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After Kherson, can Ukraine and Russia talk about peace?

As Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced his army’s withdrawal from the key Ukrainian city of Kherson, US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley said it creates a window of opportunity for talks. peace between Russia and Ukraine.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbor has already lasted more than eight months, with casualties and destruction increasing by the day. Milley said that more than 100,000 Russian soldiers could have been killed or wounded in this war, while Ukraine “probably” suffered a similar number of casualties.

To emphasize his point about peace, Milley evoked the failure of the great powers to negotiate at an earlier stage in World War I, a mistake that led to millions more casualties and catastrophic events in several countries, notably the Russian Empire.

Milley’s comments represent a shift in official US rhetoric, raising questions about a possible push for Moscow-Kyiv peace talks. Moreover, in the weeks leading up to the Russian withdrawal from Kherson, the United States and Russia resumed communication on Ukraine at the level of top security officials.

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But are Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin ready to negotiate? And how would opening a dialogue reflect on your governments?

Ukraine demands the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from its territory, reparations and punishment for war criminals. Zelenskyy himself has signed a decree unequivocally forbidding him to speak with Putin. Kyiv’s official position effectively amounts to a demand for regime change in Russia as a condition for talks.

Moscow, for its part, has long since abandoned its earlier goal of ousting the Ukrainian government and has officially stated that it is ready for talks without conditions.

From the Ukrainian perspective, the negotiations are a way for Russia to buy time at a time when the Ukrainian army has taken the initiative on the front lines and liberated swaths of Ukrainian territory.

But the Zelenskyy government is reportedly under pressure from Washington to soften its hard-line stance. Probably reacting to these signals, the Ukrainian president said in a recent interview with CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour that he was “ready to talk with Russia, but with a different Russia, one that is really ready for peace.”

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Meanwhile, on social media, Zelenskyy’s security adviser Mikhaylo Podolyak has been reiterating that the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukrainian territory is unattainable as long as Putin remains in power. “Therefore, we are constructive in our assessment: we will talk to the next RF leader,” he wrote in a recent tweet, referring to the Russian Federation.

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It is difficult to say whether Kyiv’s “all or nothing” rhetoric stems from a deep conviction that it will prevail or if it is just a pose to mobilize people against aggression and avoid showing weakness to the adversary.

While Ukraine has not exhausted its offensive potential, it is doubtful that it can sustain a war of attrition with its more powerful neighbor in the long run, even with all the military and financial support it receives from the West.

The country is expected to lose 35 percent of its GDP by the end of the year, while Russia will see its economy contract by 4.5 percent, according to the World Bank. Russia’s missile and drone strikes this fall have destroyed up to 40 percent of the country’s energy infrastructure, Zelenskyy recently admitted.

If the air raids continue, many Soviet-era apartment blocks, in which the majority of Ukrainians reside, will become uninhabitable because they rely on central heating provided by thermal plants. This could create a wave of refugees that the European Union could not accommodate. Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko has mentioned the possibility of evacuating 3 million people from the Ukrainian capital alone.

Russia has yet to deploy most of the 300,000 men it claims to have mobilized since September. It is also buying more drones and high-precision missiles from Iran, while ramping up its own production. As he withdraws from Kherson, he is slowly restarting offensive operations in the Donetsk region.

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The moment when Ukraine appears to be the dominant side is also the moment when it can reap the maximum benefits in the peace talks. If Russia seizes the initiative on the front line again, its appetite for territorial and political trophies will increase exponentially.

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Russia’s departure from Kherson and Washington’s subsequent softening of the tone on the possibility of talks provide vague outlines of what a future deal might look like.

By withdrawing from the right bank of the Dnipro River, Moscow is giving up hope of seizing Odessa and turning Ukraine into a landlocked country, at least for now.

But seizing Odessa extends far beyond Russia’s territorial claims to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. After a bogus “referendum” in September, Russia also officially annexed the Zaporizhia and Kherson regions, but left itself room for maneuver by not defining its borders. After withdrawing from the city of Kherson, Moscow still controls most of the Kherson region.

In order for Putin to declare victory, it is enough to hold the territory that Russia is already occupying. You can even afford to lose a little more. Russia’s conformist majority has never shown a serious interest in territorial expansion or cared about which parts of the Ukrainian territory their country will control once peace is restored.

Putin’s war in Ukraine is more of a punitive operation than an imperialist land grab. As long as the outcome of the war is more humiliating for Ukraine than the implementation of the Minsk agreements, which Moscow tried to impose on Kyiv in the run-up to the full-scale invasion in February, Putin will feel vindicated. The implementation would have resulted in the emergence of an autonomous Donbas region in eastern Ukraine effectively controlled by Russia and would have prevented Ukraine’s membership in NATO.

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The conflict with the US-led West, as the Kremlin frames the war in Ukraine, is now the main source of legitimacy for the Putin government, which is why he launched the aggression in the first place. Losing part of the occupied territory will not necessarily undermine the government. Rather, it may lead to more people rallying behind the leader in the face of what many Russians perceive as an existential threat.

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Meanwhile, the West seems unable and unwilling to reach out to the Russian population with a vision of a better future without Putin. For many politicians, Russia is little more than a convenient enemy. That makes it easier for Putin to maintain power.

Zelenskyy, on the other hand, is on a mission to live up to maximalist expectations while facing a belligerent opposition that scrutinizes his every move, ready to accuse him of betraying Ukraine’s interests.

It must show that the enormous sacrifices of the Ukrainians were not in vain and that they have gained something tangible by refusing to succumb to Russian pressure to implement the Minsk agreements. That will be much more difficult to achieve, which is why Kyiv is trying to recapture as much territory as possible and maintain its momentum.

The trick is figuring out the right time to draw a line and sue for peace.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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