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What is the probability that Ukraine and Russia will enter into peace talks?

Last week, Ukrainian and Russian officials made several public statements in an apparent willingness to re-engage in dialogue, blaming each other for stalling a possible negotiated solution after almost nine months of fighting.

But experts have said the prospect of meaningful talks remains remote. Ukraine, they say, will seek further gains on the battlefield before heading to the negotiating table, while Russia hopes the impact of winter on Ukraine’s allies will break international support for Kyiv and weaken its resolve.

“It makes sense to wait for now: Ukrainian forces now have momentum, they are making further progress on Kherson, and that progress will set the stage and conditions for any discussion,” said William Taylor, a former US ambassador to Ukraine and vice president. at the United States Institute of Peace.

On Friday, the Russian army completed its withdrawal from the strategic city of Kherson in the south, withdrawing to the east bank of the Dnieper River, a setback to its greatest military achievement since the start of the war. The southern regional capital was the only one he took during the entire conflict.

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“The problem with the negotiations now is that Russia hasn’t shown any serious proposals,” said Steven Pifer, senior fellow at the US-Europe Center at the Brookings Institution. “The demands of the Russians have intensified, even if they have suffered greater losses on the ground,” said Pifer, who served as the US ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000.

Despite losing territory, Russia insists Kherson is Russian land, following the widely condemned and unrecognized annexations of four Ukrainian regions in September. “There can be no negotiations until Russia becomes more realistic and takes into account the realities of the battlefield,” she said.

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INTERACTIVE-The strategic relevance of the Kherson region

‘Designed to maintain an alliance’

The annexation of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson marked a turning point in Zelenskyy’s position towards the talks. Following Russia’s move, he signed a decree ruling out any possibility of entering into negotiations with Putin. “We are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but with another president,” he said on October 4.

Zelenskyy clearly departed from a softer position taken in March, when he demanded that Russian troops withdraw to the borders ahead of the February invasion. But after the annexation move, he stepped up the conditions and called on the Russians to withdraw from the entire country, including Crimea and eastern Donbas.

His tone hardened as the Ukrainian troops were enjoying further successes on the battlefield at the time of his decree. Moscow troops had failed to reach the capital, Kyiv, and Ukrainian forces were retaking swathes of territory in the northeast. The emergence of atrocities committed against Ukrainian civilians allegedly at the hands of the Russian occupation forces further eroded confidence for the talks.

However, on Monday, Zelenskyy listed five conditions for coming to the table, including restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, prosecution of war crimes and compensation for losses. These are not new requests from Zelenskyy, but this time there was no mention of the previous veto on speaking with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. This somewhat softened stance came after a Washington Post report suggested that US officials want Ukraine to signal an opening to talks, but not necessarily start them.

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Western leaders appear to be growing weary of growing popular discontent. Skyrocketing energy bills and skyrocketing inflation, which to some extent are consequences of the conflict, are creating unrest.

“It’s important to the Americans that Ukraine has a reasonable position and the one that Zelenskyy described is designed to maintain that alliance,” Taylor said. “But US officials are not pushing or suggesting that the Ukrainians should move forward with negotiations,” she added.

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A man walks with his bicycle on the street of Siversk, a city in eastern Ukraine hit by Russian forces a couple of days ago, on November 11, 2022, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine.  - The people of Siversk live without electricity, water and basic food.
A man walks his bicycle on the street of Siversk, a city in eastern Ukraine hit by Russian forces. [Bulent Kilic/AFP]

Crimea, a red line?

Looking ahead, the fate of the Kherson region could determine how quickly negotiations materialize, said Anatol Lieven, director of the Quincy Institute’s Eurasia Program.

The southern region of Ukraine connects the mainland with Crimea, annexed by Russia. The small isthmus linking the peninsula with Ukraine has become a key land corridor used to supply Russian troops.

“If Ukraine breaks through and captures not only the city, but also the province of Kherson east of the Dnieper River, the hidden message of the [US President Joe] Biden is that they need to stop and agree to a ceasefire,” Lieven said.

This is because going beyond Kherson, Lieven said, would be seen as a threat to Crimea, with dire consequences.

“There are strong indications that if Ukraine tries to take Crimea, then Russia’s use of nuclear weapons is very high, through a ladder of escalation,” he said.

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Pifer disagreed, arguing that the United States would support Ukraine in its attempt to expel an invading force.

However, Pifer noted, the Ukrainian military would prefer to target targets other than Crimea, which is militarily difficult to capture but easy to defend, considering how narrow the strip of land connecting the peninsula to the mainland is: between five and seven kilometers. three to four miles) wide.

“I also don’t think the United States is saying don’t do things because of nuclear concerns. The threat of nuclear weapons is serious, Putin is not backing down, but Putin also wants a nuclear war,” Pifer added.

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Ukrainian servicemen fire an M-46 130mm towed field gun at a front line, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, near Soledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine, in this handout image released on November 10, 2022. Iryna Rybakova/Press Service of the 93rd Kholodnyi Yar Independent Mechanized Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine/
Ukrainian military fires an M-46 field gun on the front line [Iryna Rybakova/Press Service of the 93rd Independent Kholodnyi Yar Mechanised Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces/Handout via Reuters]

A tale of two strategies

It is too early to talk about negotiations as both sides have much to gain or lose, said Rafael Loss, a security expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

After Russia’s withdrawal this week from the city of Kherson, the Ukrainians are plotting how to proceed with their goal of driving Moscow’s forces out of the entire nation. “It is not unreasonable that other fronts collapse, as Kharkiv and Kherson did,” Loss added, pointing to possible offensives that would put pressure on Crimea and push into northeastern Donbas.

Kyiv will also have to consider its internal context. After months of war and suffering, more than 85 percent of Ukrainians insist their nation should continue to fight rather than negotiate, a recent poll showed.

Meanwhile, “Russia relies more on a political than a military strategy” and is likely to use the winter season to foment unrest in Europe and undermine Western support that has been critical to Kyiv’s counteroffensive, Loss said.

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As temperatures drop, Russia expects more people to flee Ukraine to neighboring countries, putting pressure on Europe. In addition, the economic and energy crisis could worsen if Moscow further weapons the flow of gas to Europe or threatens to sabotage undersea cables and pipeline connections, Loss said.

“Once the winter is over, there will be a reassessment of the situation.”

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