Ukraine-Russia war. Has the moment come to consider negotiating?

In the months before Russia – Ukraine war, many European leaders buried their heads in the sand, refusing to acknowledge the impending threat of war. Now, with the conflict into its third year, they don’t dare speak about peace. When Pope Francis floated the idea on March 9 that negotiations might be necessary, given that Ukraine had failed to oust Russian forces from its territory, he raised an issue almost nobody in Europe’s power centers wanted to discuss. It also came at an acutely sensitive moment in the conflict for Kyiv.

At this point in time, Russia appears to be on a winning curve. It has a double advantage: in ammunition and in manpower. The Russian military-industrial complex is working at full capacity, churning out materiel. Russia is also receiving shells and equipment from friendly regimes, such as North Korea and Iran.

Ukraine, meanwhile, is hobbled by the US Congress’s inability to pass the financial assistance package tabled by President Joe Biden back in October, which is critical for supplying Kyiv’s forces with weapons and equipment. EU members cannot fill the resulting gap in ammunition stocks because they have not managed to scale up military-industrial output. In addition, Ukraine faces a troop shortage, having kept the minimum recruitment age fixed at 27 years old.

The disparity is starting to show on the battlefield. The Ukrainian army’s much-expected summer and autumn counteroffensive ground to a halt, failing to punch through the Russian defensive lines in the Zaporizhia province and Donbas.

Recently, Ukrainians had to withdraw from the town of Avdiivka, close to Donetsk, handing a symbolic win to Putin. They are facing pressure in other parts of the front, too, including near Kreminna and Kupiansk, which Ukrainian forces recovered in a blitz offensive in the autumn of 2022.

With Russia gaining momentum, voices arguing that Ukraine should sue for peace are beginning to emerge. The argument they make is that Kyiv should accept Putin’s terms now because it would be in an even weaker position going forward.

With former U.S. President Donald Trump fast approaching another attempt to occupy the White House later this year and European governments running out of ammunition, a question has emerged that is likely to recur in the coming months: Has the moment come to seriously consider negotiating with Vladimir Putin?

While being asked with that question, many Western officials are reacting with dismay.

“Some Central European countries are very emotional about the idea of a peace conference,” one EU official explained. “They are still afraid that they will be next once we give in to Putin.”

The war, which has killed more than 30,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 10,000 civilians, has also transformed Europe’s security landscape. Sweden and Finland have both joined NATO, and European governments are fortifying their defenses with more spending and greater cooperation between countries.

But Ukraine and its allies in Europe know their efforts will stall without one thing above all: the backing of the United States. Unlike in Europe and the U.K., in Washington the topic of negotiations is not taboo.

Although U.S. officials insist they will not engage in any talks without Ukraine, Trump, who holds a narrow poll lead over current President Joe Biden, has said he’d end the war in 24 hours. Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán has claimed Trump will cut funding to Ukraine immediately if he wins power.

Republicans in Congress have refused to sign off on a new package of aid for Kyiv, with some surveys suggesting a majority of Trump’s supporters oppose further help for Ukraine.

In public Putin has claimed he’s open to negotiations to end the “tragedy” of the war. He dangled the offer of a cease-fire at the G20 summit in November, and told American interviewer Tucker Carlson in January that he was open to dialogue.

In private, some voices in European administrations recognize the eventual need for negotiations.

“We have to be realistic,” the official said. “At a certain point, we will have to start talking about peace and potentially even about giving up a piece of land.”

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