In Ukraine War, Talking About Peace Is a Fight of Its Own

WASHINGTON — As the fight in Ukraine has dragged on for the past year, another battle has unfolded in parallel: a war of words between Russia and the West over who is more interested in ending the conflict peacefully.

For now, analysts and Western officials say, serious peace talks are extremely difficult to envision. Both sides have set conditions for negotiations that cannot be met anytime soon, and have vowed to fight until victory.

And Ukraine’s president has ruled out dealing directly with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin because of atrocities committed by his military forces.

At the same time, both sides also have a keen interest in showing an openness to negotiations.

But far from pointing to a peaceful end, such talk is largely strategic. It is intended to placate allies, cast the opposition as unreasonable and, especially on the Ukrainian side, tamp down a growing desire within Western countries to find an end to the costly war.

Major countries such as India, South Africa and Brazil have not taken clear sides in the conflict, which has raised energy prices and exacerbated a global food crisis.

Russia relies on economic relations with these countries, and benefits when they express impatience with the West over the war’s duration, because a swift end to the conflict now would leave Russia occupying large parts of Ukraine.

By claiming to be more willing than the West to negotiate, Russia gives the countries a pretext for not taking a stance against it. “We are ready to negotiate with everyone involved about acceptable solutions, but that is up to them,” Mr. Putin said on Russian state television in late December. “We are not the ones refusing to negotiate, they are.”

Such rhetoric “is aimed largely at India and other nonaligned powers,” said Samuel Charap, a Russia analyst with the RAND Corporation.

At the same time, U.S. officials, mindful of their open-ended talk of supporting Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” contend that their goal is to strengthen Kyiv’s hand in eventual peace negotiations, without specifying when they might come.

U.S. officials call Mr. Putin’s own talk of peace absurd. They note that Russia is brutally attacking its neighbor and insists that Ukrainians accept Russian annexation of large swaths of their territory as a condition of peace. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference last weekend, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken warned of a “false equivalence” between an aggressor and a victim.

“If Russia withdraws its troops today, the war is over,” he said. “Of course, if Ukraine stops fighting today, Ukraine is over.”

Biden administration officials also fear the Russian leader might simply exploit any peace talks for tactical advantage.

And while stressing that Ukraine must make its own decisions about when and how to make peace, Mr. Blinken said that Russia’s aggression must not be rewarded with territorial gains, lest it set an example for other would-be aggressors. A United Nations resolution passed on Thursday with overwhelming support endorsed the same principle, saying that “no territorial acquisition resulting from the threat or use of force shall be recognized as legal.”

Still, U.S. officials express concern that Mr. Putin might be getting the better of the argument, at least with some unaligned nations. Mr. Putin blames Western sanctions on Russia for driving up global food prices, and claims that the United States and its allies could quickly relieve the problem by settling with Moscow. (In fact, Western sanctions exempt food products, and Russia’s invasion has made shipping grain and other food from Ukraine more difficult.)

At the same time, support is growing in several countries for more active peace efforts. In a December poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Americans were almost evenly divided on the question of whether the United States should support Ukraine for “as long as it takes” or urge Kyiv to settle for peace “as soon as possible.” Forty-eight percent of respondents favored fighting on indefinitely, with 47 percent preferring peace efforts.

In Germany, a recent ARD-DeutschlandTrend poll found that 58 percent of respondents believe that diplomatic efforts to end the war have not gone far enough — the highest level recorded in the poll to date. Left-wing opponents of the war organized a “Rebellion for Peace” rally in Berlin this weekend, which police said drew at least 10,000 people.

Even in Russia, where criticizing the war can be a crime, a late November poll by the Levada Center, an independent pollster in Moscow, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 53 percent of Russians wanted their government to start peace negotiations.

But pro-negotiation efforts in Western governments have gained little traction. After progressive Democrats released a public letter in late October calling on President Biden to seek a “rapid end to the conflict,” the group’s leader quickly retracted it. Around the same time, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, argued in internal meetings that Ukraine was unlikely to make substantially greater battlefield gains and should move to the bargaining table. The White House quickly squelched such talk.

At the same time, U.S. officials have advised President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine — with the views of nonaligned countries in mind — that it is in his interest not to appear completely opposed to talking.

“Zelensky is being told to be diplomatic,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a Russia expert at the Center for a New American Security who advised the Biden transition team. “But I think his instinct is to fight it out on the battlefield.”

Both Ukraine and Russia have outlined broad parameters for a peace agreement with provisions that analysts call nonstarters. Mr. Zelensky has offered a 10-point plan that would hold Russia accountable for war atrocities, and require it to surrender all captured Ukrainian territory and pay reparations for what could be hundreds of billions in war damages.

For his part, Mr. Putin has demanded that Ukraine recognize territories annexed by Moscow as part of Russia.

Moscow and Kyiv did conduct direct talks early in the war, first in Belarus and then in Turkey. By April, the two sides were discussing an agreement under which Russia would return its troops to preinvasion battle lines in return for a pledge that Ukraine would never seek membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

But the talks collapsed — poisoned, in part, by mounting evidence of Russian atrocities, including a massacre of civilians in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha that led Mr. Biden to declare Mr. Putin a “war criminal” in mid-March.

U.S. officials say that it was unclear whether a lasting deal could have been reached anyway. But Russia insists that Ukraine abandoned talks under pressure from the West.

“This is their formula,” Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, told state television in February, according to Russia’s Tass news service. He said the West had “forced the Kyiv regime to withdraw from the negotiating process at the moment when in late March there was a possibility to end it politically.”

This month, the Kremlin pounced on comments by Israel’s former prime minister, Naftali Bennett, suggesting that Western countries told him to shut down mediation efforts he was conducting between Moscow and Kyiv early last year.

In an interview posted on YouTube, Mr. Bennett, who stepped down last summer, said that the United States, Germany and France, with whom he was coordinating, “blocked” his efforts because it was more important to “smash” Mr. Putin, he said.

U.S. officials deny that, and insist that it is for Ukraine to decide whether and how it makes peace. Mr. Bennett later backtracked, writing on Twitter that he was “unsure there was any deal to be made” or that one was “desirable.”

Even before the war began, Ukrainian officials were deeply skeptical of making deals with Moscow. After Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Kyiv and Moscow agreed to a cease-fire in negotiations in Belarus, mediated by France and Germany, known as the Minsk accords.

In Mr. Zelensky’s eyes, Russia’s invasion only proved the futility of striking an agreement with Mr. Putin.

Speaking at a Group of 20 summit in Bali in November, Mr. Zelensky said that his country should not be pressured “to conclude compromises with its conscience, sovereignty, territory and independence.”

“Apparently, one cannot trust Russia’s words, and there will be no Minsk 3, which Russia would violate immediately after signing,” Mr. Zelensky said, referring to two previous incarnations of the accords.

On the one-year anniversary of the war on Friday, China’s government, which is closely aligned with Moscow, released a document outlining parameters for a settlement and calling for “resuming direct dialogue as quickly as possible.”

The State Department spokesman, Ned Price, was dismissive, saying that China “seeks to present this air of neutrality,” even as it provides Russia with political and economic support.

In Munich, Mr. Blinken warned that Mr. Putin may be eager for cease-fires presented as genuine peace efforts — but might exploit a pause in fighting to his advantage. “We have to be incredibly wary of the kind of traps that can be set,” Mr. Blinken said, adding that the Russian leader could “use the time to rest, to refit, to rearm, and to reattack.”

Evan Medeiros, a former National Security Council official for China in the Obama White House who is now at Georgetown University, said China was also likely hoping to soften its image in Europe, where there is anger over its support for Russia.

“This statement is about strategic positioning by China,” Mr. Madeiros said, “not problem solving.”

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