Yesterday, after the Ukrainian and Russian delegations ended their several hours of negotiations in Istanbul under the watchful eye of Turkish president Erdogan, the parties released information on the proposals that Kiev made and which Moscow acknowledged were a possible working document for their eventual peace treaty. Meanwhile, the Russians announced that as a token of good faith to encourage the further rounds of negotiations, they would “drastically cut back” their attack on Kiev.
Immediately, global financial markets took heart and marked gains. In Russia, the currency market strengthened significantly, reaching exchange rates against the dollar and euro that are within 10-15% of where they were before Russia’s “special military operation” got underway on 24 February.
What do we know about the points on the negotiating table and can they serve as the basis for a definitive peace?
The most important concession which Kiev is offering is to declare “neutral” status, to give up any plans to join military alliances or to allow foreign military to establish bases on its territory. The latest proposal fleshes out the list of guarantors of Ukraine’s security. These could include the UK, China, the USA, Turkey, France, Canada, Italy, Poland and Israel. In return, Russia will not object to Ukraine joining the European Union.
The talking points remain wide open as regards territory. The future status of Crimea would be decided by 15 years of consultations. The two presidents would discuss the future of the Donbas republics.
One thing that Western media have not noticed is the reaction of Russia’s leading talk show panelists and hosts to these draft points for a treaty. As usual, I take for my point of reference Vyacheslav Nikonov’s Great Game and Vladimir Solovyov’s Evening show. I think the message was clear yesterday: patriotic panelists were disheartened by what they construed to be the too soft line being taken by the Kremlin’s negotiators. A peace treaty is being drafted when none of Russia’s war objectives has been met. No de-Nazification. No regime change: the same Russophobe government would remain in power. No significant territorial gains consolidated in the terms of the proposed settlement. However, the hosts were careful to remind the panelists that this was not end game, just a stopping place on the way.
What do I foresee?
I believe that the Russians will continue to negotiate while using all available firepower to change the situation on the ground in Ukraine dramatically in their favor. The Kremlin remarked several days ago, before the last round of negotiations, that it was about to concentrate its forces in the Donbas to liberate still occupied territories of the two republics and restore their boundaries from before 2014.
As regards, Lugansk, there is not much to do. Latest information suggests that 93% of the former Lugansk oblast is now in separatist hands. However, in the Donetsk People’s Republic there is still a great deal to do. The separatists are holding only 50% of what had been the territory of their oblast in 2014. There are reasons for this. First, the main concentration of the Ukrainian army, perhaps as many as 100,000 troops are still dug into hardened positions directly opposite Donetsk that they created over the last eight years. They have been firing artillery shells and rockets into Donetsk city and its suburbs on a daily basis, causing multiple deaths and wanton destruction of residential buildings and civil infrastructure. The Donetsk forces alone are no match for this concentration; moreover, some of the Donetsk troops have been diverted from attacking across the line of demarcation by the assignment given to them by Moscow from the start of the operations: to assist with the taking of Mariupol. Donetsk units moved south to Mariupol to meet up with Russian troops moving north from Crimea. But the operation has been very difficult and time consuming. Still now there are a couple of thousand die-hard Azov battalion soldiers holed up in the steel mill and in the port area. Their numbers are falling either to Russian assault teams or by melting into the civilian population and heading out via humanitarian corridors. As soon as this operation is completed, the Donetsk forces and Russians can head north to attack the main mass of Ukrainians to the west of the Dniepr.
The Russians are running out of time and out of resources to smash the Ukrainian troops west of the Dniepr. It may be that to get the job done, they will finally resort to the “American way of war” and carpet bomb the Ukrainian positions. We will see shortly.
If the Russians succeed in liberating the 50% of Donetsk oblast still held by Kiev, then they will be ready for a cease fire and for definitive peace talks. By smashing the greatest concentration of Ukrainian forces they will achieve two of their original objectives with one stroke: de-Nazification and demilitarization. The question will remain whether Zelenski can sign a peace based on the new realities. It may be in his interest to go to Istanbul for talks with Putin and then to keep on flying to freedom. His associates in Kiev will surely be ready to lynch him for a bad peace.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022