Now is not the time for Russia Ukraine “peace” negotiations

Ukrainian troops fire from a howitzer on the front. Photo: General Staff 

Opinion

Article by: Hans Petter Midttun
Make no mistake: Russia’s aims on the war are unchanged. Its recent negotiation proposals, made without offering any concessions while upholding its strategic messaging and escalating the war, can only mean that it needs time to catch its breath before the next offensive.

Two events caught the world’s attention on 9 November.

First, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announces its readiness for negotiations without any conditions taking into account the current state of affairs.

Secondly, Russia decided to surrender the west bank of Kherson Oblast and withdraw its forces across the Dnipro River.

The decision to withdraw is seen as military sound in light of their logistic problems as a result of months of Ukrainian precision strikes against bridges, depots and concentration of manpower and equipment.

The Russian forces have been persistently pushed back in the face of an increasingly stronger Ukrainian counteroffensive. The 20,000 to 30,000 troops on the West Bank of the Dnipro river include some of Russia’s few remaining elite units, like elements of the 76th and 106th Airborne Assault Divisions and 22nd Army Corps.

Trying to hold Kherson has been a major drain on Russian resources and has tied up some of its best troops at a time when they’re desperately needed elsewhere.

Retreating across the Dnipro River to already prepared defensive positions will allow Russia to preserve some of its best and battle-hardened fighting formations, redeploy forces to other parts of the theatre and not last, hold the line as “King Winter” works its magic across Europe and gives Russia a respite while its force generation efforts make progress.

While the decision marks a huge political defeat for President Putin, coming slightly more than a month after he announced the annexation of the region and after allegedly, previously having refused requests to withdraw, it is nevertheless supported by the Russian pro-war forces (Kadyrov, Prigozhin, propagandists and milbloggers).

After weighing all the pros and cons, General Surovikin made the difficult but right choice between senseless sacrifices for the sake of loud statements and saving the priceless lives of soldiers,” Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, who often urged to take a more aggressive approach in the war and even for the use of low-grade nuclear weapons, said.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, another war hawk and financier of the Wagner PMC which is conducting the more diffucult offensive operations, was quoted by the RIA news agency as saying: “The decision taken by Surovikin is not easy, but he acted like a man who is not afraid of responsibility.

“Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of state media outlet RT, went even further, comparing the retreat to the decision by General Mikhail Kutuzov to abandon Moscow to Napoleon in 1812 for the sake of preserving his army and 1 11saving Russia,” according to Reuters.

According to ISW, President Putin has not commented on the withdrawal as of this publication, suggesting that the Kremlin is framing the withdrawal as a purely military decision.

The withdrawal has probably been a long time coming.

The Russian president rejected requests from commanders in the field to retreat from Kherson in September already.

General Sergei Surovikin, recently appointed as the new commander of the Russian army in Ukraine, was seen preparing the Russian public for the surrender of the occupied southern city of Kherson already in mid-October.

Particularly, the Russian occupation authorities of Kherson Oblast had sent text messages to residents urging them to leave the city, shortly after General Sergei Surovikin told the state-run Rossiya 24 TV news channel that “hard decisions must be made,” Newsweek reported.

The decision to withdraw does not necessarily mean that the operation will be successful. It will involve an extremely complex, fighting withdrawal taxing for even the most professional Army. The Russian Armed Forces have proven itself anything but professional during the last 9 months of full-scale war.

According to Mick Ryan, a retired major general in the Australian Army, withdrawals are designed to allow a force to disengage from opposing forces and redeploy on a new mission or to a new location while minimising casualties:

“Withdrawal is a task employed regularly during mobile defence or the delay to accomplish the overall aim of resuming offensive action…it should be treated as a routine tactic rather than a harbinger of disaster.”

“What are the planning considerations? First, deception is vital. The reality is however that it is difficult to conceal from [Ukrainian] forces an intention to withdraw. At some point, it becomes obvious what will occur. However, some deception might be achieved by stepped-up patrols, increased fire support, decoys, simulating normal activities and communications discipline. For the Russians on the Dnipro west bank, this will be difficult but not impossible.

A second consideration is how to sequence the withdrawal. This includes when and how to evacuate logistic stocks, headquarters, recon elements and ground combat forces. It will depend on where and in what strength Russian forces are pressing the force that is to withdraw. For the Russians, getting this sequence right will be vital. They will have to balance the preservation of their force with using it to hold off the Ukrainian advancing forces. They need enough forces to prevent a rout but not so much that they lose a large part of the force.

The third issue for Russia will be disrupting the Ukrainian’s ability to interfere with the withdrawal. We should expect to see increased air defence, jamming and artillery used by withdrawing Russians, as well as greater air support. They may also use civilians as human shields.

The fourth consideration will be command and control. This isn’t just about who is in charge. It is about controlling an orderly withdrawal in the planned sequence. MPs are vital for road space control, route discipline and ensuring units don’t ‘vacate’ defensive positions early.

In general, a withdrawing force will want to achieve what is called a ‘clean break’. This is disengagement of Russian forces in a way that avoids their ability to follow up and pursue the withdrawing force. The Dnipro River will be a key element of Russia’s clean break approach. Once again, getting the sequence for withdrawing troops right is critical in achieving a clean break. A lot of artillery (probably from the Dnipro east bank), jamming and air support will be required. And a lot of ferries to transport troops and equipment across the Dnipro.

A key part of achieving a clean break is an effective rear guard. A rear guard force can help provide a clean break for the withdrawing force and prevent enemy pursuit. I would expect that for the Russians, the rear guard will consist of armoured and mounted infantry forces. These forces can move and fight rapidly and have a better chance of achieving a clean break and surviving to cross the Dnipro to fight another day. However, we might also see the Russians ‘dump’ newly mobilised troops to stay, fight, delay and die to buy time for the withdrawal.

Ultimately, a successful withdrawal requires excellent planning and coordination. But this is underpinned by good leadership. […] There is much that can wrong for them. And following on their heels will be a determined, aggressive Ukrainian ground force. The Ukrainians will be keen to destroy or capture as much as possible of the Russian force on the west bank of the Dnipro. Not only would these Russians not be able to resume offensive operations in the future, but it would also be a significant strategic influence success.”

This is why the Russian newfound willingness to negotiate became relevant. It does not signify a willingness to end a 9-year-long war, but rather a recognition of the challenges and risks the withdrawal entails.

Russia does not need negotiations to end the war. It simply needs to withdraw all of its forces from Ukraine, unblock the Ukrainian ports, and stop all attacks on land, in the air and from the sea.

Predictably, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry rebuked the Russian negotiation proposals, calling to pay attention to actions, not words. As stated by its spokesperson Oleh Nikolenko,

The only realistic proposal should be for Russia to immediately end the war against Ukraine and withdraw Russian troops from Ukrainian territory, beyond its borders as of 1991. […] People who want to negotiate do not destroy the country’s energy system so that its population freezes in winter; they do not engage in mass executions of civilians; do not shell residential areas; do not announce the mobilisation of an additional 300,000 military personnel; do not block grain supplies, and do not push forward any ultimatums.”

Russia is not offering peace. It is de facto escalating the war into a Total War.

It is mobilising 300,000 – 1,000,000 (exact numbers are not known) of its citizens for renewed efforts to defeat Ukraine. It is in the process of building a joint Russian-Belarusian force. It is waging an intense air campaign to destroy Ukraine’s energy sector at the onset of Winter.

Russia is also waging energy and economical warfare against Ukraine’s international partners. It is using nuclear blackmail to stop the West from intervening militarily while repeatedly demanding NATO withdrawal from Eastern Europe.

More telling, we have seen no changes to the Russian strategic messaging. The aim and objective of the so-called “special military operation” remain unchanged. Russia still intends to “denazify and demilitarize” Ukraine.

Russia still regards the actions of the United States and other unfriendly states as a threat to traditional values.

During president Putin’s speech at the Valdai International Discussion Club meeting on 27 October the West was demonized and portrayed as the aggressor. The message to the non-Western countries was: Russia is fighting Western global dominance. Join us, or suffer the consequences of its efforts to colonise and enslave nations.

Its “new” offer for negotiations, is, therefore, very much in line with Russia’s hybrid war strategy.

It appeals directly to the Western hope for a peaceful resolution (e.g. the Minsk Agreement that laid the foundation for the full-scale invasion in February) at “minimum costs.” It supports the US and NATO’s desire to avoid military intervention in the war.

He started a war in 2014, using the Minsk Agreements and negotiations in an attempt to achieve its strategic aim and objectives.

On December 17, Russia published both a draft treaty between the USA and the Russian Federation “on security guarantees”, as well as a draft agreement on “measures to ensure the security of the Russian Federation and the Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization”. This was yet another attempt to “negotiate” a NATO withdrawal in support of its strategic aims.

On 29 October Russia halted its role in the Black Sea deal for an “indefinite term” claiming that it could not “guarantee the safety of civilian ships” after an attack on its Black Sea fleet. After first “having committed a crime in the evening, it then proposed ‘talks’ in the morning”. The following day, having again blocked global food supplies, Russia declared itself ready to negotiate with the West “on certain conditions”. It was referring to the documents that were submitted to both Brussels and Washington on 17 December 2021 demanding “security guarantees” through a NATO withdrawal.

Its last offer to negotiate – without offering any concessions, upholding its strategic messaging and escalating the war – must be seen as what it is: A smokescreen and an attempt to achieve its strategic aim and objectives through negotiations.

The fact that the initiative coincides with its decision to withdraw from the west bank of Kherson might, however, offer some insight into Russian strategy.

Kremlin needs a strategic pause to prepare for the next offensive.

The attack on the Kerch bridge greatly increased existing Russian challenging in sustaining operations in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.The bridge is not expected to be fully operational again before the spring at the earliest (September 2023 in the worst case).

Russian forces have demonstrated anything but effective command and control, leadership and high motivation during the last 9 months of warfighting. A fighting withdrawal might very well be beyond their ability. “It won’t take them a day or two, this is going to take them days and perhaps even weeks to pull those forces south of that river.” They run the risk of losing up to 30,000 soldiers, elite forces and their military equipment, further fueling public resentment in Russia.

Huge losses will have a tremendous impact on its ability to relaunch its offensive against Ukraine next year. The military forces presently in Kherson are not only crucial to stopping the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv and Luhansk oblasts but also constitute the core which the newly mobilised will be formed around. Ukrainian intelligence indicates that some are planned to be redeployed to Belarus to potentially open up a new front in Western Ukraine to cut Western supplies.

While many of the newly mobilised personnel were sent to the frontline with limited or no training to stop the Ukrainian advance at all costs, the great majority are still undergoing training. While Russia’s ability to equip the new formations are questionable, they still need 2-3 months to become effective military units. Russia, therefore, needs a reprieve to complete the force generation process and conserve and rest the existing battle-hardened, exhausted and demotivated forces.

Lastly, Russia still needs “King Winter” to influence Western resilience and resolve. Seeing signs of increasing public discontent and a changing political landscape as recession and higher costs of living takes hold across Europe, Russia has every reason to pause the war.

From a Russian perspective, spring brings hope for new success.

For Ukraine and the West, the Russian conundrum offers a unique chance to break the back of the Russian Armed Forces.

All hopes for negotiations must be dashed. This is the moment to enforce the international will on Russia.

Too bad Ukraine does not possess more HIMARS, combat aircraft, helicopters and other long-range fires to guarantee a Russian defeat while attempting a fighting withdrawal.

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