November 14, 2022
Last Friday, following an announcement by the Russian military that it had completed its withdrawal from Kherson, Ukrainian soldiers entered the city prompting nationwide celebration. Coming weeks after he declared the Kherson region a part of Russia forever, this was seen as a major setback for President Putin and further evidence of a mismanaged war. Kherson was considered a critical bridgehead for a Russian drive further west to the port city of Odesa. Moreover, as the Russian forces withdraw from Kherson, the Antonivsky Bridge connecting the city to the eastern bank was blown severing the main transit route for Russian supplies coming in from Crimea.
Was Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson simply the dictate of the military situation on the ground or also had a political dimension? The question is relevant because it came at a time of speculation about diplomatic talks between Moscow and Kyiv.
In a recent interview on CNBC General Mark A. Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, “We’ve seen the Ukrainian military fight the Russian military to a standstill… Now, what the future holds is not known with any degree of certainty, but we think there are some possibilities here for some diplomatic solutions.”
Last month, 30 progressive House Democrats sent — then quickly withdrew under political pressure — a letter to Mr. Biden calling for “redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a cease-fire.”
And, reportedly, Washington has asked Ukraine to drop its refusal to engage in talks unless President Putin is removed from power because in September President Zelensky declared that Ukraine will only negotiate with the new Russian president. But in general, American and European officials say that serious peace talks between Ukraine and Russia are unlikely in the near future.
While senior US officials believe that neither side is ready to negotiate and that any pause in the fighting would only give President Putin a chance to regroup, others say that winter weather could make it difficult for the poorly equipped Russian army to do that. What is certain is that both sides would use the winter months to train their troops and rebuild their arsenal.[i]
President Putin is not attending this week’s G20 summit in Indonesia where Russia will be represented by Foreign Minister Lavrov.
Last Friday, only days ahead of the G20 summit the G7 leaders once again called upon Russia to cease all hostilities and immediately, completely, and unconditionally withdraw all of its troops and military equipment from Ukraine.
Since withdrawal from all occupied territories of Ukraine is tantamount to political suicide for President Putin, he may be trying to pave the way for diplomatic talks with the withdrawal from Kherson. And Mr. Lavrov would certainly be in a better position to assess the possibility at the G20 summit than Mr. Putin whose presence there could only lead to confrontation.
With the winter weather setting in, would Russia continue to attack Ukraine’s infrastructure? Would Ukraine step up a covert campaign designed to show that it can strike back even on Russian soil? Would Kyiv continue with its push to recapture more territory? Would the fighting abate to a level propitious for diplomatic initiatives? Would some of Ukraine’s Western supporters suggest that Kyiv should cash in on what US national security advisor Jake Sullivan has described as “an extraordinary victory” for Ukraine in Kherson?
Questions with no easy answers.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, reportedly stated the following on Saturday:
“Every time we liberate a piece of our territory, when we enter a city liberated from the Russian army, we find torture rooms and mass graves with civilians tortured and murdered by [the] Russian army in the course of the occupation of these territories. It is not easy to speak with people like this. But I said that every war ends with diplomacy and Russia has to approach talks in good faith.”
Indeed, but unfortunately for all, good faith happens to be a rare commodity.