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Ukraine conflict

Signs of hope: Negotiations could lead to an end to Ukraine conflict

Print edition : Apr 22, 2022 T+T-
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opening the Ukrainian-Russian talks in Istanbul on March 29.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin said that a formal meeting between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would only take place after a draft peace agreement was ready.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The Kremlin said that a formal meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelensky would only take place after a draft peace agreement was ready.

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The Russian army is tightening its grip on Mariupol. Here, a destroyed apartment building in the besieged southern port city on March 31.

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U.S. President Joe Biden at an event on March 26 at the Royal Castle in Warsaw during his visit to Poland.

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Ukrainian servicemen at the front line east of Kharkiv on March 31.

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Ukrainian refugees waiting outside the border-crossing checkpoint in Shehyni on March 31 to cross into Poland.

As the war in Ukraine enters its second month, there is a glimmer of hope that negotiations between the warring sides could end the conflict. This would be in everybody’s best interests as the harsh sanctions imposed on Russia are likely to have an adverse impact on many Western economies and jeopardise the U.S. dollar’s role as an international reserve currency.

A small flicker of hope emerged inlate March after the meeting between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators hosted by the Turkish government in Istanbul. Although no substantial breakthrough was made, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the talks as the most meaningful held so far since the Russian army marched into Ukraine in the last week of February. Erdogan said that though the conflict continued to rage on some positive signals were emerging. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been saying for some weeks that under certain circumstances, Ukraine could accept a neutral status and give up on its ambitions to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Climbdown by Ukrainian government

The Ukrainian side proposed that talks about the status of the Crimean Peninsula could be held for the next 15 years during which period the two sides would not try to resolve the issue through military means. Ukraine also said that it would not try to reconquer the Donbas region by military means. In return for these concessions, Ukraine wanted Russia to waive its objections to Ukraine’s entry into the European Union. These proposals constitute a climbdown by the Ukrainian government. In March 2021, the Ukrainian government had announced its new military strategy of retaking the Donbas and the Crimean region by force.

The two sides may not have agreed on fundamental issues, but the Russian side did indicate that it would ease the military pressure on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Speaking to the media after the talks, Erdogan, however, conceded that the two warring sides had yet to resolve “more difficult issues”. Immediately after the talks ended, the Russian government duly ordered its military to ease its offensive in northern Ukraine in order to “boost trust” and facilitate further negotiations.

Also read: The lingering war

In a statement, Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin said: “Due to the fact that negotiations over agreement on Ukraine’s neutrality and non-nuclear status and security guarantees are moving into a practical stage, … the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation has taken the decision to drastically reduce the combat operations in the Kyiv and Chernihiv areas.” However, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, adopted a less optimistic tone. He said the only positive outcome of the talks was the agreement by the Ukrainian side to “formulate concretely and to put down on paper what it proposes”. The Ukrainian side has indicated its willingness to discuss the future status of the Donbas region and the Crimean Peninsula when the Ukrainian and Russian Presidents formally meet. The Kremlin has said that such a meeting would only take place after a draft peace agreement was ready. Such an agreement would allow the Donbas republics backed by Russia to control the port city of Mariupol. This will allow Russia to create a secure land route from the Donbas to the Crimean Peninsula.

A couple of days after the Istanbul meeting, Zelensky reverted to type, saying that “not an inch” of the country’s territory would be ceded and that Ukrainians would fight to the last man. In the last week of March, the United States announced $500 million more in budget aid to Ukraine—money that will be used to provide more lethal weaponry to Ukraine. In the beginning of March, the U.S. sanctioned $1 billion in military aid to Ukraine. Since the beginning of the year, the U.S. has provided that country military aid worth more than $2 billion. Thousands of Javelin anti-tank missiles have flooded Ukraine since then. Celeste Wallander, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security, told the U.S. Congress that the U.S. was dispatching a hundred “kamikaze” drones to Ukraine.

Before the Istanbul talks started, the Ukrainian and Western media had published stories alleging that Roman Abramovich, the Russian multibillionaire who has been playing an unofficial role in the ongoing efforts to broker a truce between the Kremlin and the Zelensky government, had been a victim of poisoning along with some other people involved in the negotiations. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba had told Ukrainian delegates to the Istanbul meeting not to touch any surface or eat or drink anything during the talks with their Russian counterparts. The aim was to apparently vitiate the atmosphere even before the talks began.

Also read: Russia's military gambit

The Ukrainian side also tried to give the impression that they were talking from a position of military strength. Western propaganda and media reports are on overdrive claiming that the Russian army is facing defeat and is eager to negotiate a way out of the “quagmire”. The Biden administration has made it clear that it wants the Ukrainians to keep on fighting and is urging the government in Kyiv to continue with its uncompromising stand on the issue of neutrality and other contentious topics. More than four million Ukrainians have already fled the country, creating a serious refugee problem for western Europe and Russia. Six and a half million Ukrainians have become internal refugees. The Poles have already started protesting. Most of the Ukrainian refugees are still in Poland. Countries such as the United Kingdom have severely restricted the entry of Ukrainian refugees. President Joseph Biden has pledged to allow the entry of up to a million Ukrainians into the U.S., giving many of them an incentive to flee their native land. However, he did not do the Ukrainians or the international community a favour by openly calling for regime change in Russia. Speaking in Warsaw during his recent visit to Poland, Biden, in an apparently unscripted moment, said while referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin: “For god’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

Biden’s dangerous words

Some American commentators have said that these were the most dangerous words uttered by a U.S. President in the nuclear age. He was virtually asking for the removal of the leader of a country that has the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world. At the end of his “State of the Union” speech on March 1, Biden, unscripted or not, shouted “Go, Get him”. Most commentators said that he was referring to Putin and not his domestic bete noire , Donald Trump. Lindsay Graham, a senior Republican Senator who considers himself an expert on international affairs, had earlier called for the “assassination” of the Russian President. On previous occasions, Biden has described Putin as a “cold-blooded killer” and a “war criminal”. The war crimes that the U.S. has regularly been committing for the last 70 years are rarely mentioned in the Western media these days.

The U.S. State Department and the White House immediately tried to backtrack on Biden’s gaffe. “We do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia or anywhere else for that matter,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was quick to claim. Blinken was the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2002 just before the U.S.’ regime change operations in Iraq. The then Senator Biden was among the loudest cheerleaders of regime change and the war in Iraq and later on in Libya and Syria. Biden later explained that his comments only reflected his “moral outrage” at Putin’s actions in Ukraine. Some American commentators have said that Biden in fact was sending a “veiled message” to Moscow with his off-the-cuff statements.

The Biden administration could be indicating that the onerous sanctions imposed on Russia would only be lifted after regime change. Recently, the Pentagon reclassified Russia from a “strategic competitor” to the status of “an acute threat”. Such an attitude will give Russia little incentive to completely withdraw from Ukraine. The draconian sanctions have already affected ordinary Russians but has not dented Putin’s popularity in the least. More than 80 per cent of Russia’s population continues to support the military operations in Ukraine.

Also read: Western provocation

On the 35th day of the conflict, at the end of March, the Russian Defence Ministry announced that “all” the goals that had been set for the first phase of the “special military operations” in Ukraine had been achieved. Major General Igor Konashenkov, the chief spokesman for the Russian military, said that an important phase one goal was to tie up enemy forces and equipment in the major population centres of Ukraine without storming cities such as Kyiv. The Russian military said that the Ukrainian forces had been hit hard and this would allow Russian forces to concentrate on the primary task of securing the Donbas region. “Thus, all the main tasks of the Russian armed forces in Kyiv and Chernihiv directions have been completed,” he said.

“The purpose of the regrouping of the Russian Armed Forces is to intensify actions in the priority areas and, above all, to complete the operation to completely liberate the Donbas region,” Konashenkov said. Denis Pushilin, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said that offensive actions were continuing. “We are well aware that the longer it takes to liberate our territory, those territories that are now under the control of Ukraine, the more victims and destruction there will be,” he said.

The U.S. government and the Western media are, however, painting a different picture about the conflict. According to them, the war has gone badly for Russia, and the Ukrainian army is not only holding its own but is in fact counter-attacking. Although the Russian army has suffered casualties, its military gains, even according to some retired U.S. intelligence and military officials, have been quite significant. According to Larry Johnson, a veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism, within 24 hours of its invasion the Russian army had wiped out Ukrainian ground radar facilities, effectively establishing a no-fly zone over the country’s airspace. This is evident from the inability of either the Ukrainian artillery or air force to target the Russian troops massed around Kyiv. Johnson acknowledged that the Russian Air Force was still vulnerable to shoulder-fired Stingers and other high-tech missiles supplied to Ukraine by the West. Johnson pointed out that within three days the Russian army had conquered territory the size of Britain and was at the gates of Kyiv. He pointed out that during “Operation Barbarossa” in the Second World War, it had taken the German army three months to achieve the same goal.

Also read: Putin, Biden and Zelensky responsible for crisis

The Russian army is tightening its grip on Mariupol and has effectively cut off the Ukrainian army from the Black Sea. Ukraine is now almost cut off in the south and the north. The Russian missile strikes on de facto NATO bases in Yavoriv and Zhytomyr were a significant event. According to reports, the two bases were hit by Russian hypersonic missiles. Yavoriv was the primary training and logistics centre NATO used inside Ukraine. Fighters and weapons from NATO countries were routed through this base. “The war is really over for the Ukrainians. They have been ground into bits; there is no question about that despite what we hear from our mainstream media,” said Colonel Douglas MacGregor, a retired U.S. military officer, on the Fox News channel. He urged the Biden administration to stop using Ukraine “as a battering ram” against Russia.

There is a growing realisation among many policymakers, economists and media commentators that the harsh sanctions imposed on Russia would be counterproductive for the West. Russia, as many economists and strategists have pointed out, is basically a self-sufficient country. In fact, its exports are crucial to the economic well-being of key European countries such as Germany. If Russia stops exporting oil, gas, lithium, potash, palladium, nickel and other critical minerals, then many Western economies will be in deep trouble. The rising prices of gas and petrol have already had an adverse impact on the economies of the major European countries.

Many economists are of the view that the sanctions on Russia will put the future of the U.S. dollar’s role as an international reserve currency in jeopardy. Russia is demanding that Germany and other European countries importing gas from it start paying in roubles. While reiterating that payments for gas could only be in roubles, the Kremlin spokesman said that European companies “need to understand the changed market situation, the absolute new reality that has emerged amid the economic war waged on Russia”. Germany and Austria have already taken steps towards gas rationing in preparation for a possible cut in energy supplies from Russia.

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