As soon as one of the two armies launches a new offensive and the civilian and military casualties soar again, the countries involved in the war in Ukraine will consider to what extent it is morally justifiable and politically profitable to continue fighting. If they are able to force a negotiation at that time, they will save many lives and prevent unnecessary destruction. Nothing indicates, however, that they will do so. In this case, the war will drag on, although the end will be very similar: Russian withdrawal in exchange for a new security framework in Europe that takes the Kremlin into account.
When will the time to negotiate come?
Ukraine needs to regain more territory for Russia to agree to an equal negotiation. Most military experts agree that its path to victory is clearer than Russia's. Not only because in one year she has built one of the most powerful land armies in Europe, but because her troops are more motivated and better prepared than the Russian ones.
There is no precedent in any contemporary warfare for such an inferior army to be able to subdue such a superior adversary. The initiative is today on the Ukrainian side.
Russia, however, has learned from its mistakes. General Andrei Surovikin, the military chief in Ukraine, has unified the various units, better coordinated air and ground operations, and improved logistics. Today there is more security on the Russian supply routes. Putin is also better informed of military operations, even on a day-to-day basis, admits Avril Haimes, the US director of National Intelligence.
Surovikin has already launched nine waves of missiles against Ukrainian energy infrastructure. Between 70 and 100 shells have fallen in each wave. Ukraine is today a country with many difficulties to heat itself and turn on the light.
Surovikin thus seeks to sink the morale of the Ukrainian people and force their generals to divert troops from the front to protect the cities in the rear.
Russia, likewise, has been able to mobilize 300,000 recruits in record time. Although they are not well prepared and equipped, although they do not have the same motivation as the Ukrainians, they have entrenched themselves well along a front of some 2,500 kilometers.
No one knows when the next big offensive will come. Ukraine may attack in the coming weeks to regain territory in the Donbass and advance towards Crimea.
Russia, however, needs more time, perhaps until next spring, to re-threaten Kyiv and regain ground lost since last summer in the annexed provinces of Jershon, Donetsk, Luhanks and Zaporiya.
These campaigns will decide the end of the war, but, as General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, opines, "the war cannot be won by military means alone."
Still, Russia and Ukraine want to keep fighting.
Russia seems to have to suffer more military setbacks for the morale of its army and its population to sink, for Putin to feel the vertigo of a complete defeat. For now, the Kremlin's propaganda against NATO and the West keeps the population calm.
Zelenski needs, at least, to recover the territory prior to the invasion on February 24 to justify any negotiation before his people. For that, it needs more victories, perhaps, in Svatove and Kremina (Donbass), as well as in Militopol, the city today in Russian power, very well defended, which is the key for Ukraine to reach the coast of the Azov Sea and depart in two the land bridge between Crimea and Russia.
Melitopol is 84 kilometers south of Zaporiya, a city under Ukrainian control. This is the distance that his army must cover to fight what could be the great and decisive battle of the contest. If Melitopol falls, it will only be a matter of time before Crimea does.
Since Putin will do everything possible to keep the peninsula, we will then be at the risk of further escalation or at the opportunity for negotiation.
Being a fundamentally land war, victory will depend, to a large extent, on ammunition. Which army will run out first? Russia is transforming its civilian industry into a military one to make more weapons, and Ukraine has the unconditional support of its Western allies.
Ukraine lacks long-range missiles, fighter jets, and more artillery force. You also need more anti-air defenses. The range of Russian artillery and shelling is far superior, but the Kremlin lacks the infantry that can advance and occupy the territory. The effectiveness of the 300,000 new soldiers remains to be seen.
Ukraine has 700,000 people in uniform, of whom 200,000 are trained to fight. It will be much easier for Russia to keep the number of troops high at the front. A second mass mobilization of the Kremlin may not be as easy as the first.
The front has been static for several weeks. Whoever has more will and better logistics will launch the first massive attack. If it fails, if the front continues without moving, the war will drag on. The suffering will never end and the cost will skyrocket. That's why General Milley talks about negotiating as soon as possible, better in winter than in spring.
What and how will be negotiated?
If we listen to Zelensky, there is nothing to negotiate as long as Russia does not completely withdraw from Ukraine. Also from Crimea, the peninsula that was illegally annexed in 2014.
The Ukrainian president announced in November a ten-point plan that involves the total and final defeat of Russia, with its high military commanders and political leaders prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Zelenski also wants Russia to pay the cost of reconstruction and accept a security framework for Ukraine, foreseeably within NATO.
This maximalist position has been endorsed by Poland and the Baltic republics. Also the United States and the United Kingdom believe that a complete military victory is the only solution for peace. This implies a regime change in Moscow, at least the fall of Putin. As long as he remains in the Kremlin, Ukraine and its allies believe that he will be a threat.
However, defeating Putin in Moscow is much more difficult than in Ukraine, and no one can guarantee that his replacement will be any better.
Russia, for now, resists. Her army is not defeated and her economy has barely fallen by 3% in 2022. The financial system is still standing and the result of the current account balance is positive. Although it is sanctioned and cut off from Western supply chains, it can buy what it needs in India, China and other neutral countries. Iran sells you the drones that ravage Ukrainian cities. North Korea supplies him with weapons.
Putin has the resources to withstand even a military defeat in the Ukraine. His political leadership is solid. He maintains a firm grip on power through the military and security services. The population is anesthetized by propaganda and fear. Moscow and St. Petersburg are calm and well supplied.
So far, revolts against Putin's authority have been crushed wherever they have sprung up, that is, in poor and remote regions like Dagestan and Buryatia.
The Russians consider Putin a good leader because he guarantees sovereignty and stability. After the post-Soviet chaos, it's about the best they can hope for.
The Russians are informed by state television. They believe Putin when he says that Russia is in an existential conflict with the West and that the sanctions are intended to break the Russian people.
The precedents of the United States in Vietnam and of the USSR in Afghanistan indicate that wars that start from a wrong calculation break the political elite. It is true that in these wars, the internal situation in the White House and the Kremlin forced a negotiation for withdrawal.
Ukraine and its allies are counting on the internal opposition to unseat Putin. But the most capable opposition is in jail or exile. The oligarchs have closed ranks. They know they will fall when he does. And the population, even if it comes to mistrust its president, is not going to trust the West any more.
Ukraine and the US must prepare to negotiate with Putin. The Russian president is launching trial balloons in this regard. They are not credible, but they are indicative of how he sees the future.
Putin started the war on a mistake, but he knows the risk he is running. He knows that a long war will be difficult to win. What's more, he knows that the longer it goes on, the more it will make Russia dependent on China.
In exchange for a complete withdrawal from Ukraine, the United States must offer Putin a new security framework in Europe. It is necessary to create a strategic plan that will guarantee Russia that Ukraine will never be a threat. In other words, Ukraine should not enter NATO, something that Zelensky was clear about when he became president in 2019.
Ukraine's neutrality will be the cornerstone of a new order that will guarantee Russia's integrity. It is time to do what was not done in 1991 and recover the common European home that Gorbachev proposed.
The United States, the European Union and Ukraine will have to accept that Russia is once again a European country, not a pariah state. Sanctions will be lifted and assets frozen in the West returned to their owners.
The trial for the crimes in Ukraine will never take place. The International Criminal Court in The Hague would need the approval of the UN Security Council and will never get it. Russia's own veto will be joined by China's.
In exchange for these concessions, painful and unfair for any Ukrainian, Ukraine will join the European Union. What's more, for the foreseeable future it will have a reconstruction aid plan, a kind of US-EU Marshall plan. Its neutrality will be rewarded with a status similar to that of Austria. Ukraine can be a prosperous country fully integrated into Europe, not the state dominated by oligarchies and mafias that it was before Zelensky came to power and the start of the war.
The future of Crimea and the Donbass will be the thorniest issue in the negotiations and so that it does not ruin the possibility of a ceasefire, it should be left for later. An international peacekeeping force should replace the Russian troops when they withdraw and self-determination referendums supervised by the United Nations and the European Union must be held within a period to be determined. Ukraine and Russia will accept the result as final and will renounce any future claim to these territories.
Zelensky campaigned in 2019 on the promise of a deal with Putin. Today it will be much more difficult than then, but the longer you delay, the more difficult it will be.