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Diplomacy Watch: Ukraine peace talks could be on the horizon

Diplomacy Watch: Ukraine peace talks could be on the horizon

A pair of new reports suggest that ceasefire discussions are more achievable than previously thought

Analysis | QiOSK

In the past week, a pair of major stories have blown the doors off the dominant narrative about the Ukraine war, opening the possibility that a ceasefire — or even a peace deal — may be more achievable than previously thought.


The first comes from Politico, which reported Wednesday that American and European officials are “quietly shifting their focus from supporting Ukraine’s goal of total victory over Russia to improving its position in an eventual negotiation to end the war.”


The U.S. and Europe, according to Politico’s sources, have already started to push Ukraine to shift toward defensive operations following a failed counteroffensive earlier this year — a shift that would focus on giving Kyiv a strong hand at the negotiating table.


The report suggests that President Joe Biden’s recent comments about Ukraine having won “an enormous victory already” could be the first step in an effort to shift the narrative around eventual concessions. If the reporting is true, then the West is far more open to accepting the idea of territorial concessions in Ukraine than previously thought.


But, as Politico notes, a move toward a pro-negotiation posture will face substantial political difficulties given the Biden administration’s previous insistence that it will defend Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve Kyiv’s key aim of removing Russian troops from the entirety of Ukraine, including Crimea.


And, despite public pronouncements from the Kremlin that it’s ready for talks, Ukraine and its strongest Western backers have long argued that they see no hope for negotiation until Russian President Vladimir Putin is removed from power. His goal, they argue, is nothing short of the full subjugation of Ukraine, and a negotiated peace would represent Chamberlain-style appeasement.


That brings us to the second story, which the New York Times (somewhat inexplicably) published on the Saturday before Christmas. Putin, the Times reports, has been signaling since at least September that he is ready for a ceasefire along the current lines in Ukraine.


A “senior international official” told the Times that Putin’s public comments about the war are mostly bluster and that the Russian leader has shown consistent interest in pausing the war on current lines. A former Russian official confirmed that the Kremlin is content to stop the fighting as it currently stands but added that Putin is “not willing to retreat one meter.”


Moscow’s willingness to enter a ceasefire agreement is based on its view that average Russians, despite supporting the war effort in principle, would happily accept a “victory” that falls short of some of the Kremlin’s professed aims, the Times reported.


Notably, this openness to talks is nothing new. According to the Times, Putin first signaled his interest in a ceasefire back in the fall of 2022, when a Ukrainian counteroffensive swept Russian troops back to the lines that have more or less held since. The revelation suggests that the Biden administration’s long standing argument that there is no partner for peace in Moscow is, at best, misleading.


It also raises questions about what Mark Milley, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, knew when he argued in December 2022 that the war would likely not end in a decisive military victory for either side and that the time appeared ripe for a negotiated peace. Was this a clever response to Putin’s overtures? The possibility is hard to ignore.


Taken together, these stories suggest that an opportunity is opening to pursue talks, whether quietly or in a more public forum, to bring this brutal war to an end after nearly two years of fighting. They are also a reminder of a common theme in modern war: No matter how long or hard you fight, you almost never achieve all of your stated goals.


Of course, neither of these stories bears on the thinking of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has his own domestic issues to deal with and promises to keep. Of particular importance is his commitment to joining NATO, a move that Putin had sought to block by invading in the first place.


And, while Russians may be ready for an end to the war, the Ukrainian public has made clear its opposition to losing any territory. Russia’s invasion has left Ukrainians so frustrated that they’ve even decided to move Christmas from January 7, the Russian Orthodox date, to December 25.


Just a few days ago, a majority of Ukrainians celebrated their first Christmas in December. “It’s historical justice,” a Ukrainian soldier told AP News. “We need to move forward not only with the world but also with the traditions of our country and overcome the imperial remnants we had.”


In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:


— The blockade of Poland-Ukraine border crossings by Polish truckers could finally be coming to an end, according to Reuters, which reported Wednesday that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk is making progress in his efforts to settle the dispute. The main issue is the truckers’ demand that the European Union reinstitute a system of permits for Ukrainian trucks entering European territory that was suspended due to Russia’s invasion and blockade of Black Sea ports. Though the current regulations will likely stay in force until at least June, the recent election of Tusk — a former president of the European Council — has reportedly facilitated talks to end the blockade, which some officials now say could be over before the new year.


— Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar met with Putin on Wednesday during a multi-day trip to Moscow, with talks focused on building a multipolar world order, according to the New York Times. Jaishankar’s visit highlights India’s unique place in international politics as a powerful state with strong ties to both Russia and the West. The Ukraine war was also reportedly on the agenda, though it is unclear if the diplomat broached the possibility of peace talks.


— Russia threatened a harsh response if the West follows through on its plans to seize Russian Central Bank assets stored in the United States, according to the Guardian. Among the options for retaliation are seizures of Western assets under Russian control or even a full breakdown in relations between Washington and Moscow.


— The Kremlin lashed out at U.S. claims that Russia rejected a prisoner swap, arguing that talks are “extremely delicate” and that a resolution to the issue could be “hampered by being actively discussed in public,” according to Reuters. The comments confirm that talks are ongoing to secure the release of ex-Marine Paul Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, both of whom the U.S. government considers wrongfully detained. The U.S. envoy for hostage negotiations toldPBS that the U.S. is in frequent contact with both men and their families, adding that he hopes to “get them both at the same time.”


U.S. State Department news:

The State Department did not hold a press briefing this week.

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