After failing to capture Ukrainian capital, Russia may be setting new military targets
In the 22 years that Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia, his ability to start wars with his neighbours has always exceeded his interest or ability in ending them.
Russia's borders are cluttered by unresolved or frozen conflicts — from the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine to the Abkhazia and South Ossetia provinces of Georgia.
All are examples of the Kremlin invading or sending in its troops and then never leaving.
The ceasefires aimed at pausing Russian military advances simply became permanent features, heavily weighted in Russia's favour.
Which is why now, even as the civilian injury and death toll mounts, so many Ukrainians are resolutely opposed to agreeing to a ceasefire with Russia so long as its troops continue to occupy Ukrainian territory.
"Ukraine doesn't want this scenario, and that is why the majority believe there should not be a ceasefire unless there is a Russian withdrawal," said Orysia Lutsevych, manager of the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House, a British foreign policy think-tank in London.
"If there is a tactical pause or a ceasefire or a conflict that freezes because Russia decides it doesn't want to fight anymore, then Russia will regroup and strike back in one or two years," Lutsevych, who's originally from Lviv, Ukraine, told CBC News in an interview.
Some observers wary of Russia at talks
On Tuesday, Russian and Ukrainian negotiators left the latest round of so-called peace talks in Turkey on what appeared to be an upbeat note, with both sides suggesting there had been progress.
Russia would begin to withdraw its military forces around the capital Kyiv, as well as the northern city of Chernihiv, to "increase mutual trust" and "create conditions for further negotiations," according to one top Russian official.
For its part, Ukraine said it would leave the contentious issue of the status of the Crimean Peninsula — seized by Russia in 2014 — for another round of discussions that could take up to 15 years, effectively sidelining the question.
Negotiators for President Volodymyr Zelensky outlined a scenario where Ukraine would remain neutral, would not host foreign armies on its soil and would not join the Western military alliance NATO.
Instead, Ukraine would have its security guaranteed by a series of bilateral treaties with Western nations, possibly including Canada.
The Ukrainian proposal calls for Russia not to block its aspirations to join the European Union.
Russia's top negotiator in Turkey, Vladimir Medinsky, met reporters afterwards, read Ukraine's proposal into the record and then said it would be taken to Putin for discussion.
Russia's stated war aims have been the "denazification" and "demilitarization" of Ukraine, although what any of that really means has never been spelled out in detail.
American defence officials have said they believe Russia's goal was in fact to "decapitate" Ukraine's leadership by pressing hard on the Ukrainian capital in the early days of the invasion and capturing key members of the government, including Zelensky.
Zelensky told interviewers this week that Ukrainian troops discovered that Russian soldiers had even brought dress uniforms along with them in their tanks, presumably to wear at a victory parade after they captured Kyiv.
Instead, the Russian push on the city faltered, and more than a month after the Feb. 24 invasion, Russia's army has achieved few of its objectives — and at a terrible human cost.
NATO estimated last week that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed since the invasion began and that 30,000 to 40,000 Russian soldiers are estimated to have been killed or wounded.
After Tuesday's meeting in Istanbul, international stock markets surged and the Russian ruble gained strength at the possibility that the outlines of a peace deal might be taking shape.
UN seeks humanitarian ceasefire in Ukraine
United Nations Secretary General António Guterres says this is a good moment for the UN to seize the initiative in pushing for a humanitarian ceasefire in Ukraine.1:28
But Lutsevych and many other longtime Russia-watchers fear Putin may be laying a trap for war-weary Ukrainians and their supporters overseas.
"My reading is that they are still willing to pursue a military scenario to achieve political concessions," she said.
Lutsevych says she believes the most likely scenario is that the Russian generals need to reorganize and reposition their troops to either take another run at capturing the capital or to refocus their attack on the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which together make up the Donbas.
Ukraine has set 'new military reality'
Chris Alexander, a former Canadian diplomat who served in Moscow and later became a federal Conservative cabinet minister, says the best explanation is that the Russians need to hit the pause button on parts of their military operation that have gone poorly.
"This is a gesture for negotiation, but it's also a pullback that is a military necessity for the Russians — and it's not unlike them to make it look generous when it's really compelled," he said.
"I think it's a diplomatic expression of the new military reality that Ukraine has established."
Opinion polls throughout the war have consistently shown that Ukrainians expect their military will eventually prevail over Russia — and even that the regions of Donbas and Crimea, which were held by Russia before the invasion, will be returned to them after Russian forces are driven out.
The western city of Lviv has become a hub for internal refugees fleeing the Russian attacks in the east — and among those who have fled, it's hard to find much support for Ukraine cutting a deal with Russia to end the fighting.
"The territory of Ukraine is all one, you cannot divide it," said Danilo Blizniuk, a chemical engineer who was living in a Ukrainian-controlled region of Luhansk before Russian forces bombed and destroyed his family's home.
"I think compromise is impossible," he told CBC News, adding that he believes Russia's army "has no strength" and is "not capable."
But while Ukraine's army has proven a more formidable opponent than clearly Russia — and even some Western nations — expected, whether it can transition from defence to offence and reclaim Russian-held territory is unknown.
Kremlin has accepted 'military limitations'
Prior to Russia's announcement that it would pull back its forces from Kyiv, Ukraine's army had launched some successful counterattacks against dug-in Russian positions near the capital, which bodes well, says Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in New York.
"They are having some success. They are retaking some towns."
Lee had been tracking Russia's troop buildup in advance of its invasion of Ukraine for almost a year and accurately predicted how it might unfold.
Russian potential for major offensives in Ukraine 'exhausted,' says analyst
Russian forces have taken a 'severe beating' from Ukrainian forces and do not have enough manpower to replace soldiers at the front, says Konrad Muzyka, an independent defence analyst in Gdańsk, Poland.7:40
He says with superiority in air power, Russia should be able to prevent Ukrainian ground forces from massing together and organizing for counterattacks — and yet its air force has been unable to do so, mirroring the poor performance of other aspects of Russia's military in Ukraine.
"I don't think they [Ukraine] can totally kick out Russian forces. But they can push back in certain places," Lee said.
If Russian forces do pull back from Kyiv, they will most likely be redeployed to the eastern Donbas area in an effort to encircle Ukrainian troops there, he said.
The risk of doing that is that the encirclement tactic may not work and in the process free up Ukraine's army to recapture other territory in the north and south. But Lee says it's unclear how severe Ukraine's combat losses have been and also how quickly it has been able to mobilize and equip new divisions.
"You can train untrained soldiers to defend. It's harder to train them how to attack."
Nonetheless, Lee says he believes that with its statements on Tuesday, the Kremlin has reluctantly accepted that there are "military limitations" on the goals Russia can achieve in Ukraine — and therefore, a negotiated settlement is the only option left for Russia's leadership.
But before that happens, he expects the Kremlin will try to grab and hold as much Ukrainian territory as possible to strengthen its bargaining position.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.
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