Ukraine: Erdogan Hosts Talks in Turkey, Putin and Zelenskyy Ponder Their Path to Victory

Russian Presidential Press Service and Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

Tension begins to show as the war in Ukraine goes into day thirty-three. Both the Ukrainians and Russians are beginning to come to terms with the fact that neither one is going to get exactly what they want. Both sides are now searching for what they can declare as sufficient victory to end the conflict.

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Exploring peace shifts to talks being hosted by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey.  Erdoğan has been in contact with Putin even as his country supplies drones to Ukraine. So far, it’s not a very promising week. Russia continues to rule out Putin meeting with Zelenskyy, something that makes him look undesirable and autocratic in the eyes of the world.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shows Moscow’s concerns, describing Western sanctions as a “total war” against Russia. He accuses the west of being out “to destroy, break, annihilate, strangle the Russian economy, and Russia on the whole”. Lavrov isn’t wrong.  The sanctions effects are spreading even to nations friendly to Russia like China, who are beginning to hesitate about business projects with the Kremlin. It’s also causing angry outburst actions by Russia, including starting up provocative military maneuvers near Japan, because Japan honed the world’s response to the invasion by imposing sanctions. These brash actions are seeds of instability.

Not that the US isn’t a source of instability either.  President Joseph Biden calling Mr. Putin a war criminal and inviting regime change haven’t helped smooth diplomatic channels. And right now, things remain tense between Ukraine and Russia.

Ukraine’s Dilemma

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Zelensky
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool

Ukraine’s effort to convince the West to go all-in to support the country in an all-out defense against the Russians appears to have reached a limit. For the last two weeks, president Volodymyr Zelenskyy Has campaigned heavily for a no-fly zone and advanced weapons to be supplied to his country so that they could attempt to achieve their hopes of “territorial integrity,” which is code for pushing the Russians back to the border. By now, everyone has heard a version of the “Ukraine is thankful and we need more” message.  There has been applause and fanfare in Congress, Parliament, Brussels, the Knesset, and the Internet. Ukraine has been framing its war as a battle on behalf of the world.

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Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna said it again on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”,

“Well, first of all, this address was to the Ukrainian people, not only to the Ukrainian leadership. And it was really important because in this time of the severe war and nearly all possible war crimes have been committed against the country, but also the eastern Ukrainian people, it was really important to have the sense of an international leadership and an understanding of the tragedy which is happening there for us. We have also heard a very important message related to the war crimes committed in our territory and the clear understanding and readiness to form the anti-war coalition leaded (ph) by the strongest democracies in the world to stop the war and to stop the aggressive, terroristic regime in Russia.”

Also on Sunday, Ukrainian Ambassador to the US Oksana Markarova had this to say on CNN’s State of the Union,

“Well, I think it’s very important that West is united. And it’s very important that the U.S. and president and administration and Congress are leading this effort to support Ukraine, to sanction Russia, and to stop Putin. Now, enough will be when Putin will be stopped. So, as we always say, we’re very grateful for everyone, especially for the United States, for all the support. But since Putin is increasing these attacks, since Putin is increasing all the atrocities on the ground, killing innocent civilians, with all together have to do more. We have to stop him.” 

But the West has not been forthcoming with “more.” It’s because Mr. Putin has done a very good job at positioning Russia with the threat of escalation. His investment in tactical nuclear weapons and a military doctrine for employing them in Ukraine paid off. There’s a harsh post-war lesson for the US and NATO here for the West’s blissful ignoring of these types of weapons in terms of arms control negotiations, nuclear force development, strategic defense systems, and the nuances of nuclear use policy for achieving deterrence against the type of nuclear blackmail we found ourselves in that will have to be reckoned with. Mr. Putin acts with impunity in Ukraine because the West is paralyzed and unable to respond to nuclear blackmail. We have work to do and it’s not going to get any better unless we do.

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What the West is willing to do is sponsor a proxy war.  We will continue to supply Ukraine with sufficient weapons to permanently harass the Russians and make it a very costly place for them to stay. The West wants to drag the war out for months hoping that sanctions can extract an economic toll on the Russians, weaken their resolve to continue to advance westward towards the Polish border, and decide to go home.

Much to the consternation of the Ukrainians, they are quickly realizing that it means they are being asked to accept that their people will suffer an expanding humanitarian crisis and more of their cities will be turned into rubble.

Realizing that the vast armies of the US and NATO, which could easily defeat the Russian military machine in a conventional war, will not be coming, the Ukrainians must face that they go to the negotiating table with only the cards they have in their hands to play.

Their main card is they have the capability to fight an extended ground war and, for now, the supplies from the West to turn what used to be a peaceful neighbor next to Russia into a proxy war nightmare between East and West on Russia’s doorstep. The most they’ll be able to parlay that into is a smaller Ukraine consisting of the parts Russia doesn’t want.

Russia’s Dilemma

Vladimir Putin
Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

The Russian dilemma is that they realize that the Ukrainian threat of being permanently troublesome is real. More importantly, Mr. Putin is not just fighting Ukraine. The Russian President has stirred the beehive of Europe and awakened strong resentment among European nations, who remember the cruelty of the Soviet Union. They are willing to support Ukraine in preventing Russia from extending its sphere of influence westward. This US/NATO solidarity is not something Russia was counting on.

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Complicating matters, the Russian army has been revealed to lack the capability to take the entire country of Ukraine by force. Quite honestly it never could. The number of troops committed to the Ukraine campaign was enough to take some territory but not enough to hold it permanently. It was always clear that the Russians thought that their military presence would be a prelude to regime change. Those hopes have proven problematic.

It’s popular to lampoon the Russian army as buffoons, given the setbacks they have encountered.  But the map says ground has been taken by the Russians, even if it cost more in casualties and logistics difficulties than anticipated.  Russian air power remains contested because Ukraine still has air defenses. But the Russians do have a clear advantage in air power that Ukraine cannot defeat without the West finding a way into Ukrainian air space. There are some US analysts that contend that the Russians are exactly where they want to be in Ukraine, no more, no less. That they are, as the Russian generals say, right on plan. I don’t believe that. In my view, the Russians are disappointed that they haven’t toppled Zelenskyy and are now having to make hard choices.

Here’s the bottom line: One should make no mistake that the Russian army now controls large portions of Ukraine. These positions are around the size of pieces of territory one would expect a force of 200,000 could take and hold. This creates very real negotiation options for Russia. The question going forward is whether this territory is enough? Does Russia want more?

Going west is problematic. Mr. Putin could reinforce his army and push westward to the border of Eastern Europe. The problem for him is that the closer he gets to countries like Poland, the more likely he is to trigger a defensive reaction from NATO. It’s one thing to play brinksmanship over nuclear use in Ukraine, quite another to play with theater nuclear warfare escalation with NATO proper. The odds of success, or even just preventing the situation from spinning out of control, become vastly more complex if Russia advances beyond the Slavic east of Ukraine into the Germanic west of the country. Russia probably doesn’t want the nuclear worry to shift in this direction.  This argues for Mr. Putin to think about declaring territorial victory at a midpoint in the country.

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Under such an arrangement, the West would guarantee the security of West Ukraine while Russia guarantees the security of East Ukraine. The Ukrainians won’t like this. They are going on about the goal of “territorial integrity.”  But they are also resigning themselves to the reality that Ukraine won’t be whole when this war ends. The map of Europe will be redrawn one more time, like it has so many times before.

The dilemma for Russia is that taking too much of Ukraine into Russia’s sphere of influence will result in harsh sanctions continuing to impact their economy for the foreseeable future. It may already be too late to mitigate this. The regime stability problem for Russia is that sanctions will crater their economy and spiral them back down to where they were in the ugly days of the mid-90s when poverty and famine beset their country.

Politically, as much as I’d like to see someone who doesn’t see killing innocent civilians as a tool of statecraft running Russia, I don’t see Mr. Putin in any danger of being deposed in the near future. US President Joseph Biden can rant about Putin as much as he wants, the bottom line is that there is a deep loyalty and affection for Vladimir Putin in Russia because he was the man who brought the country out of their mid-90’s crisis.  He’ll be forgiven for his methods if he can deliver better living conditions. But can he?

Mr. Putin can only nationalize so much of the country into a central economy. There is a free-market model middle class that now permeates Russian society.  The plain truth is that a central government cannot maintain this and quality of life in Russia will be affected. Russian leaders and economists are not dummies. They know this aspect of their country will crater. They know it will cause long-term instability inside Russia, that it will not go well. The danger is a path to regime change inside Russia driven by economic collapse, something Mr. Putin may not want to happen on his watch.  I don’t imagine he wants to be his own version of Boris Yeltsin.

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It doesn’t really matter how effective or ineffective western sanctions are. They are always only partially effective anyway, far less than western propaganda would have the world believe. What matters is if sanctions persist, they will cause worrisome fissures inside the fabric of Russia. Mr. Putin needs to carefully pick what demands he brings to Turkey about how to carve Ukraine in a way that will work for his goals. That’s if he’s rational and not just rattling sabers for ego’s sake, as some in the world fear he might be.

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