Ukraine and Russia say they want the war to end. But military and political experts say they are nowhere near peace talks

On November 30, 2023, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will visit the soldiers on the Kupian front line in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Ukrainian Presidency | Anadolu | Getty Images

Ukraine is set to present its peace plan to end its war with Russia to allied national security advisers in Switzerland on Sunday when officials gather in the ski resort of Davos ahead of the World Economic Forum.

It is not the first time Ukraine has presented its 10-point “peace formula”, but Kiev hopes that by getting international partners to support its plan, pressure will be put on Russia to accede to Kiev’s terms for a cessation of hostilities. .

Russia has not attended meetings focused on peace proposals and has criticized the recent October talks in Malta, calling them anti-Russian and counterproductive. Russia’s ally China, which is considered one of the few countries that could influence Moscow’s attitude towards Ukraine, also skipped the meeting.

It is uncertain whether the latest peace summit can bear any fruit. Political and military experts say the war is in a very active phase and neither side has the upper hand in the conflict, peace plans and future talks are “wishful thinking” at this point.

“Some people are suggesting that we may have reached a point where no more can be achieved on the battlefield, so the only option is to sit down and negotiate. I think that’s wishful thinking,” said Sam Greene, professor of Russian politics at King’s College London, he told CNBC.

β€œIt’s true that the battlefield doesn’t move very far in one direction or the other, but the reality is that there’s a lot going on in the battlefield that keeps it exactly where it is… There’s a lot of fighting going on. This suggests that both sides feel they can and must achieve more on the battlefield.”

No sign of a political solution

The priorities of Ukraine’s peace formula are the withdrawal of all Russian troops from its territory and the full restoration of its territorial integrity before the Russian invasion nearly two years ago β€” and before the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The release of all Ukrainian prisoners, nuclear security, and food and energy security are also elements of the plan .

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is set to use the backdrop of the annual economic forum in Davos to drum up support for his peace formula as the war aches for its second anniversary.

A Ukrainian tank destroyed by artillery shelling on December 31, 2023 in Avdiivka, Ukraine.

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Ukraine’s Western partners have reaffirmed their support for Kiev, but prospects for continued military aid look uncertain in both the US and Europe. The upcoming US presidential election could also change attitudes towards Ukraine and disrupt funding.

Concerns are growing over how much more aid Ukraine will need to turn the tide of the war after a highly anticipated counter-offensive failed to meet expectations. Fighting remains intense in southern and eastern Ukraine, where Russian troops are deeply entrenched, preventing Ukrainian forces from making significant advances.

Meanwhile, both sides continue to pursue offensive operations at great cost to their personnel, with several hundred thousand troops on both sides estimated by US intelligence to have been killed or wounded.

Political and military experts point out that most wars end with some diplomacy and negotiation and eventual political settlement, whether the participants like it or not. They note that neither Russia nor Ukraine, however, appear to be at the point where a political solution is acceptable.

“You never want to go to the negotiating table without having the upper hand in a conflict,” former Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Twitty, former deputy commander of U.S. European Command, told CNBC.

“Because if you have the upper hand, you are able to dictate and control what comes out of the negotiations. In this case, neither side has the upper hand.”

For Twitty, Ukraine’s disappointing counteroffensive last summer was a missed opportunity. He noted that “if the Ukrainians broke through the obstacle (defense) belt over the summer and cut the Russian land bridge (to Crimea), they would definitely have the upper hand.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech at the Second Eurasian Economic Forum on May 24, 2023 in Moscow, Russia.

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“The challenge for Ukraine is to make it appear that Russia cannot achieve its objectives militarily, so any negotiations, if and when they do take place, are coming from a position of relative strength,” said Sam Cranny-Evans, a defense analyst at Royal United. Defense think tank Services Institute, told CNBC.

“(But) if Putin feels that the Russian armed forces can still fulfill the political goals that he has set, then there is not much incentive to negotiate, or the mindset with which he approaches negotiations will be very difficult.”

CNBC has reached out to the Kremlin for comment on this story and is awaiting a response.

“Red lines” solidly drawn

Both Russia and Ukraine have repeatedly said they want the war to end β€” but on their terms. Even the prospect of a ceasefire is a hot topic, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warning on Thursday that the current ceasefire would only give Russia a chance to regroup and replenish its troops and weapons stockpile.

“Talking about a ceasefire in Ukraine would not represent peace. It would not mean that the war would stop. It also does not provide an opportunity for political dialogue,” Zelenskyy said during a visit to Estonia.

The Kremlin said in December that it saw no current basis for peace talks, calling the Kyiv peace plan an “absurd process” because it excluded Russia.

Even if talks were to take place, the obstacles to peace are significant, with neither side willing to abandon the so-called “red lines” that were clearly established at the start of the war during ill-fated peace talks brokered by Belarus and Turkey.

Two years of brutal warfare and pseudo-political territorial consolidation by Russia since these early negotiations have hardened the positions of both sides, with little room for compromise.

A major stumbling block in any potential peace talks is now their respective positions on territorial integrity. Russia’s self-declared “annexation” of four Ukrainian regions – Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporozhye and Kherson – in September 2022 and its subsequent “Russification” of these territories makes it difficult to imagine Moscow giving up what it has declared as “Russian territory” in any peace talks. “

Russia is holding elections in illegally occupied parts of Ukraine, including Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporozhye and Kherson.

Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

For Ukraine, accepting the loss of these regions would be tantamount to a Russian victory and accepting the possibility that Russia could seize a larger part of Ukraine in the future.

Geopolitical risk analyst and Europe, Russia and CIS expert Mario Bikarski said that “asking Ukraine to formally cede territory will be very politically unpopular, primarily Ukraine for obvious reasons, but also among Western countries because it undermines the foundations of international law.” .”

“It’s going to be really hard to ask Ukraine to do because then you’re basically saying that your own sovereignty can change under pressure. And I don’t think that’s something that many countries will want to do. It’s a difficult situation,” he said “Under the current circumstances, there is no workable solution in sight that can appeal to both sides.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, center, is accompanied by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., at his military aid meeting with U.S. senators at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. , December 12, 2023.

Bill Clark | Cq-roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

While Ukraine’s international partners have vowed to continue supporting Ukraine militarily, pressure is slowly building on Kiev that a diplomatic solution to the war must be found – although Zelensky this week insisted there was no international pressure on Ukraine to stop fighting.

Cession of territory would be unthinkable for Ukraine’s leadership, a former diplomat told CNBC.

“I know a lot of people believe that … Ukraine will have to negotiate and they will have to give up some territory. But frankly, I don’t see how Zelensky can do that and remain president.” , he would be excluded if he agreed to give away the territory,” said Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO.

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