IN my last article in TCW I suggested that Russia was positioning itself for peace negotiations and set out, given what they now held, what the terms might be. Putin’s pitch to President Erdogan of Turkey came soon after and it was very much as I had set out. Today there are signals from the negotiations that a deal is ‘close’. To recap, this would hinge on Russia gaining the Donbas, perhaps after a referendum and no guesses as to how that would go; Crimea and its water supply; a corridor to the Crimea, either by annexation of territory on the coasts of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea or else as a concession like that to Kaliningrad on the Baltic; and Ukraine giving up all ideas of membership of Nato, and also possibly the EU if the EU could afford them. Putin appears not to want to occupy the rest of Ukraine – apart from anything else, he does not have half a million troops to garrison it, even if he could pay them after the effects of western sanctions have bled him.
What would Ukraine get in return for such huge concessions? No further (substantial) damage to Kiev and no encroachment on the port of Odessa on the Black Sea for sure; guarantees of security for what they would be worth; and presumably the safety of President Zelensky and his family. This would leave Ukraine free, but without most of its industrial infrastructure and its resources of minerals and gas, dependent on agricultural exports and lower living standards for Ukrainians. There might have to be some sort of Marshall Aid plan for Ukraine, with Russia making a contribution, or else a deal like this is unlikely to bring an end to Western sanctions on Russia and so even as Putin declares victory at home, the squeeze on ordinary Russians will get ever worse.
If a deal is rejected by Ukraine, we can expect a resumption of the Russian offensive which, apart from Mariupol and Kharkiv, is paused. Mariupol matters because it is within the corridor to the Crimea and is the ideological centre of the Azov Movement; it must therefore be cleared or levelled. A resumption of hostilities would see an echelon change as fresh Russian formations came forward; formations which might make a better job of the combined-arms tactical battle than hitherto. However, we must differentiate between the heavy weather that Russian troops have made of things at the tactical level and where the Russians are at the campaign level. At that level, they are sitting on most of what they want and they are poised to surround Kiev, envelop Odessa from the Black Sea and then punch northwards from Mykolayiv or, perhaps ultimately, into Transnistria and Moldova. The outcome of a renewal of the offensive would see Ukraine in a much weaker negotiating position and looking at a surrender or an imposed settlement. Zelensky knows this and it seems unlikely he will opt for this course of action.
Let us consider matters downstream from a settlement. Ukrainian nationalism has been awakened by the war and by the belief that they have fought the Russians to a standstill. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Is it therefore likely that those who have fought, whether in the regular army or in outfits like the Azov, Aidar and Tornado units, will accept what they might well see as a sell-out? In such a case, Zelensky might be either ousted or else obliged to go along with the Nationalists. Their response to Russian annexation is likely to be what it has been since 2014: irregular warfare, infiltration, insurgency where possible and the bombardment of border areas. The patience of a refreshed and hardened Russia in this event is likely to be thin. Punishment from the West can hardly get any worse and if it has not deterred Putin by now, it will never do so. Russian reaction is likely to be exactly the same as if Ukraine were now to reject the deal; the Second Ukrainian War would leave the country looking like Chechnya.