Russia, Ukraine crack open door toward peace talks but neither side ready to make concessions

Russia, Ukraine crack open door toward peace talks but neither side ready to make concessions

Russia announced a ban on oil exports to Western powers Wednesday even as Kremlin officials seemed to keep the door cracked open to ceasefire talks over Moscow’s nearly year-long military invasion of Ukraine.

While Ukrainian leaders this week have signaled desires for a United Nations-moderate peace summit, analysts say the prospect of direct Ukraine-Russia talks remains out of reach, with neither country showing willingness to make the kinds of concessions that could kick start a negotiation to halt the war.

The Kremlin said Wednesday that Russia’s oil export ban is a direct “response to the unfriendly actions by the United States” and its Western allies, who have targeted Russia with economic sanctions in retaliation for the Ukraine invasion — most recently imposing a price cap on Russian crude oil.

It remains to be seen how global oil prices will be impacted by the developments, but as the world’s second-largest oil exporter, Russia still carries significant sway over international energy markets.

The ban suggests Russian President Vladimir Putin remains unwilling to step back from his hostile posture toward the United States and NATO, which have recently redoubled their support for Kyiv in the face of Russian military aggression.

The support includes last week’s announcement by President Biden that the Pentagon will send a long-awaited Patriot missile battery to Ukraine to help defend against a relentless Russian onslaught targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure.

Just days after Mr. Biden made the announcement with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy by his side at the White House, Mr. Putin said Sunday that he is prepared to “negotiate” with all sides and find a way to end the war.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba then told the Associated Press on Monday that Ukraine hopes to hold a peace summit, moderated by the United Nations, in February.

Taken together, the comments have fueled hope that there may be a road toward ending the conflict. But analysts have urged caution, arguing the war will likely drag on unless Moscow or Kyiv budge from their entrenched positions.

“We’re in for a long haul until one side or the other is ready to sit down and talk,” Jim Townsend, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration, told The Washington Times in a recent interview.

The Institute for the Study of War think tank, meanwhile, has argued that Mr. Putin’s comments Sunday were misleading and part of a deliberate information campaign aimed at convincing the West to pressure Ukraine into “making preliminary concessions” ahead of any potential peace talks.

Specialists generally agree that lifting economic sanctions is one realistic olive branch the West could offer Russia. But the oil export ban announced by the Kremlin on Wednesday could complicate such an approach. The ban suggests Moscow is preparing for continued economic hostility with the U.S. and Europe.

A Kremlin statement said Mr. Putin signed the ban as an executive order “in response to the unfriendly actions taken by the United States, other foreign states and international organizations that sided with them, to establish a price cap on Russian oil.”

The Group of Seven forum of wealthy Western powers, along with Australia and the European Union, issued a $60-per-barrel price cap in early December on Russian crude moving around the world.

While the cap is close to the current price for Russian oil, it falls well beneath the windfall price Russia was able to sell for during the course of the past year, a windfall that helped offset the impact of the Western financial sanctions being imposed on Moscow, according to Reuters.

A way forward

On the military front, Mr. Putin’s recent comments indicated that Moscow may recognize it is unlikely to achieve many of its overarching strategic goals in Ukraine through sheer force.

Russian forces have been pushed out of key cities such as Kharkiv and Kherson in recent months, and military facilities inside Russia have been hit by drone strikes during the past several weeks.

The Ukrainian military has not publicly claimed credit, but Kyiv is widely believed to be responsible for the strikes, which have proven that the Russian homeland is now a target and could suffer more attacks as the war drags on.

What’s more, Pentagon officials have said Russian forces could begin running out of ammunition early next year, forcing them to rely heavily on allies such as Iran and North Korea to replenish their stockpiles.

Still, the Kremlin hasn’t shown willingness to make concessions in order to begin ceasefire talks. Shortly after Mr. Putin’s comments on Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow wants to see the outright demilitarization of Ukraine.

“Otherwise the Russian army will take matters into its own hands,” Mr. Lavrov said.

On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said any peace negotiations would have to include a recognition by Kyiv of Russian control over four eastern Ukrainian provinces that Mr. Putin claims to have annexed into Russia.

The claimed annexation, announced by Mr. Putin in October, has been rejected by Kyiv, Washington, and most other nations around the world.

With that as a backdrop, Ukrainian officials have all but ruled out any peace process that includes the ceding of Ukrainian territory to Russia. Kyiv even wants all Russian troops — and their paramilitary proxies — out of Crimea, which Russia forcibly annexed in 2014.

Mr. Kuleba also told the AP on Monday that Ukraine will insist that Russia face an international war-crimes tribunal as a precondition to peace, another precondition that the Kremlin will almost surely reject.

Mr. Zelenskyy stuck by that position in an address Wednesday.

“No crime committed by the occupiers in Ukraine can go unpunished,” the Ukrainian president said. “And no matter how much resources and time it takes, accountability for the occupiers must be unavoidable.”

Still, Mr. Zelenskyy’s government has made clear it understands how the war is likely to end. “Every war ends in a diplomatic way,” Mr. Kuleba told the AP. “Every war ends as a result of the actions taken on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.”

Some military analysts believe now is the time for Ukraine to press its advantage on the battlefield, and that the U.S. and its European allies should be wary of pressuring Mr. Zelenskyy and his government toward the negotiating table at the current moment. Further aiding the Ukrainian counterattack, the analysts say, will put Kyiv in an even better bargaining position and will eventually force Mr. Putin to make concessions.

“The Ukrainians have competently weakened the Russian invading force. The Russian army has lost roughly 100,000 soldiers, and many aspects of the Russian military are depleted,” Rebeccah Heinrichs, director of the Keystone Defense Initiative at the Hudson Institute, wrote in a recent analysis. “Now is not the time for Ukraine to sue for peace. A premature effort to pressure Ukraine to accept a negotiated outcome would be ruinous for the security of Ukraine and NATO.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.