In Ukraine, the political mood has become somber and fractious. As the front lines settle into stalemate, Russia ramps up for a new season of missile and drone attacks and vital US support for Ukraine’s war effort crumbles under partisan attack in Congress, one existential question looms large. Should Volodymyr Zelensky continue to fight endlessly in pursuit of a comprehensive defeat of Russia which may be unattainable — or should he consider cutting his losses and reaching a compromise?
At the war’s outset, the Ukrainian President had a clear answer. “I am sure there are people who won’t be satisfied with any kind of peace [with Russia] under any conditions at any time,” he told the Associated Press. “But however hard it is, we have to understand that every war should end in peace or it will end with millions of victims. Yes, we have to fight — but fight for life. Nobody wants to negotiate with a person who tortured this nation. [But] millions of people want to stop this war. We cannot decide for them and say: ‘No, we are not ready to speak with murderers.’”
Zelensky said those words as he sat in a sandbagged stairwell of his presidential palace in Kyiv on April 9 last year. Days before, he had visited the devastated suburb of Bucha, where Russian troops had massacred more than 400 civilians before withdrawing from around the capital. At that time, talks were still theoretically ongoing with the Russians, directly as well as via Israeli and Turkish go-betweens. Indeed, earlier this year, Vladimir Putin claimed that Kyiv’s negotiators had initialed a draft peace plan provisionally entitled “A Treaty of Permanent Neutrality and Security Guarantees for Ukraine” which included a promise not to join NATO as well as limitations on Ukraine’s armed forces. (A former Ukrainian government source who worked closely with Zelensky at the time of the negotiations confirmed that the details of the draft document alluded to were accurate.)
In place of a sweeping Ukrainian counteroffensive, the focus is now on not losing more land
As Zelensky’s negotiator Mikhail Podolyak told reporters in Istanbul in late March last year, the deal on the table was a ceasefire, the withdrawal of all Russian troops to their positions on the eve of the invasion — but remaining in the self-declared republics of the Donbas and Crimea. “As for Crimea and Sevastopol, we have agreed with the Russian Federation to a fifteen-year pause and to conduct bilateral talks regarding the status of these territories,” he said.
The then Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett, who was talking both to Putin and Zelensky, recalled in an interview that he left the talks in Istanbul “very optimistic because [Zelensky] renounced joining NATO… I was under the impression that both sides very much wanted a ceasefire.” David Arakhamia, chief Ukrainian negotiator at those peace talks in Istanbul, told Ukraine’s 1+1 TV that “Russia’s goal was to put pressure on us so that we would take neutrality. They were ready to end the war if we accepted neutrality, like Finland once did. And we would make a commitment that we will not join NATO. This was the main thing.”
In the event, there was no ceasefire, no Russian withdrawal to pre-invasion positions, and no deal on a special status for Crimea and the Donbas. At least half a million soldiers have been killed or seriously wounded, according to US estimates, and more than seven million people have fled their homes. Yet the front lines have barely moved from their positions in April last year.
What scuppered the deal? The turning point came between Zelensky’s AP interview on April 9, 2022, when he said that “We don’t want to lose opportunities, if we have them, for a diplomatic solution” and April 12, when Putin declared that talks were at a “dead end.”
Boris Johnson, then UK prime minister, arrived in Kyiv just hours after Zelensky spoke to the AP. According to Ukrainskaya Pravda, Johnson “brought two simple messages. The first was that Putin was a war criminal, he should be pressured, not negotiated with. And the second was that even if Ukraine were ready to sign agreements or guarantees with Putin, [the UK and US] are not. Johnson’s position was that the collective West, which back in February had suggested Zelensky should surrender and flee, now felt that Putin was not really as powerful as they had previously imagined.”
Was it Johnson’s charisma and his message from the West that reversed Zelensky’s resigned acceptance of peace talks? According to close aides, no — rather it was a deep shift in Ukrainian public opinion, outraged by news of the massacres that came to light in the territory relinquished by Russia, plus a realization that Putin could not be trusted. As Arakhamia said: “There was no trust in the Russians… lasting peace could only be done with security guarantees [from the West].”
Podolyak recalls that by early April last year, “it was clear Russia would make war until such time as their ultimate demands were met. That would have completely ended the existence of Ukrainian statehood… Therefore theoretical discussions about whether someone offered something here or blocked something there, all these interpretations are not in accordance with reality.” In Istanbul in late March, Ukraine had been “negotiating from a position of weakness,” with Russian tanks just a few miles from the capital. But by the time Johnson arrived in Kyiv, Russia had been pushed out of all of northern Ukraine by relentless, irregular attacks on its troops and armor.
“There was a real danger that we could have signed that deal,” says a former Zelensky senior minister, who was in the administration at the time of the negotiations. “But [the leadership] realized that this would be the end of Ukraine as a sovereign nation. The Russians thought they could demand that we completely refuse the idea of sanctions, absolve Russia from responsibility for the invasion, agree to demilitarization, agree to legitimize their occupation of our lands. Now, such points are not open for discussion. That is the advantage we bought with all the lives that were spent.”
After nearly two years of war, the challenges that faced negotiators in Istanbul in the spring of last year remain fundamentally the same. Ukrainian NATO membership is still a deal-breaker for the Kremlin, while formal surrender of the occupied territories would be politically unsurvivable for any Ukrainian leader. At the same time the stakes have risen on both sides. In September last year in a glittering ceremony in the Kremlin, Putin triumphantly admitted four new subjects of the Russian Federation: the Zaporizhia and Kherson regions and the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. Zelensky issued a decree making it illegal to enter into any negotiations with the Putin regime.
To many Ukrainians, Johnson’s promise that the West would support them in their fight and Biden’s assurance that the US would back Kyiv for “as long as it takes” now ring rather hollow. Despite major breakthroughs by Ukraine in Kharkiv and Kherson in the autumn of last year, Kyiv’s NATO allies dragged their feet on the supply of tanks, long-range rocket artillery, cruise missiles and modern attack aviation. That gave Russia time to dig mine-strewn defensive lines many miles deep along the 800 miles front.
This autumn, supplies of NATO-standard artillery shells and long-range ATACMS rocket artillery have dried up, in part because of supplies being diverted to Israel, in part because of dwindling western stockpiles, in part because of a failure of political will.
“All we want is for our partners to deliver what they promised to deliver,” says a Zelensky advisor, Serhiy Leshchenko. “If we had known that these supplies would not arrive, maybe we would have planned differently.” As it is, in the wake of a gloomy confirmation by Valery Zaluzhny, chief of the general staff, last month that “there will be no miraculous breakthrough on the front lines.” President Zelensky has announced that Ukrainian forces should prepare a defense to hold off new Russian attacks around the Donbas. In place of optimistic talk of a sweeping Ukrainian counteroffensive, the focus is now on not losing yet more land. “A critical situation has developed in Ukraine which may worsen due to insufficient western assistance,” warned the NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg last week. “We need to prepare for bad news.”
At the same time, politics has returned to Ukraine after nearly two years of wartime solidarity. Vitaly Klitschko, the popular Kyiv mayor, has become a vocal critic of Zelensky and last week publicly attacked him for “actively moving towards authoritarianism… there are practically no independent institutions of power left.”
Fresh opinion polls by the Sociological Group Rating confirm that Zelensky’s approval ratings are sinking, with 39 percent “strongly” trusting him and 33 percent who “sooner trust than distrust.” Conversely, General Zaluzhny’s own rating has soared to 63 percent strong trust. Public opinion is also deeply split on how to bring the war to an end, with 44 percent of Ukrainians believing compromise is needed versus 48 percent who wish to continue fighting for victory.
Zelensky continues officially to define Ukrainian victory as restoring its 1991 borders. While no mainstream Ukrainian politician is yet openly calling for a deal with the Kremlin, a backlash against Zelensky’s magical thinking is growing. “We can euphorically lie to our people and our partners,” Mayor Klitschko told Der Spiegel last week. “But you won’t be able to do this for ever.”
The US Mission to NATO recently tweeted that Washington is “focused on setting conditions for a just, durable and sustainable peace.” That is far from the “Everything it takes, for as long as it takes” message Ukrainians believed they had heard from the West last year. The White House’s budget director, Shalanda Young, went further. “Without congressional action, by the end of the year we will run out of resources to procure more weapons and equipment for Ukraine and to provide equipment from US military stocks,” Young wrote to the political leaders of both parties. “We are out of money — and nearly out of time.” Zelensky even canceled his much-anticipated appearance (via Zoom) before the US Senate this week, apparently in protest at US funding drying up.
Ukraine may not have recovered all its lost lands — but it has already won the war in many other ways. Putin occupies 18 percent of Ukrainian territory, but strategically the war has been disastrous. NATO has expanded to cover more than 600 miles of Russia’s border with Finland; Europe has dramatically increased defense spending; Gazprom’s economic dominance of the continent has disappeared; Ukraine’s military has become the most powerful in Europe; the EU is about to announce that Ukraine is an official candidate for membership; and even if sanctions have not succeeded in destroying Russia’s economy, Moscow is nonetheless economically and politically isolated.
Ukraine has scored significant military victories by effectively interdicting Russian naval operations in Crimea and in the Black Sea, unilaterally opening the Black Sea grain export corridor, and showing its ability to strike airfields, munitions factories and railways inside Russia. The country has not fought for nothing. This war will end with some kind of negotiation, just like every other war humanity has fought. But the terms Ukraine will reach will be delivered from a position of strength, not near capitulation. That’s what has changed since April 2022.
In the Winter War of 1939-40, Finland miraculously fought the Soviets to a standstill, losing the province of Karelia but preserving its independence. Finland lost land, yes. But on its own proven military strength, it won its long-term security.
Putin cannot be trusted — nor can he be defeated without NATO’s direct involvement up to and including nuclear war. He can, however, be effectively contained, stopped in his tracks by comprehensive NATO military solidarity. In a decade’s time Ukraine has every chance of being a prosperous and free EU member, with its security guaranteed by the world’s most powerful military bloc, either as a close ally or as a full NATO member. Russia, meanwhile, is likely to continue to languish in international isolation under Putin’s gerontocratic death cult. Then it will be clear enough who has truly won this war.