Is Zelensky softening his stance on peace talks?

Analysts fear Russia will not back down, so now is a good time for Ukraine to start a peace process before a possible Trump presidency. Zelensky's recent comments seem to reflect this mentality shift.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky gestures as he addresses Ukraine's closing press conference of the Summit on peace in Ukraine, at the luxury Burgenstock resort, near Lucerne, on June 16, 2024.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky gestures as he addresses Ukraine's closing press conference of the Summit on peace in Ukraine, at the luxury Burgenstock resort, near Lucerne, on June 16, 2024.

Is Zelensky softening his stance on peace talks?

Absent Russia’s participation, a lone international peace conference for Ukraine cannot initiate a meaningful settlement process. Tellingly, the conference in Switzerland on 15-16 June was described as a “Western echo chamber” by Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer. Clearly, both warring parties need to be involved in a process to discuss the war’s end. Attendees concurred. Despite this, the conference can serve as a start for what will inevitably be a difficult and complex journey toward peace.

For the Ukrainians, talking to the Russians while they remain occupiers is inconceivable. However, negotiating now might be better than the alternative that could await them in a few months if Donald Trump wins the White House. Trump—a known admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin—has vowed to end the war upon assuming the presidency. Most believe that he will do so by ending the flow of US weapons and intelligence to Ukraine, thereby forcing Kyiv to surrender.

Involving both sides

Holding a peace conference to end a war between two state actors without the presence of one is unusual. The only other notable example was the Vienna Conference of 1814-15, but the circumstances were very different. France had been defeated at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and had already surrendered (unlike Ukraine or Russia, who are still fighting). In trying to agree on a settlement and redraw the maps, France’s absence was not strictly required.

By contrast, after the end of World War I, Germany was invited to the peace conference in Paris in 1919 despite its defeat and surrender. Since then, the attendance of both warring parties has become the norm at peace conferences. And when Israel objected to the participation of a Palestinian delegation in the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) participated through a joint delegation with Jordan.

Yet at Bürgenstock in Switzerland, where peace in Ukraine was discussed, Russia's views were neither voiced directly nor represented by anyone else. Some participating countries were neutral. They offered a different perspective (not necessarily a Russian one) and inserted a clear reference into the final statement to the effect that both warring parties should talk. Oddly, some then declined to sign it.

Russia's April 2022 position could be a starting point for serious peace negotiations.

Hardening stances

It appears that stances are hardening, not softening. Ukraine's allies standing firmly in support are countered by Russian intransigence, and on the eve of the conference, Moscow reiterated its maximalist position. It demanded that Ukraine abandon its pursuit of NATO membership and give up the four Ukrainian regions that Russia now claims are Russian—Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia—despite not even fully controlling them. The Russian position has, therefore, become more hawkish, not less.

Add to that the Ukrainian-Western willingness to continue fighting—and the absence of any dialogue between Moscow and Kyiv—and you have a zero-sum game, as each party clings to its mutually exclusive red lines, blocking any possible compromise. When combined with relative military stalemates, zero-sum games tend to evolve into frozen conflicts characterised by small tactical battles and mutual attrition, where each tries to deplete the other's resources or resolve.

Ever since Kyiv's much-vaunted counter-offensive last year failed to regain lost territory, the conflict has risked stasis. Ukraine's forces now hold defensive positions far from piercing Russian lines, while Russia has used the improved weather to steadily bite off several smaller areas it first sought in February 2022.

Although Russian advances are slow and focused on the north-eastern border region near Kharkiv, their strategy aims to establish a presence that then forces Ukraine's soldiers to retreat. Ukraine's new Chief of Staff, Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, acknowledged this difficulty in late April. In May, President Zelensky dismissed the head of special operations for the second time in six months. Repeated reshuffles show frustration.

Russia is focused on consolidating its gains and cementing the status quo rather than achieving any significant new breakthroughs. This strengthens Moscow's hand in any negotiations when they occur. For Kyiv, the long-delayed delivery of long-range US weaponry to Ukraine could make a difference, exerting a different kind of pressure on the Kremlin by taking the fight to Russia, striking targets deep in Russian territory. Yet the Russians know that Ukraine is still short on equipment—particularly ammunition—which plays a crucial role in tank, artillery, and drone warfare.

The Trump factor

Since the US Congress finally passed its military aid package on 20 April after a costly four-month delay, Ukraine has grown increasingly confident that it will once again be able to repel Russian attacks and restore balance on the battlefield. But for some neutral analysts who fear that Russia will neither back down nor concede territory, this could be a good time for Ukraine to start a peace process. Flush with Western missiles and with the pending arrival of F-16 fighter jets, the Bürgenstock Conference can be built on.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky stands next to a Danish F-16 fighter jet in a tent at the Skrydstrup Airbase in Vojens.

Before the US presidential election, it could also be wise for both Russia and Ukraine to demonstrate a readiness to negotiate (whether serious or symbolic) since this could prove important if Donald Trump returns to the White House. Establishing the groundwork for a peace process from the outset might be in their interests in collaboration with peace-oriented nations worldwide. Without it, Trump could impose his vision of peace by arguing that there is no alternative mechanism.

If Trump follows through on his promise to end the war, his solution could more closely align with the status quo than with the position prior to February 2022 or even pre-2014. That is what Moscow will be hoping for. Without US weapons, Ukraine might feel compelled to concede the four regions (or parts thereof) in addition to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.

Showing flexibility

While Trump may not act solely to benefit Moscow, Ukrainian leaders can nevertheless pre-empt problems by proactively shifting their mentality.

Last week, a sign emerged that attitudes could be softening. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday at a press conference in Kyiv alongside Slovenian President Natasa Pirc Musar that he was drawing up a "comprehensive plan" for how Kyiv believes the war with Russia should end.

"It is very important for us to show a plan to end the war that will be supported by the majority of the world," Zelensky said on Friday. "This is the diplomatic route we are working on," he said at a press conference in Kyiv alongside Slovenian President Natasa Pirc Musar.

"We don't have too much time," he said, pointing to the high casualty rate amongst soldiers and civilians. Russia's troops are slowly advancing on the battlefield, claiming to have seized another small frontline village on Friday.

This shift in attitude will help all sides move away from the zero-sum mentality that currently prevails. Peace processes begin by demonstrating mutual readiness to step back from entrenched positions and maximalist stances, creating space for negotiation.

One potential starting point could be the Russian proposal shortly after the war began in 2022. This included international recognition of Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk as Russian, as well as the "demilitarisation" and "de-Nazification" of Ukraine. Furthermore, Kyiv would relinquish its NATO aspirations and give special status to regions with Russian minorities, which Russia subsequently laid claim to. Since then, Moscow's preconditions have only grown.

Its April 2022 position could be a starting point for serious peace negotiations. Ukrainian NATO membership was already several years away. If Trump wins, the alliance's underpinning one-for-all security guarantee could be at risk anyway.  

A settlement would allow Ukraine to focus on redevelopment and compensate its people for the hardships of war. It would also allow millions of Ukrainians currently living in Europe to return home. Adapting its stance could, therefore, serve Ukraine's interests. Russian participation may even be sought in the reconstruction. It sounds unlikely, but innovative peace agreements can throw up surprising results. However, if this remains a zero-sum game, the only result will be more suffering.

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