First Signs of Hope the Russia – Ukraine War Could End – but More Pointless Fighting Likely: The first major steps towards ending the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian War came into focus on Tuesday when both sides emerged from the negotiating table in Istanbul, Turkey with each making fairly major concessions. As with any negotiations in a wartime situation, however, each side will likely continue to press its military on the battlefield to extract the best negotiating position possible over its adversary.
Since both the Russians and the Ukrainians suffer from each passing day, it is a race to see where the negotiations will reach equilibrium whereby each side feels it has gotten all it can of its preferred outcomes, acknowledging to itself that any further delay will only increase its cost without providing any further benefit.
After emerging from the Istanbul meetings, the Ukraine delegation announced it was willing to “defer” any discussion on Crimea for 15 years, and likewise will not demand an immediate return of the Donbas. Kyiv’s negotiators also agreed to seek a neutral status and forego NATO membership, among other positions. Russian negotiators agreed to immediately reduce combat operations around Kyiv and Chernihiv, as well as suggesting it will agree to Article-5 like security guarantees for Ukraine.
The concessions of both sides represent major progress and make the chances of a full ceasefire and eventual treaty ending the fighting a realistic possibility. But peace is still a long way off, and neither side has offered to stop the fighting beyond Kyiv and Chernihiv. As subsequent rounds continue, each side will surely continue trying to extract negotiating advantage over its opponents by pressing militarily on fights elsewhere in the theater. Russia, it is now clear, has chosen to put all its efforts into securing as much of the Donbas as possible prior to a ceasefire.
On Sunday, before the Istanbul meeting, Russia’s First Deputy of the General Staff Col. Gen. Sergey F. Rudskoy, held a press briefing in which he laid examined the Russian military’s progress over the first month of the war. The Russian general claimed that Putin’s troops had blocked – but not captured – Kyiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, and other major Ukrainian cities because their aim was to cause “damage to military infrastructure, equipment, (and) personnel of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” and to “tie down their forces and prevent them from strengthening their groupings in the Donbas.”
For the past couple of weeks, Russian forces have generally maintained their positions west and north of Kyiv but have not attempted a general assault on the city. After initial incursions into some of the suburbs of Sumy and Kharkiv, Russian troops likewise have stabilized a forward line but have not attempted a general assault of any of the cities.
Instead, they have continued to hammer at the defenders with harassing artillery strikes, periodic rocket fire, and some precision strikes on military infrastructure. Meanwhile, in the Donbas, there is a growing danger not merely that the Russian forces may capture the territory, but that they may encircle or destroy a large concentration of Ukrainian troops.
Evidence suggests that Russia has prioritized the Donbas fight against all others in the theater, possibly as a means to complete their physical capture prior to any end-of-hostilities agreement – and to keep pressure on Zelensky to reach an agreement on terms more agreeable to Putin. The Russian side appears to have gained a major boost on Monday when the major of Mariupol reportedly announced that the Russians had finally taken that city. That will almost immediately free up thousands of Russian troops to join the southern side of the Donbas attack, putting the Ukrainian troops there at increased risk.
I assess that if Russia is able to complete the capture of the UAF units in the Donbas pocket (reported to be upwards of 40,000 troops), it could put the entire northern arc of defense for the Ukrainian Armed Forces at risk. If Russia were to eliminate UAF resistance in the Donbas, they would then have the capacity to turn that entire force northwest to attack the Ukrainian defenders south of Kharkiv from the rear. The Russian units north of Kharkiv could then resume its attack of the city and then the UAF troops would be trapped between enemy forces attacking simultaneously from the front and rear. It would be very difficult for any defenders to endure such a vice-grip type assault.
If that assault succeeded in defeating the UAF troops in Kharkiv, then the combined weight of both Russian axis could move west to begin an assault against the Ukrainian defenders of Sumy, again joining Moscow’s troops currently in position north of the city, and would likely defeat that group as well. Taking those three objectives would leave Kyiv completely isolated, allowing Russian troops to completely surround and cut off the capital city, and virtually no UAF forces would be left to come to their rescue.
As events in #Ukraine make tentative steps towards diplomatic resolution, the fighting will likely continue. #Russia is putting all its efforts into a push to take all the Donbas before a ceasefire. I explain the danger for Ukraine @FoxNews @defpriorities https://t.co/WCmMuCd4AT
— Daniel L. Davis (@DanielLDavis1) March 29, 2022
Zelensky no doubt realizes the precarious position under which his forces languish in the Donbas and he has an incentive to reach a ceasefire quickly to keep them from falling. Putin is painfully aware that fierce Ukrainian resistance will continue to extract a terrible toll on his troops if they have to complete the battle in the Donbas, and he too has the motivation to end the fighting quickly.
For the sake of the people of Ukraine – and the millions that have been driven from their homes – I hope both Moscow and Kyiv recognize there is nothing of substance to gain at this point from continued fighting. The core elements of an agreement have come into focus and both sides could come to an agreement in days. No more Ukrainian troops or citizens should have to die for a war that is effectively over – and should never have been fought. There will be much time to assess blame and punishment, especially for Putin, in the months ahead. But the first order of business is to end the war.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1