Russia-Ukraine Talks Are a Russian Sideshow
Russia wants political gains beyond solely Ukrainian neutrality
On Monday, delegations from Ukraine and Russia will meet for talks near the Ukraine-Belarus border. While these talks may seem promising, they are likely a Russian sideshow. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said, “I will say frankly, as always: I do not really believe in the result of this meeting, but let them try.” Russia’s core demand in a peace deal is Ukrainian neutrality—that is, Ukrainian self-prohibition from membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (and likely the European Union). However, Russia’s current military operations, losses, and disposition indicate that Russia wants political gains beyond solely Ukrainian neutrality, making Russia-Ukraine talks a Russian diversion.
Russia’s current military operations grant Russia leverage in extracting concessions beyond solely Ukrainian neutrality. Russia has practically surrounded Kiev, Kharkiv, and Mariupol. Sustaining these operations provides leverage in extracting significant gains, like Ukraine’s demilitarization. However presently, Zelensky would likely reject demilitarization, but Russia can possibly attain Ukrainian demilitarization by sustaining military operations. During Monday’s talks, Russia will probably escalate military operations, revealing Russia’s intentions to militarily pursue its goals. In fact, Chechen Leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said, “The time has come to make a concrete decision and start a large-scale operation in all directions and territories of Ukraine.”
Russia’s current military losses agitate against Russia agreeing to a deal solely establishing Ukrainian neutrality. While the numbers are likely inflated, the Kyiv Independent reported—on early February 27—Russian losses of 4,300 troops, 706 armored personnel carriers, and 146 tanks. Putin needs serious political gains to justify such serious military losses. Notably, the costs of pursuing political gains beyond Ukrainian neutrality are now relatively limited. Western nations have practically levied their entire economic arsenals against Russia (except for sanctions on Russian crude oil, which the Biden Administration will not target). Thus, if Putin seeks to conquer all of Ukraine, the costs are relatively limited.
Russia’s current military disposition of nearly 200,000 troops in and around Ukraine suggests Russia wants political gains beyond solely Ukrainian neutrality. Possibly, this force size is sufficient for an occupation. For instance, during the 2007 US troop surge in Iraq—which has a comparable population to Ukraine—US troops reached 168,000. Russia is currently increasing its military forces in Ukraine, with nearly 70 percent of Russia’s initial military force around Ukraine now in Ukraine. Occupation eliminates risks from a Ukrainian neutrality deal. With neutrality, Ukraine can still increase its military power and eventually break its neutrality commitment, since Russia would struggle to compel Ukrainian neutrality.
Russia’s current military operations, losses, and disposition indicate that Russia wants political gains beyond solely Ukrainian neutrality, making Russia-Ukraine talks a Russian diversion. In fact, immediately after agreeing to Russia-Ukraine talks, Putin set another diversion: he placed Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert. Nonetheless, Russia did agree to meet without preconditions after stating it would only meet following Ukrainian military surrender. Therefore, Russia and Ukraine may agree to additional talks or a temporary ceasefire (during which Russia would buttress its military positions). Yet, Russia wants further military gains for further political gains. Thus, the Monday talks will likely be a Russian diversion—a Russian sideshow.