Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits soldiers at the Kupiansk front line on Nov. 30, 2023, in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
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Russia has been absent from gatherings focused on the peace proposals and criticized recent talks in Malta in October, describing them as anti-Russian and counterproductive. Russia’s ally China, seen to be one of the few countries that could influence Moscow’s position on Ukraine, also skipped the talks.
Whether the latest peace-focused summit can bear any fruit is uncertain. Political and military experts say that with the war in a very much active phase, and with neither side having the upper hand in the conflict, peace plans and future talks are “wishful thinking” at this time.
“Some people are suggesting that we might have gotten to the point where there is no more that can be achieved on the battlefield and so the only option is to sit down and negotiate. I think that’s wishful thinking,” Sam Greene, a professor in Russian politics at King’s College London, told CNBC.
“It is true that the battlefield isn’t moving very far in one direction or the other but the reality is that there’s a lot going on on the battlefield that’s keeping it exactly where it is … There’s a lot of fighting going on. That indicates that both sides feel there is more that they can achieve, and need to achieve, on the battlefield.”
The priorities in Ukraine’s peace formula are the withdrawal of all Russian troops from its territory, and the complete restoration of its territorial integrity before Russia’s invasion almost two years ago — and before its annexation of Crimea in 2014. The release of all Ukrainian prisoners, nuclear safety and food and energy security are also elements of the plan.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is set to use the backdrop of the annual economic forum in Davos to galvanize support for his peace formula as the war hurtles toward its second anniversary.
A Ukrainian tank destroyed by artillery shelling on Dec. 31, 2023, in Avdiivka, Ukraine.
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Ukraine’s Western partners have reaffirmed their support for Kyiv but the outlook for continuing military aid looks shaky in both the U.S. and Europe. The forthcoming U.S. presidential election could also change attitudes toward Ukraine and stymie funding.
Concerns are growing over just how much more aid Ukraine will need to change the dial in the war after a highly anticipated counteroffensive failed to meet expectations. Fighting remains intense in southern and eastern Ukraine, where Russian units are deeply entrenched, preventing Ukraine’s forces from making significant advances.
Meanwhile, both sides continue to pursue offensive operations at a great cost to their personnel, with several hundred thousand troops on both sides estimated by U.S. intelligence to have been killed or wounded.
Political and military experts stress that most wars end with some kind of diplomacy and negotiations, and an eventual political solution, whether the participants like it or not. They note that neither Russia nor Ukraine seems to be at a point where a political resolution is palatable, however.
“You never want to go to the negotiation table without having the upper hand in a conflict,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Twitty, former deputy commander of the U.S. European Command, told CNBC.
“Because if you go with the upper hand, you’re able to dictate and control what comes out of the negotiations. In this case, neither side has the upper hand.”
For Twitty, Ukraine’s disappointing counteroffensive last summer was a missed opportunity. He noted that “had the Ukrainians breached the obstacle [defensive] belt and cut Russia’s land bridge [to Crimea] over the summer, they would have definitely had the upper hand.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin making a speech at the second Eurasian Economic Forum on May 24, 2023, in Moscow, Russia.
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“The challenge for Ukraine is to make it seem like Russia cannot achieve its aims militarily and so it comes to any negotiations, if and when they happen, from a position of relative strength,” Sam Cranny-Evans, defense analyst at the Royal United Services Institute defense think tank, told CNBC.
“[But] if Putin feels like the Russian armed forces can still deliver the political goals that he’s set, then there’s not a lot of impetus to negotiate, or the mindset that he’ll come to negotiations with will be very hard.”
CNBC has contacted the Kremlin for comment on this story and is awaiting a response.
Both Russia and Ukraine have repeatedly said they want the war to end — but on their terms. Even the prospect of a ceasefire is a thorny subject, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warning Thursday that a ceasefire now would only give Russia the chance to regroup and replenish its units and weapons stocks.
“Talking about a ceasefire in Ukraine, it would not constitute peace. It would not mean the war would stop. It also provides no opportunity for political dialogue,” Zelenskyy said on a visit to Estonia.
For its part, the Kremlin said in December that it saw no current basis for peace talks, and called Kyiv’s peace plan an “absurd process” as it excluded Russia.
Even if talks were to take place, the obstacles to peace are significant, with neither side willing to abandon so-called “red lines” made clear early on in the war during ill-fated peace talks brokered by Belarus and Turkey.
Two years of brutal warfare and pseudo-political territorial consolidation by Russia since those early negotiations have hardened both sides’ positions, with little room for compromise.
One big stumbling block in any potential peace talks now is their respective positions on territorial integrity. Russia’s self-declared “annexation” of four Ukrainian regions — Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson — in September 2022, and its subsequent “Russification” of those territories, makes it difficult to imagine Moscow relinquishing in any peace talks what it has proclaimed as “Russian territory.”
Russia holds elections in illegally occupied parts of Ukraine, including Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.
Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
For Ukraine, accepting the loss of those regions would be tantamount to a Russian victory, and an acceptance of the possibility that Russia could seize more of Ukraine in future.
Geopolitical risk analyst and Europe, Russia & CIS expert Mario Bikarski, said “asking Ukraine to formally cede territory will be very politically unpopular, first of all Ukraine for obvious reasons, but also among Western countries, because that will undermine the fundamentals of international law.”
“It will be a really difficult thing to ask Ukraine to do because then you basically say that your own sovereignty can be subject to change under pressure. And that is I don’t think this is something that many countries will want to do. It is a difficult situation,” he said. “With the current circumstances, there is no workable solution in sight that can appeal to both sides.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, center, is escorted by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to his meeting on military aid with U.S. Senators in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, December 12, 2023.
Bill Clark | Cq-roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images
While Ukraine’s international partners have vowed to continue supporting Ukraine militarily, pressure is slowly starting to mount on Kyiv that a diplomatic solution to the war must be found — although Zelenskyy insisted this week that there was no international pressure on Ukraine to stop fighting.
Ceding territory would be unthinkable for Ukraine’s leadership, a former diplomat told CNBC.
“I know that a lot of people believe that … Ukraine is going to have to negotiate and they’re going to have to give up some territory. But honestly, I don’t see how Zelenskyy can do that and remain as president, he would be ousted if he agreed to give away territory,” said Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO.