View from Washington: Ukraine war will end in surrender. There will not be negotiations with Zelensky

11:47 03.07.2024 •

The Ukraine war will end in a surrender, not in a negotiated deal. That is my sense of where the war is headed and why the parties cannot negotiate a settlement, writes Stephen Bryen, a former US Deputy Under Secretary of Defense.

The latest wrinkle in the missing negotiating saga is a declaration, in the form of an interview given by Volodymyr Zelensky to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Zelensky says there can't be direct negotiations between Ukraine and Russia but there could be indirect negotiations through a third party where Ukraine and Russia will not only have the third party as an intermediary, but any deal will only be with the intermediary, not Russia or Ukraine. Zelensky suggested maybe the UN could act in this role.

The Zelensky proposal is a non-starter for many reasons, but the biggest one is that warring states need to directly agree on ending a conflict. There is no hope of a third party implementing any deal, as the Minsk agreements (2014, 2015) prove. Minsk was a hybrid case, where the deal was signed by Russia, Ukraine and by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Ukraine refused to implement the deal, and the OSCE proved toothless and unwilling to try and enforce the Minsk accords. The deal was given political backing by Germany and France, although neither was a signatory and Germany and France were not legally obliged in any manner to support the resulting deal.

Zelensky's "proposal" really is just another smokescreen to deflect criticism of Ukraine for not wanting a settlement with Russia. There are three strong forces keeping Zelensky from the negotiating table.

The most important is that the main Anglo-Saxon players in NATO, namely the US and the UK, strongly oppose any negotiations with Russia. The US has done everything it can, using sanctions and diplomatic measures, to prevent any dialog with Russia on any subject (other than prisoner exchanges). 

The second reason is Ukrainian legislation, sponsored by Zelensky, prohibiting negotiations with Russia. The Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine's parliament) could rescind that legislation in a nanosecond if Zelensky asked them to do so, but he won't. Zelensky completely controls the Ukrainian parliament, has arrested or exiled opposition politicians, and he controls the press and other media. Zelensky's iron fist means that he won't personally allow direct negotiations.

Zelensky also has signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin.

The third reason relates to pressure on Zelensky from hard-right nationalists, including especially the neo-Nazi Azov brigade (banned in Russia). Direct evidence for this is the firing of Lieutenant General Yuri Sodol, the top commander of Kiev's forces in the Kharkov (Ukr. Kharkiv) area. Sodol was accused by Azov brigade leaders of killing more Ukrainians than the Russians in the Kharkov battles. Azov took their message to the Rada, and Zelensky obliged them by firing Sodol.

The Russians say that Zelensky himself is not a negotiating partner because his term of office expired in May. There is some confusion about the legal situation in Ukraine, but experts in and outside Ukraine think that since Zelensky completed his term the leadership of the country should pass to the Speaker of the Rada. Ruslan Stefanchuk is the Rada speaker and he is becoming more politically active, but he has not opposed Zelensky continuing in power.

Meanwhile, given the battlefield situation, the Russians no doubt figure that the time will soon come when the Ukrainian army either collapses or surrenders, or both. In either case, the Ukrainian government will need to be replaced in some manner, perhaps with an interim military leadership selected by Russia. That would allow the Russians to formulate a capitulation agreement with the replacement government.

A surrender by Ukraine's army and an agreement with a replacement government would make continued NATO involvement in Ukraine impossible. That could open the door, finally, to a security dialog between NATO and Russia once NATO digests what happened and why. Unfortunately, loading NATO with has-been political leaders like Marc Rutte, does not bode well for the future of the alliance.

The key message for NATO if the Russians win in Ukraine, as seems more and more likely, is that NATO has to stop its expansion and look for a more stable arrangement with Russia in Europe.


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