Russia Is Gaining Little by Keeping Phony Talks Alive, but Paying a Very Dear Price for Them
Putin still long-tabling the Russian people and soldiers to severe effect
The Russian-Ukrainian peace talks in Gomel and now in Istanbul are not serious. Both sides know this. Yet the talks go on because both sides have something to gain from the theater of talks.
Kiev can point to talks and say that Ukrainian performance in the war has already forced Russia to the negotiating table. It can use the existence of talks to keep the hope alive that war end, with minimal concessions, may be just around the corner if only the Ukrainians will preserve and fight well just a little longer.
In fact, for Kiev I would say there is no downside to talks, only an upside. It’s a free morale booster.
For Russia there is also some upside to talks:
1. Humanitarian corridors. It’s easier to have evacuation corridors with the cooperation of the other side. The evacuation of cities is an unambiguous positive for the Russians and a negative for Ukrainians. The emptier the cities, the more freely the Russian military can operate there.
2. It allows Moscow to keep a pulse on the mood in Kiev. To know what is possible to get from Zelensky at any given moment should it actually start looking for an off ramp.
3. It allows Moscow to spin a tale where its demands are comparatively minimal. Where the war isn’t really about vassalizing Ukraine (as a precursor to an eventual full unification including Belarus) but something far less. It is the ages-old strategy of minimally unacceptable demands. You want a war, and the spoils of war, but you don’t want to look too greedy so you ask for the smallest thing you can ask for that will still get you a refusal.
This has been the job of Russian diplomats in Gomel and Istanbul. To reject the notion that Russia is seeking to vassalize Kiev, while making sure the war to accomplish precisely that continues.
The resolve of the Russian nation to fight toward this goal is quite high actually. For as long as Putin’s determination holds up as well the demands will always be just a little too high for Kiev to be able to accept.
In this way Moscow can claim it is only Kiev’s intransigence forcing it to wage an unwanted war to total victory.
Here is where the downside of Moscow’s double game comes in. It is demoralizing. It introduces confusion and doubt.
Most Russians are willing to preserve in a war to bring Kiev into the fold, and many are able to read between the lines and recognize that this is indeed the war goal. But because of the talks theater none can be 100% certain and many have real and severe anxiety that Kremlin will opt for yet another unsatisfying Minsk once again.
Most damningly it undermines the morale precisely of those most supportive, and precisely of those asked to sacrifice the most.
Who wants to be the soldier who loses a limb taking Nikolayev if it is going to be later relinquished anyway?
Losing your Volkswagen job and taking a significant hit to your material affluence for the rest of your life for the re-unification of East Slavdom, or merely for the “demilitarization” of anti-Russian Kiev are not remotely similar prepositions.
Similarly what pro-Russian Ukrainian will be insane enough to start working with the Russians when they continue to publicly insist they aren’t interested in regime-change or territory beyond Donbass?
What incentive is there for a Ukrainian soldier who is on the fence about it all to just hide at home and wait for the Russians to arrive, if he can’t know they will be staying?
Once again we are witnessing the same situation we were in the lead up to the campaign. Of Putin refusing to level with the Russian people. Of Putin keeping his cards close to his chest and making soldiers and patriots guess as to Russia’s real intentions.
And once again there is a real cost to this.
But where secrecy and deception in the lead up to February 24 could be defended as a necessary ruse of war to catch Kiev by suprise (which to an extent it did), what is so valuable about creating ambiguity this time?
The enemies are not fooled. They don’t believe Russia’s goals are limited so there is no positive PR from claiming that. On the contrary, Moscow publicly downplaying its true ask is seized upon for its full psychological warfare worth. It is taken and presented as a sign of weakness and of setback and defeat.
Earlier I mentioned humanitarian corridors but you could still have purely technical talks about local ceasefires, evacuation corridors and prisoner exchanges without pretending you were also engaging in big-picture political talks to end the war.
The only possible big utility I can see isn’t to Russia at all, but only to the Kremlin.
This war escalation having been chosen for it (without warning or debate) Russia has no choice but to win. We can debate whether war is the correct (or even feasible) way to get Ukraine. A debate that Russians didn’t get to have. And whether a military victory over Kiev is worth the damage to Russian-Ukrainian relations at the people level, and to the Russian economy from sanctions. But surely the only thing worse than incurring these costs and winning in Ukraine, would be to incur these costs and not even win.
Thus Russia (which had no say in the matter, also) has no choice. Lose and Russia will never be Russia again. It will be rump Russia. Destined to remain amputated forever.
But where there is no off-ramp from this war for Russia, maybe there is one for Vladimir Putin? Maybe he can salvage his presidency even if the war falls short?
I don’t think that he can. But the existence of phony talks and of the potential off-ramp that they represent is worrying patriots across Russia that he perhaps thinks that he can.
Is the minimal ask actually being kept around to allow Putin the option to bow out without meeting his goals, but being able to claim he accomplished them and thus deserves to stay? Hopefully not.
Putin has tied his fate to the fate of the Russian campaign in Ukraine. Russia is all in. He should make it clear that he is likewise all in. That he has no need of keeping off-ramps around because it is win or be forever damned.
He has burned bridges for Russia. He must burn bridges for himself as well.
While among Western contrarians Putin is the personification of macho, the view in Russia is far more ambivalent. Right-wing, patriotic Russians are some of the least likely to have faith in his determination and resolve. (Sorry to burst your bubble if you didn’t know.)
Even Yura who isn’t even a right-winger and who until now was dismissing talks as pure theater is post-Istanbul starting to worry about possible Kremlin defeatism.
But he says that Russian society will not accept “half solutions” on Ukraine: