldn't have offered to negotiate with a government it was intending to topple within a few days.
Second is that while the suburbs of Kyiv were pounded – Irpin in the north-west has been flattened – the damage, while dramatic, was limited. The number of casualties in Kyiv are in the few hundreds, whereas so many people died in Mariupol that the city gave up collecting the bodies.
Third, the nature of the attack on Mariupol is entirely different from the nature of the attack on Kyiv. I covered the second Chechen war and was in Grozny towards the end of the war. The suburbs simply weren’t there any more.
In case you haven’t seen it, here is a drone video of what Mariupol looks like now. The entire city is destroyed. Grozny looked like this. Kyiv doesn't. The reason is Russia doesn't do urban fighting, which is very dangerous, as the ratio of attackers vs effective defenders is ten-to-one and Kyiv is a city of 2.4mn highly motivated inhabitants. Taking it in a few days is simply not possible. Russia simply flattens a city it wants to take. So I’m sticking to my step-by-step understanding of this conflict. An attack on Kyiv was largely a threat and not a military goal.
I continue to believe that Putin’s campaign was all about getting a deal, but I should add now that in addition to this he has since shown that he intends to keep some part of the Donbas. The Kremlin is now openly saying that it intends to “liberate” the Donbas, so some sort of “Donbas Republic” being left at the end is very likely indeed. And Mariupol is very likely to be part of that.
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