Hard-Line Positions by Russia and Ukraine Dim Hope for Peace Talks

As the battle for Ukraine turns into a bloody, mile-by-mile fight in numbing cold, Ukrainian and Russian officials have insisted that they are willing to discuss making peace.

But with a drumbeat of statements in recent days making clear that each side’s demands are flatly unacceptable to the other, there appears to be little hope for serious negotiations in the near future.

Ukraine this week proposed a “peace” summit by the end of February, but said Russia could participate only if it first faces a war-crimes tribunal. That drew a frosty response from the Kremlin, with Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov saying that Kyiv must accept all of Russia’s demands, including that it give up four Ukrainian regions that Moscow claims to have annexed.

“Otherwise,” he said, “the Russian Army will deal with this issue.”

Russia does not fully control any of those regions, and has even lost territory there in recent months as Ukrainian forces fight to reclaim all the land seized by Moscow. But on Wednesday, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said it was impossible to accept a peace plan that did not recognize those four Ukrainian regions as part of Russia.

“Any plan that does not take into account these circumstances cannot claim to be a peace plan,” Mr. Peskov said, according to the state-run Tass news agency.

The hard-line positions suggest that both sides believe they have more to gain on the battlefield, analysts say.

“This suggests there is not necessarily a push for a negotiated peace or even some sort of negotiations, but still a push for whatever endgame is being sought militarily,” said Marnie Howlett, a lecturer in Russian and Eastern European politics at the University of Oxford.

Ukraine holds the momentum, having retaken much of the land that Russia captured early in the war. But Moscow’s forces still occupy large chunks of the east and south, and Russia is readying more troops and launching aerial attacks on infrastructure, deepening Ukrainians’ misery even as Russian soldiers struggle on the ground.

Smoke billowing after Russian attacks in the outskirts of Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Tuesday. Russian and Ukrainian forces have fought for the city for months.Credit…Libkos/Associated Press

On Wednesday, the Ukrainian military said that Russia had launched a barrage of strikes at the southern city of Kherson, including one that damaged a maternity ward, as officials continued to urge on residents to evacuate. Images shared by one Ukrainian official after the strike showed blown-out windows, a hole in the roof and piles of rubble in one of the rooms.

Kherson has been battered by shelling since Ukraine retook the city last month, with Russian forces using new positions on the opposite bank of the Dnipro River to launch near daily barrages at the city.

The war has now passed its 300th day. There have been no peace talks between Ukraine and Russia since the early weeks of the conflict, which began when Russia launched a full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, and both sides have signaled a determination to keep fighting.

Visiting Washington last week, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said that weapons and aid from the United States and allies would help Ukraine sustain its resistance well into 2023, emphasizing that “we have to defeat the Kremlin on the battlefield.”

And President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, in a brief televised interview over the weekend, said that he was prepared to negotiate over “acceptable outcomes,” but insisted that “99.9 percent of our citizens” are “ready to sacrifice everything for the interests of the Motherland.”

Western officials have dismissed Mr. Putin’s periodic offers to negotiate as empty gestures. In calling for talks without hinting that he is prepared to abandon his onslaught — and repeating a propaganda line that Russia is fighting a defensive war for its own survival — Mr. Putin is trying to send the message that Russia will eventually win, and that the sooner Ukraine capitulates, the fewer people will die.

“They are both in it for the long haul,” said Karin von Hippel​, director general of the Royal United Services Institute, a military research institute in London. “Putin still feels he can win this. He still has more men and more money, although you wonder what his tipping point will be.”

Ukrainian soldiers firing in the area of Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Monday. The front lines have moved little around the city, despite waves of Russian attacks. Credit…Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

While Russia’s losses are believed to be enormous — more than 100,000 killed and injured, American officials have said — Mr. Putin has signaled recently that he is prepared to accept many more. He told senior military officials in a televised meeting last week that of the 300,000 reserves called up this fall, half were still at training bases and represented a “strategic reserve” for future fighting.

On Wednesday, Russia’s prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, said that his country’s economy had contracted by 2 percent over the past 11 months. That is a smaller decline than many experts had predicted at the start of the war, and suggests that Moscow has so far managed to weather the effects of Western sanctions.

This month, Mr. Putin emphasized that there were “no limits” to Russia’s military spending.

But as the evidence of Russian military atrocities has multiplied — and with Ukraine’s continued battlefield success — Kyiv’s negotiating position has hardened.

In late March, weeks after the invasion and with Russian troops still threatening to seize the capital, Ukrainian negotiators at a meeting in Istanbul proposed adopting neutral status — in effect abandoning a bid to join NATO, which Russia has long opposed — in exchange for security guarantees from other nations.

They also suggested separate talks on the status of Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula seized by Russia in 2014, and of Donbas, the eastern area claimed by Moscow.

Those terms are now off the table.

“The emotional background in Ukraine has changed very, very much,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Mr. Zelensky, told the BBC in August. “We have seen too many war crimes.”

A woman walking past housing damaged by Russian shelling in Kupiansk, in northeastern Ukraine, on Wednesday.Credit…Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press

Last month, addressing a summit of leaders of the Group of 20 nations, Mr. Zelensky presented a10-point “formula for peace” that called for Russia’s full withdrawal from Ukrainian territory, including Crimea and Donbas.

It also demanded an international tribunal to try Russian war crimes; Moscow’s release of all political prisoners and those forcibly deported during the war; compensation from Russia for war damages; and steps by the international community to ensure the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and to provide for its food and energy security.

Demanding maximum concessions is a time-honored negotiating tactic, but analysts say that Ukraine is eager to demonstrate — particularly to European allies that are enduring higher energy costs this winter because of a Russian oil embargo — that it sees a path out of the conflict.

“The Ukrainian proposal offers a glimpse at Ukraine’s vision of how the war with Russia could one day end,” said Stella Ghervas, a professor of Russian history at Newcastle University in Britain. In the wars of modern European history, she said, winners on the battlefield have often been the ones to push hardest for peace.

“In the Napoleonic wars, World War I and World War II, the successful military leaders and peacemakers were often the same individuals,” she said. “Those who sought peace were the same who had successfully fought the war. The serious initiatives for peacemaking during the great wars in Europe have come always from the strongest party on the battlefield.”

Still, Ukraine’s peace proposals have received a generally cautious response. When Mr. Zelensky mentioned his plan at a joint news conference with President Biden last week, Mr. Biden did not comment on the proposal, saying only that the United States and Ukraine “share the exact same vision” for peace.

New graves at a cemetery in the southern city of Kherson on Wednesday. Russian troops retreated from the city in November, but still hold a swath of territory in the south.Credit…Dimitar Dilkoff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On Wednesday, the French defense minister, Sébastien Lecornu, visited the Ukrainian capital for the first time since the war began, following a pledge by President Emmanuel Macron to send more weapons to Ukraine. Mr. Lecornu laid a wreath at a monument to Ukrainians who have died in the war.

Many in Ukraine and in Eastern Europe have been critical of France’s response to the war, drawing a link between its relatively limited military support and Mr. Macron’s approach to Russia. While unequivocally backing the Ukrainian cause, Mr. Macron has said “we must not humiliate Russia” and called security guarantees for Russia an “essential” part of peace talks.

Mr. Zelensky said this week that he had sought India’s help on the peace plan in a call with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose government holds the Group of 20 rotating chair and has been mentioned as a possible mediator in talks. Mr. Modi “conveyed India’s support for any peace efforts,” but did not mention the Ukrainian plan.

Another potential interlocutor is Turkey, which this summer brokered a deal involving Russia, Ukraine and the United Nations to allow for the export of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea. That agreement, along with occasional exchanges of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia, has offered hope that the two sides could one day discuss a cease-fire.

But analysts say that Russia must demonstrate that it will negotiate in good faith and act on the terms of any peace agreement in order to earn some level of trust by Ukraine, which it has invaded twice in less than a decade.

“Ukraine will always be a neighbor of Russia,” said Ms. Howlett, the Oxford lecturer. “Any peace settlement has to come with the acknowledgment and understanding that Russia isn’t going anywhere.”

Anton Troianovski, Constant Méheut and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.

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