The fighting in Ukraine isn’t slowing down but negotiations for peace are proceeding while the battles continue. With both sides at least expressing a willingness to reach some kind of deal, there are ongoing debates about what kind of settlement should be reached to end the fighting. In any deal someone will have to give ground, and any sign of weakness could be disastrous. No one is willing to accept a deal that looks like a defeat.
Significant challenges for peace negotiations
As before the war began, Volodymyr Zelensky is being urged to reject any deal that Moscow might accept. This is justified by claims that Putin’s government and the Russian army are on the verge of collapsing.
American officials have been noticeably lukewarm about the idea of a negotiated peace, but the Biden administration has been openly planning to pour weapons into Ukraine with the aim of maintaining an insurgency after a Russian victory.
This would be good for the United States as it might force Russia into a bloody quagmire like Iraq or Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.
For the Ukrainians this would mean decades of war and the depopulation of large swathes of the country; a decisive result to the conventional war and a negotiated settlement would be the healthier outcome.
Whose victory would that be though? Zelensky says that he will not accept any deal that involves giving up land to the Russians, including Crimea and the areas that were controlled by separatists before the invasion.
Recognition of separatist independence and Russian ownership of Crimea would be the absolute minimum that Putin can accept. Zelensky does seem to be willing to acquiesce to his other key demand and commit to remaining outside of NATO.
Neither side prepared to concede any land
It’s unlikely that Putin would be content with a deal that only involved Ukraine ceding Donbass and Crimea; if he wants to make the war truly worthwhile he will be expected to demand the Russian speaking lands east of the Dnieper.
Russia has a clear advantage in that it already holds most of those lands and is still strong enough to take the rest, though it might be a costly affair.
The problem for Putin is that, while his is fighting a Clausewitzian war as “the continuation of policy by other means” Zelensky has succeeded in presenting the conflict to the world as an insane war of annihilation.
It is difficult to know what Russia might do if it wins a military victory but finds that Ukraine is simply unwilling to recognize it as such and give in to their demands.
The Biden administration has nothing to lose in urging Zelensky to fight to the last Ukrainian, regardless of what the military situation looks like.
If Ukraine isn’t to become a bloody wasteland, someone will have to back down first. That certainly won’t be Putin, and Kiev for now is still determined to not accept anything less than a clear victory.