Tuesday August 30, 2022

Rewriting how Russia’s war in Ukraine could end

Rewriting how Russia’s war in Ukraine could end

People in Ukraine continue to suffer as the Russia's war against their country enters its 6th month.

Elizabeth Shackelford, Tribune News Service

Six months into Russia’s latest war with Ukraine, it’s hard to see how it ends. Complete military victory by either side is unlikely. This means the end of this war will be shaped by the battlefield, but it won’t be secured there. It will come from negotiations molded by motivations of both sides and the realities of the conflict as they develop.

Ultimately it will be up to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his government to determine what is in the best interest of the Ukrainian people. But if Ukraine’s partners want to help it reach a palatable peace, they should not only help Kyiv shape the conflict with military support but facilitate avenues for future talks too.

Some supporters of Ukraine find it blasphemous for Kyiv to even consider making concessions to reach a peace. Zelenskyy, however, has repeatedly called on Western partners to help bring Russian President Vladimir Putin to the negotiating table.

It isn’t just about coming to the table though. The answer isn’t to force a settlement under unacceptable circumstances. Taking steps to change the balance of power can alter the circumstances under which this war ends. Ukraine is keeping the door to diplomacy open, but at the same time working to change the parameters within which that diplomacy occurs.

Ukraine’s recent strikes into Crimea are part of that strategy and have expanded what is on the negotiating table to include the peninsula’s security — something Russia cares about deeply but did not think was up for grabs before.

These actions are taking a political and emotional toll on Russia and potentially changing how the Russian people think about Putin’s “special military operation.” Though Russia’s claim there is illegal, it has held Crimea for eight years, and the area is an important military base, a seaside playground for Russian elites, and a key part of the Great Russia story driving Putin’s imperialist war. Ukraine lacks the ability to retake Crimea but has managed to hit the Black Sea Fleet headquarters and destroy Russian aircraft through sabotage and drone strikes. Russian civilians are now fleeing Crimea’s beaches, which previously felt far afield from the war. These attacks come at a time when Russia’s advances on other fronts have stalled, and Ukraine is launching its first major counteroffensive of the war. In its attempt to retake Kherson in the south, Ukraine faces tough odds. But if it succeeds, it would threaten Russia’s hold on Crimea even further, as control of Kherson means controlling Crimea’s fresh water supply. At the same time, Ukraine continues to seek and secure more and better weapons from the West. The United States in particular is providing Ukraine with expanded capabilities that are also shifting the balance.

This summer, Washington provided precision-guided artillery that gave Ukraine the ability to target strategic bridges under Russian control. Ukraine has used these to good effect by taking out multiple bridges across the Dnieper River supplying Russia’s forces in Kherson.

These weapons have put Ukraine on a path to potentially isolate the Crimean Peninsula altogether. Notably, Ukraine has not yet destroyed the Kerch Strait Bridge, Russia’s only direct access into Crimea from Russia, leaving open a possible lever of negotiation. Additionally, these tools have made it less likely that Russia can wait out Ukraine in a war of attrition. After all, Russia’s endurance has limits too, especially while it continues to resist declaring war to mobilise its full military might.

None of this suggests Ukraine is on a path to defeat Russia anytime soon. But these shifts give Ukraine an edge at the negotiating table and expand the contents of what that table includes. They are examples of the dynamism and unpredictability of war and how changing circumstances on the battlefield can change leverage beyond it.

A diplomatic solution is far from guaranteed in the near term, but Ukraine must not close the door to it and its military strategy must keep this in mind.

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