Bloody occupation or talks: Putin’s narrowing choices for Ukraine war endgame

Posted on : 2022-03-02 14:55 KST Modified on : 2022-03-02 14:55 KST
It’s a time-honored truth that wars are much more difficult to end than they are to begin
Ukrainian volunteers tear up cloth to fashion camouflage nets in Lviv, in western Ukraine, on Feb. 28. (AP/Yonhap News)
Ukrainian volunteers tear up cloth to fashion camouflage nets in Lviv, in western Ukraine, on Feb. 28. (AP/Yonhap News)

Russian President Vladimir Putin crossed the point of no return with his invasion of Ukraine on Thursday. Unexpectedly, however, he finds himself now having to ponder an exit strategy six days later after being met with fierce resistance from Ukrainians and harsh, concerted economic sanctions from the West.

It’s a time-honored truth that wars are much more difficult to end than they are to begin.

In a speech he gave when initiating hostilities on Feb. 24, Putin said he had no intention of occupying Ukraine. Using expressions such as “denazification” and “demilitarization,” he announced plans to punish the parties “responsible” for the situation.

His message signaled that he planned to decapitate the current Ukrainian administration under President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and establish a new, pro-Russian government

The US Department of Defense also came to the same conclusion after considering how Russia attempted to quickly strike and occupy the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv from the very first day of the war.

According to estimations, Russia plotted a “surgical attack” of Ukraine, sending airborne troops into Kyiv in order to take out the Zelenskyy administration with meticulous precision. However, the battle dragged on: Russian airborne troops that captured the Antonov airport in the outskirts of Kyiv in order to establish a bridgehead did not receive reinforcements, and Ukrainian forces recaptured the airport. Subsequently, an early capture of Kyiv is no longer an option for Russia.

Two paths remain for Russia from its current state of stalemate.

First, it can begin a relentless assault on Kyiv, even going so far as to engage in full-scale street fighting, in order to capture the Ukrainian capital. Based on several satellite images released so far, Russia has deployed a massive army spanning 25 kilometers in Kyiv’s outskirts. If this military force flouts global opinion and engages in all-out attacks, the Ukrainian military will not be able to sustain its goal of defending Kyiv.

While acknowledging that Russia hasn’t yet made as much progress as it set out to make by now, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said in a briefing that predicting how the war will unfold based on the resistance the Russian military has faced would be like entering “dangerous territory.” Some believe that this statement betrays the pessimistic view that Kyiv won’t be able to withstand Russia’s offensive.

The problem is that this first scenario entails unimaginable sacrifices as well as an inconceivable price. If ruthless attacks against the Ukrainian capital leads to massive civilian casualties, antiwar sentiments within the international community as well as within Russia may grow exponentially.

Moreover, advances in communications technology have allowed the world to watch what’s happening in Ukraine through the internet and social media. If, by any chance, a genocide takes place in Kyiv, the international community’s anti-Russian solidarity will only grow stronger. The rage and hate sowed in the hearts of Ukrainian citizens may make it practically impossible for Russia to rule over Ukraine after the war.

Hence, this first scenario can’t be an easy option for Russia. Putin said, “Ukraine [. . .] is an inalienable part of [Russian] history”; incidentally, over 10 million Russians live in Ukraine. Similarly, countless Ukrainians live in Russia as well. These people are interconnected through various family ties. Atrocious military operations against their “cousins” will prompt Russians to oppose the war in unforeseen proportions. Already, more than 6,000 have been arrested in Russia for antiwar protests as of Monday.

The second path open for Russia is to negotiate with the Zelenskyy administration, which is garnering unconditional support from the Ukrainian populace. Though the specifics of the negotiation weren’t disclosed, high-ranking representatives of the two countries met for talks for the first time on Monday, the fifth day of the war, at the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. According to Vladimir Medinsky, a close aide of Putin and the head of the Russian delegation, the meeting lasted nearly five hours, and the two sides “found certain points on which common positions could be foreseen” and agreed to hold the next meeting at the Polish-Belarusian border in the next few days.

If negotiations lead to Ukraine’s neutralization as Russia has consistently demanded, Russia can minimize resistance domestically and abroad through the Zelenskyy administration and establish the legitimacy of its future policies. Graeme Gill, professor emeritus of international relations at the University of Sydney, said in an interview with Al Jazeera that, considering Ukrainians’ animosity toward Russia, it would be more advantageous for Russia to retain the Zelenskyy administration in its negotiations.

What kind of decision Russia will make is intimately connected to what Putin’s end goal is.

Many possibilities remain open, from the recognition of self-declared republics founded by pro-Russian forces in the eastern Donbas region, to the establishment of a federal government in Ukraine, which would mean the de facto division of Ukraine.

One thing remains certain: time is not on Putin’s side. The later a decision is reached, the fewer options will remain for Russia in the endgame of the war in Ukraine.

By Jung E-gil, senior staff writer

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