As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hastily seeks expedited negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian neutrality surfaces as a possible foundation for an agreement to end the fighting between Russia and Ukraine. However, its sustainability remains highly questionable.
Whereas Zelenskyy clearly implies that Ukraine is unlikely to join NATO anytime soon, Putin demands neutrality in Ukraine’s constitution and more, not just in words but action, including the country’s demilitarization.
For now, Putin is unlikely to settle for anything less than large swaths of Ukraine’s territory, particularly its east and aiming to landlock the country – as much as possible – from access to the Black Sea.
Despite encountering fierce Ukrainian resistance on all fronts, Putin has made progress in Ukraine’s south, at least for now, particularly by tightening the noose around Mariupol. He hopes to do the same by regrouping his forces and intensifying his assault on Kyiv, and other cities and towns.
Through relentlessness and perseverance, Ukrainians have been largely holding their ground and buying time through fierce resistance with the aim of grinding down Putin. However, increased Western military support remains essential.
The more Ukrainians resist, the greater the stalemate, the stronger President Zelenskyy’s negotiating position, and the more difficult it will become for Putin to extricate from what increasingly appears a quagmire.
However, the greater the stalemate, the more Putin will continue his indiscriminate bombing and destruction of Ukrainian cities and population centers. Putin aims to use the high civilian body-count as leverage at the negotiating table and break the Ukrainian will to fight. However, for now it seems to be having the opposite effect – that is, actually strengthening Ukrainian resolve and Western unity in support of Ukraine.
The bottom line is that Putin simply cannot hold ground in all – arguably not even half – of Ukraine. At this point, he will attempt to claim areas where he can find any form of local support or deliberately depopulate cities and towns through intentionally targeting innocent civilians.
Whereas Ukraine’s leadership, and many in the West, grossly underestimated Putin’s willingness to invade Ukraine, the Russian president completely underestimated Ukrainian resistance and his army’s challenges – in addition to grave Russian tactical missteps.
At this stage, Putin aims to reverse these serious setbacks by forcing a ceasefire, on his terms and conditions, through a relentless war of attrition and devastation.
On the home front, Putin still retains popular support. The question is for how long. Historical precedence demonstrates a Russian tendency to unite behind the state when confronted with external threats and pressure – particularly from the West.
The jury is still out as to whether this time is different – in particular when the full impact of Western sanctions is felt by ordinary citizens; also, as Russia becomes increasingly disconnected and isolated internationally, except from other repressive regimes such as China and Iran.
For Russia’s elites and urban middle class, who have experienced greater global exposure over the past 30 years, these new realities will provide a rude awakening. For Russia’s rural masses, possibly less so.
Until now, the Russian government has been able to effectively dominate the narrative through strict control of domestic media. However, as the conflict escalates so will the body bags of soldiers coming home. According to some Western estimates, although unconfirmed, there have been up to 7,000 Russian soldiers killed in less than a month since Putin’s invasion began. This begs the question: How long is this sustainable before a public backlash?
In theory, each side will need to claim some sort of face-saving exit to end the conflict. In practice, Russia’s overwhelming firepower in destroying Ukraine’s cities and towns could still eventually force a ceasefire. However, this will not be due to Russia’s military prowess on the battlefield but Putin’s deliberate targeting of innocent civilians – and its catastrophic consequences.
Putin would inevitably claim success, but it would likely prove a Pyrrhic victory for Russia, particularly when considering the price paid and what was actually achieved.
However, Putin and others inside Russia may view it differently. That is, the Ukraine invasion was a price worth paying for Russia’s survival and long-term interests. Furthermore, Putin aims to secure his legacy within the pantheon of historic leaders serving Mother Russia.
For the wider world at large, the longer the conflict continues, the higher the risks – particularly for spillover onto NATO soil, triggering an expanded war in Europe, and a chain reaction of disastrous events beyond.
Marco Vicenzino is director of Global Strategy Project, a geopolitical risk and international business advisory firm.