By Stephen Bryen
Times is running out for the Russians. Yes, they can surround Kyiv and pound the city with artillery and air strikes. But for every bomb destroying a beautiful and historic city, Putin puts nails into the coffin of his Ukraine invasion. Moreover, the end game the Russian were looking for, namely to unseat the current Ukrainian government and kill its leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, seems less likely to happen. Worse still from Russia’s point of view, the more they bomb and kill, the harder it is for Zelensky to give an inch, partly because he is a strong Ukrainian patriot, and in part because Russia’s attacks have united Ukraine.
Even worse for Vladimir Putin is the prospect of having to occupy Ukraine for a long time, which will be costly, drain him of domestic support as the body count and economic costs mount, and Russia would remain isolated and increasingly broke.
That is why there may be a crack emerging in this horrific war.
Some things have become increasingly clear. The first is there is not a military victory available to either side, since Ukraine can’t defeat the Russians and the Russians can’t stop Ukraine from fighting.
Second, without the prospect of a military victory, the real issue is how much of Ukraine’s infrastructure will be left standing, enabling it to rebuild and restore some semblance of its pre-war standard of living. Zelensky has to understand that destruction to Ukraine’s cities and its infrastructure, including its power grid and telecommunications, is already extensive, but with the Russians holding Ukraine’s main nuclear power plant and occupying Chernobyl, the Russians could destroy all of it, meaning any recovery could take decades and might not be affordable –or even worse, that radiation leaks could poison the land and the people for centuries.
Third, Zelensky now appears to recognize, based on his latest remarks, that a high level meeting between himself and Russia’s leader is necessary to reach any settlement deal. Meeting of lower level officials, even foreign ministers, won’t turn the trick.
Zelensky’s preference is for such a high level meeting between himself and Putin take place in Jerusalem.
Putin has not yet responded to this latest overture. He is probably waiting to see what results come from the Kyiv operation, now ongoing. But since Russian tanks and armor can’t successfully enter Kyiv on the roadways available, his only real option now is to pound the city with artillery and rockets to try and force concessions. If history is any lesson, such attacks often unite and inspire instead of forcing capitulation. Russia knows this very well –even in World War II the Russian army had to fight some six weeks to capture Berlin, with heavy losses. From March to May, 1945, Russia suffered over 81,000 killed and 280,251 additional casualties trying to take Berlin. German forces, which by then were filled up with elderly men and underage teenagers, lost around 100,000 men, with about 125,000 civilians killed mainly by bombardments.
But if Putin does come to Jerusalem he needs a deal that lets him claim some victory, but in such a way that Europeans will be willing to end sanctions and support a peace deal. This won’t be easy, because part of Putin’s problem is not only Ukraine but NATO and Eastern Europe. The almost complete absence of the United States from the peace talks, and NATO’s lack of a way forward with the Russians, are significant stumbling blocks that cannot be left unaddressed.
There is widespread fear in Europe over Russian threats for the future, even though the overall performance of Russia’s army has fallen way short of expectations. As one top NATO official commented, this [Ukraine war] is not the Russian army we trained against. But Russia has demonstrated its ability to act with impunity and go after Ukraine’s infrastructure and civilians, causing widespread destruction. Unfortunately, if Europe is waiting for NATO to get its act together, they may be wasting their time. NATO is all but paralyzed, and the paltry few thousand US troops sent to the Baltics and Poland, only show weakness, not strength. Indeed, as Washington slaps on more sanctions but otherwise does nothing, NATO is slip slip sliding away, and Europe’s belief in the NATO security shield is fast dissolving.
Israel has made it clear it is willing to host a peace conference, providing there is a chance for it to be successful. Israel has not imposed sanctions on Russia (neither has nearby Turkey, the other significant power in the Middle East that is pro-Western and, in Turkey’s case, a NATO member), so it can act as a broker. Putin knows that and has had reasonably good relations with Israel and respects Israeli capabilities and technology.
Should Putin come to Jerusalem and meet with Zelensky, the probable outcome might look like this: Russian forces would withdraw to the Donetsk basin; nuclear facilities in Ukraine would be turned over and managed by third parties, not by Ukrainians, for security reasons; Ukraine will recognize the autonomy of Luhansk and Donetsk but will not recognize them as independent states; similarly Ukraine will recognize the autonomy of the annexed Crimea, but will not recognize that Crimea is part of Russia; arrangements will be made to protect Ukrainian citizens in the autonomous areas; Ukraine will agree to provide essential services, power, water, to Crimea; Ukraine will agree to not join NATO and withdraw its application to join; Ukraine will not allow foreign bases on its territory and will no longer carry out military exercises with NATO countries; Ukraine will renounce all weapons of mass destruction and agree to international monitoring; Russia will only keep forces in the Donetsk area and Crimea sufficient for defense and will otherwise send home the bulk of its invading forces; prisoners on both sides will be repatriated to their homelands (unless they desire otherwise, to prevent the arrest and execution of “traitors”); Ukraine will have balanced economic relations with Russia and the EU, but not be exclusively an EU member.
The above settlement “terms” are, of course, speculative and require the two sides to agree. However the above formula should work well enough for both sides to make a deal.