From, Dec. 8, 2023, Condensed text:

Editors’ Note. – With the war in Ukraine dragging on and no end in sight, Russian officials, including Putin himself, have repeatedly brought up the subject of peace talks in their public comments recently, saying Russia is “still open” to the idea. In one of its recent articles, Izvestiawonders which European country may be picked to host such talks – whether it will be Hungary or perhaps some non-NATO country [see the first article of this feature].

Ukrainian officials strongly deny any possibility of peace talks as long as the deal envisages Ukraine ceding some of its territory to Russia. But this may change over time, says military expert and political analyst Yury Fyodorov. In this interview with Republic’s Farida Kurbangaleyeva, the expert explains what conditions each of the parties will insist on, and in what scenario peace talks won’t be perceived as defeat and capitulation for Kiev.

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Q. – Why are we suddenly hearing a lot of talk about the possibility of talks between Russia and Ukraine? Are these just some empty statements by Russian officials? Or are there actual reasons to believe that such talks may be possible?

A. – Yes, there are reasons to believe that. Everybody wants hostilities to end – both the Western coalition and China, as well as the countries referred to as the Global South. Furthermore, they want hostilities to end without either of the two parties suffering a defeat. In other words, they want to go back to the status quo ante bellum, as it were.

To them, the prospect of Russia being defeated would be a negative scenario. China doesn’t want that, and the Global South doesn’t want it either, because that would mean that Russia disappears from the international arena. The West may be more or less okay with Russia losing the war, but it fears that Russia’s defeat could launch some destructive processes within the country, which will result in turmoil and perhaps even Russia’s disintegration – or that, dangerous as Putin is, some other clan that’s even more dangerous than Putin’s may seize power in Russia. Hence, the Western ruling elites think they should not insist on defeating Russia, and thus humiliating the Russian people and the Russian establishment, because that might have unpredictable consequences.

On the other hand, the Western coalition certainly doesn’t want Ukraine to lose. By now, pretty much everybody agrees that if Ukraine loses and Russia wins, sooner or later Russia will pose a major military threat to the West, especially in the Baltic Sea region. The next round of Russia’s military expansion will probably target the three Baltic nations, followed by Poland, Finland and others. In that case, NATO will have to make a tough choice – either go to war with Russia, which may quickly escalate into a nuclear conflict, or capitulate.

Since it is crucial to avoid defeat on both sides, the logical thing to do would be to end this war. Avoiding defeat implies that both parties get to keep, more or less, the territory they control now. In order to cement the status quo, talks would be necessary.

We all know what Ukraine’s official position is. Ukraine says talks may only take place after Russian troops withdraw to the 1991 borders. I hope my Ukrainian colleagues don’t get mad at me, but I have to say that, in my opinion, that demand is unrealistic at this point. Even if Ukraine gets a lot of weapons from the Western coalition, I don’t think it has the capacity to push Russian forces back to the 1991 borders in the foreseeable future.

Q. – But doesn’t it seem to you that, given current circumstances, Russia will be negotiating from a position of strength, and Ukraine from a position of weakness?

A. – It might seem that way. But is it really true that Russia has a stronger military position today? I think pretty much everybody agrees that, strategically, we have a stalemate on the battlefield, where neither of the parties can achieve a decisive advantage. This implies that the military capabilities of the two countries are roughly the same. So, if we set emotions aside, we will see that both sides are more or less in the same situation today in terms of being able to achieve their goals.

Some may argue that Russia has much more human and economic resources. This is true, but, first, it’s not that easy to convert economic resources into modern weapons.

Second, if your opponent has more manpower, you can offset that advantage by having superior weapons. And, finally, there is a much more important consideration. If the West continues supporting Ukraine, we shouldn’t compare Russia’s defense industry capabilities with Ukraine’s. We should compare Russia and the Western coalition [which has a much higher capacity], even if we don’t include the US – because if Donald Trump is elected president, the US might reconsider its Ukraine policy.

If we take a look at key economic indicators, we will see that the EU economy is several times larger than that of Russia. In terms of R&D investment, the EU beats Russia 10 to 1, or 12 to 1, or even more. If we take R&D investment for the entire Western coalition, it beats Russia about 30 to 1. And advanced technology is key to producing superior weapons. Once the West designs and manufactures new weapon systems, including some that are being designed right now, Russia will be very disadvantaged militarily. But political factors, of course, will be very important. We don’t know how much the West will support Ukraine going forward, and whether it will provide any support at all.

Q. – But don’t you think that if Ukraine agrees to talks, that will look like capitulation? People in Ukraine hate the very idea of talking to the enemy.

A. – You’re right, many in Ukraine will perceive peace talks as the first step toward capitulation. But engaging in peace talks does not necessarily mean you’re about to capitulate. It doesn’t signal loss or victory. It’s perfectly neutral. . . .

It’s easy to see why public opinion in Ukraine is so much against the talks. It is a highly emotional issue for many Ukrainians – too emotional, I would say. And it is only natural they feel this way; it is inevitable after two years of heavy fighting. Ukraine didn’t start this war, mind you. The purpose of this war is to destroy Ukraine as a state and as a nation. This war is perceived as a treacherous attack by a nation many in Ukraine thought was their friend. Ukrainians thought Russians were their friends, perhaps even brothers. And then it turns out your brother and your friend, the person you trusted, is a robber and a rapist. It is extremely painful to accept this truth.

In addition, right until the middle of September, many in Ukraine still believed that victory was just around the corner. And nearly all the media outlets helped stoke these expectations – not just those controlled by the president’s office. But now people have realized that the quick victory they all have been fervently hoping for is out of reach. Naturally, this is a severe blow to their morale. However, emotions and policy decisions are two things that should be kept separate. Policy decisions should not be influenced by the emotions of the masses; on the contrary, policymakers should shape public sentiment.

We should also mention a major issue that will definitely arise at the talks, if we ever get there. In fact, it will arise even as the parties start preliminary consultations before the talks. It is the issue of Ukraine’s international and military-political status. In my opinion, these questions are even more important, both to Ukraine and the West, than the issue of the occupied territories. First, Russia has always insisted that Ukraine must remain a nonbloc, nonnuclear and neutral state, and it will probably continue insisting on that. Second, Russia will try again to impose severe restrictions on Ukraine’s Armed Forces, as it did last March.

If this scenario becomes reality (and I admit that it doesn’t look very likely at this point), Ukraine will become some sort of demilitarized area that won’t be able to join any military-political alliance. Russia, for its part, will be able to concentrate the bulk of its forces in the Baltic Sea region and achieve a significant advantage there – at least, on a regional scale. This situation looks extremely menacing – not just for Ukraine, but for the West as well.

Conversely, if the West somehow incorporates Ukraine into its military system, the situation in Eastern Europe and on NATO’s eastern flank will be much more favorable for the Western forces. Basically, NATO membership is the only genuine security guarantee that the West can provide for Ukraine. . . .

At the same time, Ukraine’s military is a major – and absolutely unique – force. It has battle-hardened troops; it has commanders with battlefield experience. No NATO country has such a seasoned military. This is why Ukraine is indeed a barrier that prevents Russia’s military and political expansion from going farther west (even though Kiev does not bring this up as often today as it used to in the early days of the war). Ukraine is destined to be such a barrier because of its strategic location. Moscow is well aware of this. That’s why the question of Ukraine’s status will be much more important and much more controversial at future hypothetical talks than the territorial issue.

Q. – Could Ukraine give up its occupied territories in exchange for NATO membership? And would Russia allow Ukraine to join NATO if it gets to keep whatever it was able to seize?

A. – It’s an interesting option. By the way, this is precisely what [former US secretary of state] Henry Kissinger recommended – and his mind remained sharp to the very last day. I think this option should be acceptable to Ukraine – of course, as long as it finds a way to keep people’s anger in check, because most people in Ukraine would find this idea unacceptable today. But, like I said, these are just emotions.

People who are in the know often mention a recent study by Ukraine’s Reiting polling agency. It shows that the number of people who are in favor of opening talks and ending this war is once again on the rise in Ukraine. But, again, that is if talks don’t result in territorial losses. Any loss of territory will be viewed as unacceptable. But we should distinguish between long-term and short-term problems. Valery Zaluzhny, the commander in chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, has admitted that the situation on the battlefield is a strategic stalemate. This means, among other things, that Ukraine is unable to achieve its strategic goals, including the liberation of all the occupied lands. It is impossible today, and it won’t be possible any time soon. It’s a fact, whether we like it or not.

NATO membership, on the other hand, will provide Ukraine with the most reliable security guarantees. A ceasefire and a truce will give Ukraine a chance to rearm and retrain its military, to start rebuilding its economy based on new advanced technology, and to ease social problems. The territorial issue can be revisited later on, when Ukraine is strong enough to confront Russia about it – all by itself or together with its allies – and impose on Russia a solution that would serve Ukraine’s interests best.

Then there is one more issue to consider. Since Ukraine insists that Russia should pull its troops back to the 1991 borders, it means that Ukraine gets back the occupied parts of Lugansk and Donetsk Provinces and the Crimea. But then what do you do with the people living in the Donetsk Basin, most of whom are extremely anti-Ukrainian? What do you do with a million people living in the Crimea who consider themselves Russian? Let’s say Ukraine deports them. That may be seen as ethnic cleansing and could cause huge problems. Hence, you have to ask yourself whether it would be possible to “reeducate” those people.

As far as I know, some people in Ukraine say that those who moved to the occupied territories from Russia should go back to Russia, while those who lived there before 2014 can stay, and the authorities will have to find a way to win their loyalty. However, if they prefer to leave and go to Russia, nobody is going to miss them. But I’m afraid that, should Ukraine try to implement such a policy, it will encounter immense difficulties. On the other hand, there is practically no alternative to this policy.

Now, let’s talk about Russia. If you go to Moscow and ask somebody in the know whether Russia would be willing to accept Ukraine’s NATO membership in exchange for some occupied territories, they will tell you that such an option is practically out of the question because it goes absolutely against Russia’s interests. This is the position of the people who support Russia’s expansionist policy and coordinate their views with the official line. But I still think that such a scenario might be possible after all.

Q. – Frankly speaking, I don’t see Putin agreeing to NATO membership for Ukraine.

A. – Not everything that happens in the world is up to Putin. NATO may still accept Ukraine if its member states show political courage and political wisdom – if they see that Ukraine will make NATO stronger.

Q. – But we are at an impasse, right? Even if Ukraine is offered something like that, it will turn down the deal, as long as it involves giving up the occupied territories.

A. – Yes, I’m afraid it’s going to be a huge problem, and I simply have no idea how it can be solved. Any Ukrainian leader who dares to reconsider the country’s official position on talks with Russia will face significant pushback from the people. Dignity means a lot to Ukrainians, much more than it does to Russians. On the other hand, Ukrainians are very pragmatic people. And there’s nothing wrong with that. So, let’s wait and see how things pan out.

Q. – Many analysts agree that Russia will use a truce to regroup and launch another attack later – on Ukraine or on one of the NATO countries. Do you think public opinion in Ukraine may accept the idea that Ukraine needs a pause as well, in order to rebuild its capabilities?

A. – Yes, of course. I think both statements are 100% accurate. The argument that is often used today in the internal debates taking place in the Kremlin or among the people close to the Kremlin is that Russia needs a pause to rebuild its military. Speaking back in January, [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu announced plans to increase the number of troops and create new units. He was very specific: He mentioned a few new divisions, a new corps, etc. And then there is an argument ascribed to a group of generals who say that Russia should end this war and retrain its military based on all the lessons learned so it doesn’t repeat the same mistakes in the future. [Then it should] prepare for a new war.

I am pretty sure that this argument is being widely discussed among the Russian elite today. This is why it is absolutely necessary for Ukraine to secure NATO membership.

With Ukraine as a NATO member on its southwestern flank, Putin – or whoever comes after him – will never dare to attack the Baltic nations, or Finland, or Poland, or any other country.

Q. – If talks start, do you think Russia will view it as a sign of weakness on the part of the West, because the West promised to protect Ukraine but failed to do so?

A. – Yes, it will be viewed as a sign of weakness – but only if the West indeed conducts negotiations with Moscow from a position of weakness: only if it makes concessions. If the West shows its power and resolve in achieving its goals, the Kremlin will soon realize that it would be better to show “political wisdom” and admit that this war, if it continues, may not end well for Russia. Russia will suffer both economic and military losses, and it will be running out of materiel, especially armor, because the attrition rate is currently higher than the production rate.

Q. – Is it possible that Ukraine will agree to talks, hoping to use this pause to regroup, but as a result it never gets to liberate the occupied territories?

A. – Never say “never.” Take the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, for example. It took Azerbaijan 30 years to take back Nagorno-Karabakh [see Vol. 75, No. 38, pp. 3‑9]. Azerbaijan prepared for 30 years, and eventually it built such a military and such an economy that it was able to achieve its national goal. Similarly, if Ukraine must accept some territorial losses, I can imagine that the liberation of the occupied territories will become Ukraine’s national purpose. And a few years down the road, when Ukraine has the advantage in the region, it will be able to take back both the Donetsk Basin and the Crimea.

Q. – But how can Ukraine achieve such an advantage? And when do you think that might happen?

A. – It will happen when Ukraine rebuilds its economy, when, with some assistance from its Western allies, Ukraine starts manufacturing its own weapons capable of reaching Moscow, and when Ukraine produces a professional army that has learned from both the positive and negative experiences of this war.