Zelensky reaches out to Putin, but peace very far away

Peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia are at a particularly low ebb. Earlier talks in Turkey mainly resulted in mud throwing. Now Zelensky would like to talk directly to Putin.

Turkish President Erdogan has already offered to resume talks in his country. German Chancellor Scholz and French President Macron phoned Putin at length to insist he should take the outstretched hand.

‘Conversation between the deaf’

The Groningen professor Hans van Koningsbrugge (Politics and History of Russia) tempers expectations. “What should they discuss? Zelensky doesn’t want to admit anything to the Russians and the Russians want two provinces they don’t even own yet. That will be a conversation between the deaf.”

Frans Osinga, professor of War Studies in Leiden, adds. “Zelensky is very real,” Osinga says. “But he does say that a conversation only makes sense if Russia recognizes Ukraine’s sovereignty. He wants all Russian troops out of the country, except in Crimea.”

‘Only talk when winning’

That while Putin will not want to talk until he has annexed the two provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, together the Donbas. Putin says he has started his war to ‘liberate’ that region from Ukraine. He now owns a large part, but not everything.

And as long as there are still cases to be won, there will be no easy talk, thinks security expert Han ten Broeke. “On the battlefield it is decided whether both sides will sit down. There has to be a feeling that negotiation is more profitable than fighting on.”

For now, that feeling is not there. Russia is busy conquering Severodonetsk. Only if that succeeds, the victory in the Luhansk province can be claimed. And then Donetsk has yet to follow. That’s not going very smoothly yet.

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“The Russians have great difficulty surrounding Severodonetsk,” Osinga said. It would also not have been possible to close all access roads yet. “Here you can really see that the advance is going very slowly. Maybe even goes wrong.”

The conquest of Severodonetsk could thus continue for a very long time, despite the city being under attack 24/7. Although Osinga does have a hand: “You just can’t predict it in a war.”

He does see other ways for Ukraine to further delay the conquest of the Donbas. Kharkiv has already been recaptured from the Russians, and it could happen to other cities as well. Perhaps not so much in the Donbas itself, but the Russian occupation in southern Kherson is coming under increasing pressure.

“If Ukraine manages to recapture that city, it might hinder Russia’s supply from the south to the Donbas,” Osinga explains. “And just exerting a lot of pressure can also help. Then Russia may have to send extra units in that direction that could otherwise have fought in the Donbas.”

“Ukraine not ready yet”

For example, it may take some time before Russia will want to sit down at the negotiating table. But also for Ukraine there is still plenty to gain. New arms shipments from the West are reportedly on the way.

Meanwhile, the Russians seem to be on the decline. Last week it was reported that Russia had taken tanks built in the 1960s out of storage. “It is difficult to understand exactly how the Russians are doing, but it is clear that they have suffered a lot of losses,” Osinga says.

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Sanctions force Russia to talk

If peace is not going to be seriously discussed, then why is Zelensky reaching out? Van Koningsbrugge: “It is also because Macron and Scholz insist so much. Then Zelenski can show: it is not me, you know.”

Van Koningsbrugge also thinks that the war must be decided on the battlefield, but also sees another way out: “Russia will be hit hard by the Western sanctions. If things continue like this, the reserves will be exhausted around September. If your economy goes down you must talk.”

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