What Does the Beginning of the End Look Like in Ukraine?

Cipher Brief Expert View

Nick Fishwick CMG retired after nearly thirty years in the British Foreign Service. His postings included Lagos, Istanbul and Kabul. His responsibilities in London included director of security and, after returning from Afghanistan in 2007, he served as director for counter-terrorism. His final role was as director general for international operations.

View all articles by Nick Fishwick

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — The disastrous Russian invasion of Ukraine is now edging into its tenth month. Is there an endgame in sight?

Most of the world joined Ukraine in celebrating its recapture of Kherson. The Russians have been driven back across the Dnieper and given up the only city that their offensive earlier in the year won them. So, the profit/loss ledger for Russian President Vladimir Putin has just got more negative.

His Ukrainian opposite number, President Volodymyr Zelensky, visiting Kherson on 14 November, called for peace. But he added that he meant “peace for our whole country” and denounced Russian war crimes during Moscow’s eight-month occupation of the city.

Ukraine is clear that it is not ready to stop fighting and no-one is keen to pressure them to do so. The US has had to reaffirm its solidarity with Ukrainian aims after the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, appeared to suggest that it might be time to start negotiating with Russia.

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It seems to me that “peace negotiations” are not likely to happen now but at some point, a de facto truce at least has to come. Ukraine has given the supposedly mighty Russian military machine a sustained clobbering; instead of occupying Kiev and the whole of Ukraine, Russia has been driven back east. It is clearly never going to achieve the objectives that underlay the intervention in February. But it is unlikely to be driven much further east, and it is inconceivable that it will give up Crimea.

President Putin cannot afford to end the invasion with less Ukrainian territory than he held in February. That will not be politically survivable. So, Russia will spend the winter trying to get its war machine, at last, fit for purpose.

Voices across the west are questioning whether the current status quo of military force and Russian occupation is likely to change very much in Ukraine over the winter and whether renewed Russian military action next year will lead to anything other than more misery.

The Russians cannot win, but they cannot lose.

As the conflict drags on, the astonishing costs escalate. Tens of thousands of lives lost; the cost of sanctions to Russia, the cost of rebuilding Ukraine; climate change imperatives, sidelined; and as we see, a conflict of this sort in a modern global trading economy has catastrophic economic effects which have brought chronic pain to us in Europe, and to others elsewhere.

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What we are seeing now may at least be the end of the beginning. Putin is stuck. CIA head Bill Burns meets his SVR opposite number Sergei Naryshkin. Not to “negotiate”, but at least to make some things plain, face to face, about nuclear threats.

The venue, Turkey, may be one that we see more of next year. US President Joe Biden’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping will see the Chinese advising the Russians to watch it.

Media articles are floating ideas about longer term solutions: maybe Russia keeps a bit more of eastern Ukraine than it had in February but Ukraine properly joins NATO or gets other binding security guarantees that President Zelensky, eventually, is able to swallow.

The beginning of the end means accepting where we are, not where we would like to be. The time for accepting that is not now. But I can see it coming sooner rather than later.

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