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Ukraine war: Peace remains elusive

February 23, 2023

A year has passed since Russia invaded Ukraine, but neither side is ready to talk peace. With no clear resolution in sight, the pressure from abroad is growing.

A giant peace sign is formed with candles in front of the Brandenburg Gate
A year on since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, there are no signs of a peaceful resolutionImage: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP

Take tens of thousands of soldiers killed and maimed on both sides, thousands of dead Ukrainian civilians, and countless towns and cities destroyed. Add worldwide energy shortages and inflation, and hunger in many developing countries. This is the toll of a war that after a year is still far from being resolved.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin has failed to achieve his goal of taking over all of Ukraine. But Russia holds about a fifth of the country's territory. On the other side, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has continually said Ukraine would retake all Russian-occupied territory, including Crimea.

In a state of the nation speech this Tuesday, Putin showed no willingness to give in — quite the opposite: "It is impossible to defeat our country on the battlefield," he said. Putin also escalated the situation by announcing that Russia would suspend its participation in the New START treaty, the last remaining nuclear arms control pact it has with the US.

That was apparently a reaction to US President Joe Biden's surprise visit to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv the previous day. Biden had assured Zelenskyy of the US' continuing support. The "freedom of democracy at large" was at stake, Biden said.

But the willingness to support Ukraine in the long term is waning, both among the Republicans in the US Congress and the American population.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (r.), shown here in June 2022 during a visit to Kyiv
After weeks of deliberations, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (r.), complied with Volodymir Zelenskyy's call for battle tanksImage: Valentyn Ogirenko/REUTERS

Fear of a new world war

The pressure for peace talks is also increasing in Germany. In the February 9 ARD-Deutschlandtrend survey of public opinion among Germans, 58% of respondents thought diplomatic efforts to end the war did not go far enough — more than ever.

German socialist Left Party politician Sahra Wagenknecht and prominent feminist Alice Schwarzer launched a petition calling for immediate peace negotiations and a halt to weapons deliveries. They warn of a new world war and think: "Ukraine can — with support from the West — win individual battles. But they cannot win a war against the biggest nuclear power in the world." They called for a demonstration in Berlin on February 25. Notable artists, theologians and politicians are among the 500,000 who signed the petition.

The Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany, Oleksii Makeiev, told the news website t-online that he could not understand Western fears of an escalation into a third world war. "Ukraine is already in World War III. Russia is waging a war of annihilation against us."

Ukraine wants to retake all occupied territories

In a DW interview in 2022, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg rejected the idea of unilateral steps toward peace, because: "If Ukraine stops fighting, it will cease to exist as an independent country." That is why they needed to "win" the war.

Conflict Zone interview: NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg

In order to help Ukraine keep its freedom, western countries have continued to increase deliveries of weapons. At the beginning of this year, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz agreed, after much hesitation, to deliver German battle tanks to Ukraine, after the US and other NATO countries had also pledged them.

The German-produced Leopard 2 could help "to level the blatant disadvantage of the Ukrainians on the battlefield," opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) politician and foreign policy expert Roderich Kiesewetter wrote to DW, adding: "Whether Ukraine can turn the tables on the battlefield with those tanks depends on the number, the timing and the continuity of the deliveries."

Ukraine hopes that with the tanks they can not only defend against Russian attacks. Security expert Nico Lange told DW he believes "the military chances for Ukraine to retake the whole territory and restore peace in this way are realistic."

"Putin will only be prepared to negotiate if the military situation is so much to Ukraine's advantage that he knows he will not achieve any victories with this war."

Two military scenarios

This confidence is something retired Bundeswehr brigadier general Helmut Ganser does not share. In the early February edition of the journal International Politics and Society, he outlined two scenarios for a Ukrainian offensive southward to the Sea of Azov aided by western tanks. In the most pessimistic scenario, the offensive would stall amid a massive Russian defense effort. In this case, Ganser was already preparing the Western public for "images of shot-up Leopard tanks," which Russia would gleefully spread online.

But Ganser saw the most optimistic scenario as more dangerous: if the tank units advanced to the Sea of Azov and faced Crimea. Ganser suspected Putin would then broaden "the entire war zone to include the territories of the western supporting countries," and warned: "The danger of a slow, unintentional slide into the greatest catastrophe for all of Europe is growing."

On the other hand, Nico Lange views Russia's nuclear threat as "an instrument of psychological warfare." He thinks that recapturing Crimea is not only "conceivable from a military point of view," but also considers the attempt necessary for peace efforts. "Precisely because Crimea would be the biggest possible loss of face for Vladimir Putin, military pressure on Crimea is one way to bring Russia to the negotiating table."

Map showing territorial gains
By November 2022, Ukraine had recaptured some Russian-held territory

Where is the red line?

Opinions differ on whether military pressure will increase Russia's willingness to negotiate or escalate the danger of a nuclear world war.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, from the center-left Social Democrats, has always maintained that under no circumstances should Germany become a warring party.

That explains his long hesitation about sending battle tanks. He has also indicated that he has no intention to send fighter jets. Roderich Kiesewetter from the opposition CDU, by contrast, would in principle "not draw any red lines as far as certain weapons systems were concerned."

In terms of international law, a country only becomes party to war if it sends its own soldiers, something all German politicians have ruled out, he said.

In countries that support Ukraine, there are also many who believe that without a certain amount of willingness from Kyiv to compromise in terms of territory or its policy on alliances, things cannot be resolved. In Ukraine itself, such ideas barely register, according to Roman Goncharenko from DW's Ukrainian department.

"In the first few weeks after the invasion, Kyiv was prepared to make concessions, such as neutrality instead of the NATO membership it desired," he said. "But the brutality of the Russian army and the annexation of further areas have made the search for a compromise almost impossible."

Political scientist Johannes Varwick from the University of Halle does not believe a Russian withdrawal from Crimea is realistic. "In the end, there will most likely be a neutral Ukraine which does not clearly fall within the Western or Russian sphere of influence," Varwick told DW. 

China's role

The Russian embassy in Berlin tweeted on February 14: "Every combat operation ends in negotiations; we are prepared to do this. But we will only negotiate without preconditions, in consideration of the current reality and with a view to the goals that we have announced."

That does not sound like a willingness to compromise. For Russia, "current reality" means it occupies about one-fifth of Ukraine, and one of its "goals" was the complete annihilation of the Ukrainian state.

At the Munich Security Conference, China announced that it would soon present a peace proposal. The details are not yet known.

However, Western governments are viewing the announcement with skepticism in light of the fact that China has never condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also fears that China could supply weapons to Russia, which Bejing denies.

Kiesewetter warned against making concessions to Moscow. He believes that China already considers Europe to be a "testing ground" regarding Taiwan's sovereignty.

"Any territorial gains by Russia would become the blueprint for other autocratic countries to redraw military borders in the future, shielding themselves with nuclear blackmail and threats."

This article was originally written in German.

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