Russia and Ukraine could soon make a deal that will end the conflict that erupted on February 24. But without achieving its political and military goals in the Eastern European country, any agreement that Moscow may sign with Kyiv will be interpreted as a sign of Russian weakness.
On March 29, Russian and Ukrainian representatives held another round of talks in Istanbul. As a result, the Russian Defense Ministry announced its decision to “fundamentally cut back military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernigiv” in order to “increase mutual trust for future negotiations to agree and sign a peace deal with Ukraine.” Does that mean that the Kremlin has given up its plans to demilitarize and denazify the former Soviet republic?
According to the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, denazification remains one of the crucial goals of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, for his part, claims that “the combat potential of the Ukrainian Armed Forces was significantly reduced, the Air Force and Air Defense of Ukraine were practically destroyed, and its Navy ceased to exist.” Such a statement gives the Kremlin room for various political maneuvers. It would not be improbable for Moscow to soon declare that it achieved the major military goals of its special operation in Ukraine.
In reality, however, without a pro-Russian government in Kyiv, the Eastern European nation will remain in the Western geopolitical orbit, and will continue developing close ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The West will see any unilateral concessions to Kyiv as a Russian defeat. Moreover, even if Russia and Ukraine soon sign a peace deal, the West will not lift sanctions it imposed on Moscow. Thus, from the Russian perspective, a potential agreement with Ukraine, under the current circumstances, would mean Russia’s de facto capitulation. Such a move would have extremely negative consequences for the very future of the Russian Federation.
Kyiv, on the other hand, seeks “security guarantees that are stronger than NATO’s Article 5,” David Arakhamia, head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s party in parliament, said on March 29, which means that Ukraine wants to make sure that next time Russia has to fight against both the Eastern European nation and NATO. Thus, the two countries will unlikely truly normalize their relations any time soon.
If Moscow and Kyiv sign a deal in the near future, it may be just a truce, no matter how they formulate it. Given that Minsk Ⅰ and Minsk II agreements have not brought peace to the Donbas, but have led to the escalation instead, it seems unlikely that a potential “Minks Ⅲ” – be it signed in Istanbul or elsewhere – would have a significantly positive impact.
A possible deal between Moscow and Kyiv would allow the West to increase its influence in the Eastern European country. NATO officials have already pointed out that they will continue supplying weapons to Ukraine. Thus, if the Kremlin agrees to end its special military operation, it will only sweep the Ukraine issue under the carpet.
Ramazan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, seems to be quite aware that such a scenario will bring nothing good to the Russian Federation. That is why he firmly opposed any negotiations with Kyiv, and stressed that Russia needs to “completely finish what it started.”
The problem, however, is that the West will unlikely allow Russia to preserve control over the territories in southern and eastern Ukraine. NATO will make sure that the Ukrainian army regroups, consolidates and gradually recaptures cities that are currently under Russian control. More importantly, Russia’s decision to cut back military activities around Kyiv could have negative consequences for Russian troops in other parts of Ukraine. The Kremlin has sent a message that Russian forces are not in Ukraine to stay. The local authorities in Ukrainian cities that are under Russian control will now unlikely dare to cooperate with the Russian army. They will wait for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to return instead.
One thing is for sure: In order to achieve its political and military goals in Ukraine, the Kremlin will have to change its strategy.