The sun is starting to shine through the clouds to peace in Ukraine both sides slammed shut shortly before the war began.
Waging peace is never easy, but the Ukraine War might be particularly tricky. On the one side, you have a country that wants to annex or subjugate 100% of its neighbor. On the other, you have a country that wants the invaders 100% out. Then there are the parts of the invaded country — Crimea, Donbas — who’d rather be part of the invading country.
Further complicating matters is the fact that both peoples are decent, well-educated, and hard-working. Both governments, however, are quite rotten. Kyiv is corrupt and inept. Putin’s Kremlin, however, is corrupt and basically evil.
You also have the complicated history of Ukraine’s centuries-long under-representation by Russia (including the Holocaust-sized Holodomor against Ukraine during the 1930s), which Ukrainians cannot afford to lose again. Russia has dreams of restoring imperial glory and subjugating Ukraine.
As if all this weren’t enough to make the situation in Ukraine hopeless, the current war, which began in 2014, has seen so many atrocities that attitudes are hardened and have become bitterer than ever.
However, Kyiv has only opened a small crack to indicate that they may be open to putting Russian-held Crimea (illegally taken in 2014) on a negotiating table. According to Andriy Sybiha, deputy of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Kyiv is open to discussing the future of Crimea and Moscow. “If its forces reach the Russian-occupied Peninsula’s border,” he said.
Since 2014, this is the first time that someone in Kyiv has stated that any less than a complete Russian withdrawal from the internationally recognized borders in 1991 would be acceptable.
There are caveats. Three, in fact.
First, talks must be successful in the counteroffensive across the Dnipro River which separates Crimea’s current southern frontline from Crimea. The other half of Kherson Oblast (a region still held by Russian forces) is also subject to negotiations. Sybiha stated that if we achieve our strategic goals on the battlefield, and when we reach the administrative border to Crimea, then we are prepared to open [a] diplomatic chapter to discuss this matter. Big gains for Ukraine are unlikely if Russia puts as much cannon fodder in Kherson as they did into Bakhmut.
Second, even if Kyiv manages to force the Dnipro back to Crimea and push the Russians out of Crimea proper, Western analysts are still skeptical about taking Crimea. Last summer’s reports of Moscow defending the peninsula from attack are consistent with the fact that the land route to Crimea is very narrow and easy to defend.
A third caveat is that Sybiha might have made the statement to draw Russian defenders from the Donbas region in the east to Kherson, in the south.
Sybiha could be signaling to Washington and Beijing that the major powers are serious about peace efforts, despite the huge losses suffered by both sides in Bakhmut. This might be a clever diplomatic move to further isolate Vladimir Putin, the Russian strongman.
Beijing has expressed interest in the peace process while the Biden Administration has not. As I write this, there is a geopolitical coup [VIP link] in the Middle East. China “orchestrated” a meeting between two Muslim powerhouses, Saudi Arabia and Iran in Beijing. The China-sponsored summit follows Beijing’s diplomatic relations reestablishing between the two countries.
Postwar Ukraine could end up in China’s orbit if Washington doesn’t take the matter seriously, as seems likely.
Winston Churchill noted that “jaw, jaw is better than war, war,” but now that Kyiv is indicating it might be ready to seriously talk, we’ll see if our own government is willing to listen.