STOLYPIN: Political stalemate leaves battlefield with casting vote

STOLYPIN: Political stalemate leaves battlefield with casting vote
After Ukraine's spectacular counteroffensive the kinetic war in Ukraine is slowing down again but with the political process in a stalemate the battlefield will determine the outcome of the war. / bne IntelliNews
By Mark Galeotti director of consultancy Mayak Intelligence October 18, 2022

However much well-meaning Westerners may speak glowingly of the need for talks between Kyiv and Moscow, at present there is no scope or prospect for any meaningful discussions. Instead, it looks like it will only be the battlefield that determines how, what and when any eventual negotiations may be.

Ukraine's red lines

On 4 October, Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed a decree formally ruling out talks with Vladimir Putin, while adding: “we are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but with another president of Russia.” This followed his speech to the UN General Assembly when he directly addressed those in the West who see some kind of solution to the conflict through Ukraine adopting a path of non-alignment. “Those who speak of neutrality mean something else. They pretend to protect someone, but in reality they only protect their vested interests.”

In many ways, Zelenskiy was speaking less to Moscow than to the West. Time and again he has ignored the usual diplomatic etiquette and tried to shame or cajole his sometimes hesitant partners to up their game. In this case, he was likely seeking to head off any attempts by any of them to try to bring pressure to bear on Kyiv to make concessions in the name of a mirage of peace.

Moscow's strategy

However, Moscow continues to float the notion of talks and claim that Kyiv is being prevented from negotiating by its Western puppet-masters. At his recent press conference in Astana, for example, Putin said that “we are open. We have always said that we are open. We reached certain agreements in Istanbul, after all. These agreements were almost initialled. But as soon as our troops withdrew from Kyiv, the Kyiv authorities lost any interest in the talks. That is all there is to it.”

This is disingenuous, to say the least. In any case, in practice Putin has made any such discussions effectively impossible by his decision to annex occupied territories (and, indeed, lay claim to lands not even currently under Russian control) on the basis of 'referenda' of not even tenuous legitimacy. In effect, this was the Russian president burning his own bridges behind him, hoping that this declaration of intent would sufficiently worry Kyiv and, more likely, the West when coupled with his unsubtle (if not especially convincing) hints of a nuclear option.

There has been, after all, another apparent shift in Putin's intent. His ideal goal is presumably still the subjugation of Ukraine, but even the most optimistic Kremlin hawk must realise that, for the moment at least, this is not a credible goal. Instead, just as he abandoned his 'thunder run' on Kyiv when it became clear that could not succeed and instead refocused on the south-east, now he is in effect abandoning any great hope of winning his war on a grand scale, and instead seeking to avoid losing it.

The annexations and the mobilisation are, after all, two sides of the same coin. The troops that are being harvested will be poor ones, under-motivated, undertrained and under-equipped. These are not the forces which, for now, could launch any kind of new offensive. Instead, the hope must be that they could at least hold the line, slow or block further Ukrainian advances this autumn and avoid a general collapse of Russian forces.

The first 'mobiks' are simply being thrown into the war, replenishing units that have taken heavy casualties. Others are being used to form wholly new units, but these will not be deployable until the end of the year at the earliest. Maybe then Putin might hope to regain the initiative on the battlefield though this is hardly likely but above all he is hoping that time is his ally.

Two Wars

This is because there are two wars being fought. The bloody struggle in Ukraine is one, but the other is a 'non-kinetic' one between Russia and the West, being fought in the battlefields of economics, politics and society. They are intertwined, to be sure, but not quite the same, and for all the Western mantra that “the war will end when Ukraine decides,” there is scope for a divergence between the two.

The Ukrainians have demonstrated not just an extraordinary determination to defend their homeland, but also the capacity to both outfight and outthink the Russians. Nonetheless, they remain dependent not just or even mainly on Western weapons, ammunition and training, but on the billions of financial aid keeping their economy alive.

If Putin has any real hope of being able to salvage something that might look like a (partial) victory from this debacle, it depends not on breaking the Ukrainians on the battlefield but in undermining the West's will to continue to bankroll the war.

Asymmetric wars

At present, then, the two sides are too far apart for any meaningful negotiations. Zelenskiy cannot and will not accept anything less than a Russian withdrawal from all occupied territories (although in practice it is possible that there may end up being some kind of deal on Crimea), along with reparations. Putin cannot and will not at present surrender what he now is claiming is Russian territory.

Any future peace will thus depend on what happens on the battlefield. Ukraine may be able to drive back the Russians until it has taken back what has been seized. Russia could conceivably manage to achieve a stalemate in the conflict, though this is looking less likely.

But we ought not forget the other battlefields, either. Sanctions are not having the kind of immediately cataclysmic effects on Russia their promoters predicted, and nor are they likely to. Nonetheless, they are stripping the Russian economy of capacity and resilience, which could leave it vulnerable to unexpected shocks. Likewise, although at present it looks unlikely, there could be some seismic shifts in the West which lead to a scaling back of support for Ukraine.

Until something happens to force one side or the other dramatically to revise its demands and expectations, then no talks can bear fruit.

Stalemates are not necessarily all bad

It is hard to see any of these happening any time soon, though. A Russian military collapse is the most plausible of these scenarios, but even so, probably not worth holding one's breath for. We must accept the likelihood that this terrible war will roll deep into next year, if not longer.

That kind of bloody and dynamic stalemate is hardly an enticing prospect, but it is not necessarily the worst possible outcome. Putin's self-conscious and self-destructive act of bridge-burning means that his old room for manoeuvre, for redefining quite what 'victory' might mean, is vastly reduced. Whether or not his political future indeed, perhaps even his survival does depend on the outcome of the war, he likely believes it is existential. Nightmare scenarios like the potential use of non-strategic nuclear weapons, however unlikely, look most plausible if he feels his back is truly up against the wall.

Putin must fail, indeed, yet perhaps he needs to fail sufficiently slowly to get used to the idea, and not be stampeded into a panicked and ill-considered reaction. In that context, and that context alone, a miserable and bloody stalemate may be the lesser evil.