Pope’s ‘secret’ peace plan underscores NATO’s lack of a political strategy on Ukraine

The Pope is getting involved in widespread efforts to bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table. People on all sides of the conflict want peace. But many Ukrainians, and some of their supporters in the West, regard the timing of such pleas for negotiations with deep suspicion.

As Ukraine prepares a spring counteroffensive, the experts say it's time to start pushing Russia to negotiate

Ukraine's Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, left, meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican on April 27, 2023.

As Ukraine prepares to unleash its long-anticipated counter-offensive, an important (some might say divine) voice is floating the notion of peace talks to end the war with Russia.

The Vatican revealed last weekend that it's pushing behind the scenes for negotiations — an initiative that follows on China's somewhat vague but high-profile bid last winter to nudge the brutal, 14-month-old conflict toward negotiations.

On Sunday, following a visit to Hungary and a meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Pope Francis spoke of a secret peace "mission" involving Russia's war on Ukraine.

Francis offered no details but told journalists travelling with him that he's "available to do anything" to bring about a negotiated settlement.

People on all sides of the conflict want peace. But many Ukrainians, and some of their supporters in the West, regard the timing of such pleas for negotiations — just as Ukraine moves up to nine new western-equipped combat brigades into position to retake land seized in the early days of the 2022 invasion — with deep suspicion.

For them, the impulse to dismiss the current round of peace overtures — to treat them as playing into Moscow's strategy of dividing the West and forcing negotiations to consolidate Moscow's hold on occupied territory — is strong.

Putin's plan is to drag it out, says diplomat

But one of Canada's former top diplomats says this country does have a role to play in getting Moscow to the negotiating table — on Ukraine's terms.

Kerry Buck, who served as Canada's ambassador to NATO, recently told a House of Commons committee that Russian President Vladimir Putin "has more people to throw at the war in Ukraine and less to lose" — which could make for a very long war.

A wounded soldier lies on a hospital bed as a medical professional leans over him.

"A long, grinding war of attrition is in Russia's interests and, in fact, may be their strategy," Buck told the Commons defence committee last month. "They've said as much publicly, hoping to see support from the West start to crumble."

She said Canada has a role to play in pursuing peace both inside and outside of NATO. She said Ottawa could be reaching out to Russia's allies — countries that may hold sway with Putin even though "we may find their positioning less palatable."

Countries such as China and India could be "useful interlocutors with Russia," said Buck — who also noted more broadly that the capacity and institutional expertise of Canada's diplomatic corps needs to be rebuilt at the same time.

"We have to talk to some of the countries that have leverage with Russia, and that is going to be key to bringing about some kind of peace settlement at some point when President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy calls for a peace settlement," she said.

Kerry Buck, Canada's ambassador to NATO, addresses a news conference at the Halifax International Security Forum in Halifax on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017.

Buck said Global Affairs Canada needs China experts and people "who are close to India who can help apply some pressure to Russia and other places." She said it will take a "full-court press to convince President Putin that it's time to down arms and come to a table."

What NATO lacks at the moment, said one international expert in land warfare, is a "coherent political strategy" to match its effective military strategy in eastern Europe.

Jack Watling, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told the same Commons defence committee that Ukraine can win the shooting war — that it can achieve all its military objectives on the ground in the upcoming counteroffensive and push Russian forces out of the country.

Beating Russia may not be enough

But simply beating Russia on the battlefield won't ensure peace, said Watling. A defeated Moscow could still use its navy to blockade Ukraine's coastline. It could continue to fire missiles at Ukrainian cities — as it did this past weekend — on a semi-regular basis.

"It could still keep Ukrainian airspace closed, essentially denying Ukraine's ability to have an economy," he said. "And so, unless we have a political strategy that forces the Russian government to believe that it will gain more by negotiating in earnest … there isn't an easy end to this problem set."

A damaged building is shown in the foreground as fire and smoke fill the sky in the background

The biggest obstacle to achieving a clear allied vision of the post-war peace, said Watling, is the fact that "a number of different countries in [NATO] have a different vision of what the outcome" of the war should look like.

There is no such lack of clarity on the part of Ukrainians themselves, as their ambassador to Canada Yuliya Kovaliv made clear last week to MPs on the Commons foreign affairs committee.

"Ukraine seeks peace but Ukraine seeks real peace," Kovaliv said. "Ukraine — President Zelenskyy — developed and presented a peace formula that has 10 points and the most crucial of them is the restoration of Ukrainian borders, bringing justice."

A serviceman salutes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as he is awarded a medal in Trostianets in the Sumy region of Ukraine, Tuesday March 28, 2023.

Zelenskyy's conditions for peace, put before the United Nations last year, include the complete withdrawal of Russian troops, the establishment of a special tribunal to prosecute Russian war crimes and a commitment to de-mining.

"This is the framework for future peace," Kovaliv said. "What Ukraine offered to every country was a peace plan that is actually based on international rules and order."

On Monday, Zelenskyy spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — who, according to an official readout from Trudeau's office, "expressed support for Ukraine's diplomatic efforts toward a just peace." The statement noted Zelenskyy will participate virtually in the upcoming G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan.

Watling said the next few weeks will decide the fate of the counter-offensive — and the counter-offensive itself will decide the future direction of the war.

And that's why the timing of these peace overtures is significant.

'The next few months are going to be … critical'

Because of the "low morale and poor training quality of its soldiers," said Watling, "ultimately, Russia lacks leverage because it is losing ground and losing people on the battlefield. And that is the thing that we have to make sure continues.

"We can't let them have a ceasefire where they can put their mobilized troops through deliberate training and therefore improve their capabilities. And we also can't let them start to grind away the Ukrainians [with] attritional fighting because the Ukrainians lack the firepower to hold them back."

Russia has invested heavily in creating a fortified line throughout the south and east of Ukraine in territory it captured early in the war. If that defensive line is breached, it could set off a cascade of events, Watling said.

"The next few months are going to be absolutely critical because if the Ukrainians are able to get the Russians moving backwards, the Russian command and control system is likely to make that a very chaotic process. Their headquarters are 120 kilometres from the front," he said.

"If that can happen, then we might start seeing quite a rapid breakdown of the Russian defensive positions."

On the other hand, Watling said, if the Ukrainians "are not able to breach those obstacle belts that the Russians are building, and they lose those units — or suffer attrition in those units that have the skills to do obstacle-breaching — then this could become a very, very protracted attritional fight."

Ukrainian military fires from a multiple rocket launcher at Russian positions in the Kharkiv area, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023. The Biden administration declared its Ukraine solidarity with fresh action as well as strong words on Friday, piling sweeping new sanctions on Moscow and approving a new $2 billion weapons package to re-arm Kyiv a year after Russia's invasion.

If the counter-offensive results in a renewed war of attrition, he said, the advantage slides over to the Russians.

Ukraine continues to ask its western allies for heavy military equipment — tanks and artillery, combat aircraft.

Watling told the four-party Commons defence committee that the biggest challenge Ukraine faces is finding spare parts.

"Actually, it's boring, but it's hundreds and hundreds of different very small spare parts for which the Ukrainians don't have the intellectual property," he said.

"If they don't have the [technical drawings] to be able to produce them, they don't know the heat treatment or the tolerances. That is leading to a lot of their own equipment … Soviet legacy equipment breaking down, but also the equipment that's being provided by the international community breaking down."

Because of equipment shortages, Watling said, "Ukrainian commanders are having to decide between sending a howitzer back to Poland and not knowing when it's going to come back to them" or using equipment that is damaged.

"I think this is a very, very under-appreciated aspect that we are struggling to follow through on."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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