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Russia and Ukraine peace talks likely have nothing to do with 'peace'

Peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine appear to be proceeding in fits and starts. Earlier this week, according to a Financial Times report, a Kremlin spokesperson said that Russia delivered a draft document with its peace talks demands to Ukraine, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has denied receiving such demands. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres plans to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday to discuss how to end the fighting.  

The discovery of atrocities against civilians in the Kyiv suburbs stormed by Russian troops stalled earlier talks in the wake of outrage over possible war crimes. Even though Ukraine drove the Russians out from the vicinity of Kyiv, 900 civilians were found dead. 

In the case of Ukraine and Russia, neither side likely expects the talks to end the war.

Still, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, announced a return to the bargaining table this month. “To prevent more Buchas,” Kuleba said, the country continues to negotiate with Russia. He was referring to the site of the worst atrocities. When Russia shifted its military campaign to Ukraine’s east and ramped up attacks on civilian infrastructure, including in the western city of Lviv, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted that talks had reached a “dead end.”

It’s unlikely peace talks will completely fizzle. More likely is that they will pick up again, falter, then repeat. That’s because — as history shows — peace talks are rarely about peace.

These meetings during wartime are usually just continuations of war by other means — to paraphrase the great military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who said war is a continuation of politics by other means. Wartime negotiations are a chess game for more leverage on the battlefield. And there is often a ghost at the table, a key player who isn’t in the room. 

Take, for example, Hannibal and Scipio, the generals of Carthage and Rome, respectively. When they met for a parley before the final battle of the Second Punic War in 202 B.C., each man was looking beyond the negotiating table. Scipio was stalling for time and hoping his allies would show up with their cavalry. They arrived just before the meeting, but Scipio went ahead with the conversation to size the enemy up. Hannibal was establishing a personal relationship with the Roman commander, knowing the connection could prove useful if Carthage lost the war, which was a distinct possibility, because momentum was on Rome’s side. Hannibal might have reasoned that, if worse came to worst, Scipio could help him negotiate with Rome in any postwar discussions. Neither man thought battle could be avoided.

Or take the American Revolution. In September 1776, the British commander, Adm. Lord Richard Howe, met with an American delegation on Staten Island comprising John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Edward Rutledge. The British had recently won the Battle of Long Island and, with it, threatened to take control of New York City. Why, then, talk to the rebels? The real audience might have been the Loyalists. Like the Russians before they invaded Ukraine, the British held an exaggerated view of the support they had in the colonies, but Loyalists certainly did exist. A show of reasonableness might have increased Loyalist support and, therefore, drained American rebels’ military resources. Britain’s words hardly budged Adams, Franklin and Rutledge, who insisted on independence or nothing. Howe refused, and hard fighting resumed.

In the case of Ukraine and Russia, neither side likely expects the talks to end the war. Both Putin and Zelenskyy most likely know that victory or defeat will be decided on the battlefield. But both sides may hope that negotiations will influence a key player in the conflict: the West — in particular, NATO and the U.S. Western arms deliveries are essential for Ukraine to be able to continue the fight. Western sanctions, if they are ramped up even further, threaten to derail Russia’s economy and with it the ability to wage war. (At the moment, Russia is still earning a substantial income from gas and oil exports to Europe.) With the West as the audience, peace talks or the lack thereof play a key role in shaping the battlefield.

While it’s hard to pinpoint Putin’s precise motivations, Russia almost certainly entered the negotiations for different reasons.

Ukraine entered the talks, which began in late February, most likely to galvanize military support from the West by showing good faith in trying to negotiate a resolution. By expressing outrage and disgust at what Zelenskyy and Western allies have described as war crimes — accusations that Russia denies — Ukraine underlined its case. Only stepped-up delivery of weapons and increased sanctions against Russia will protect civilians, Ukraine argues.

While it’s hard to pinpoint Putin’s precise motivations, Russia almost certainly entered the negotiations for different reasons. Talking allows the Russians to buy time and form battle plans while sowing divisions in the West and trying to curb military support for Ukraine. It’s not surprising that Russia puts a different spin on the stall in the discussions. A Kremlin spokesman accused the West of trying to wreck the talks with hysterical charges of Russian war crimes.

All signs now point to a military showdown in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine. Since its military intervention in 2014, Russia has insisted that the people of the two eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk actually want to join Russia. Pro-Russian leaders in the region agree, but the question has never been put to a vote by the people. Hours before Putin invaded on Feb. 24, he formally recognized the independence of the two Moscow-backed regions. 

Putin’s aim, it seems, is to take control of as much of Ukraine east of the Dnipro River as his army can get. Zelenskyy’s troops will make an all-out effort to stop the Russians and force them out, preferably even out of the Donbas region, which Russia seized in 2014 (Crimea may be beyond recovery). Ukraine has achieved a major victory in the war so far by driving the Russians out of the region around Kyiv, the capital. And it claimed responsibility for sinking the Russian flagship Moskva. 

Given the success of Ukrainian arms to date, its aims may be achievable, but only if the West continues to support it with weapons and sanctions. That is, Ukraine’s military goals require a political strategy. That, in turn, depends on communications, whether by diplomacy or social media or even by negotiating with the battlefield foe.

The talks between Russia and Ukraine will continue but, as in the past, only as a way station to the real arena: the battlefield.

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