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Battlefield Realities Dictate Terms Of Russia-Ukraine Peace – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

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Battlefield Realities Dictate Terms of Russia-Ukraine Peace

Harsh V Pant
Kartik Bommakanti

Battlefield conditions and operational realities will decide terms of Russia-Ukraine peace settlement.

As the war between Russia and Ukraine rages, leaders of the seven most industrialised countries announced at the G7 summit in Italy that they would use proceeds from Russia’s frozen assets in Western central banks to give Kyiv a loan of $50 billion. Yet, the G7 Summit is not the only move afoot in dealing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A pivotal peace summit in Bürgenstock, Switzerland, organised by the latter, has been, at present, the most far-reaching effort to help resolve the over two-year war.

Several countries agreed to send representatives, including India, which sent a senior official. Moscow was not invited to the summit, which makes the possibility of brainstorming ways to put an end to the conflict, let alone ending it, a non-starter. Indeed, China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have stated clearly that progress without Russia’s participation in the summit would be difficult.

The Russians, for their part, have set their preconditions, making it clear that they want Ukrainian neutrality with Kyiv, forsaking any commitment to joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Paired to this is the demand made by President Vladimir Putin that the international community concede and accept the Russian annexation and occupation of four Ukrainian oblasts — Kharkiv, Donestsk, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia.

The Russian aim is to pre-empt or even compel the West to pressure Ukraine into conceding its demands that would significantly compromise Ukrainian sovereignty and integrity. Nevertheless, Ukraine’s people seem to think otherwise. Polling data across multiple public opinion surveys conducted in Ukraine indicates clearly that roughly 60% of Ukrainians support the war effort and believe that all of Ukraine, including under Russian occupation in the east and south-east, will be liberated. Notwithstanding the optimism of the Ukrainian public, battlefield realities present a grim picture for Kyiv.

Irrespective of the measures by the G7 states in using Russia’s frozen assets lodged in the West to finance Ukraine and the well-meaning intentions behind the Swiss-sponsored peace summit, Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine has acquired considerable intensity, visibly demonstrated by its assault on the Kharkiv region in north-east Ukraine. This was the region that Moscow had attacked and occupied and was part of a key axis of attack during the initial stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

In the subsequent counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces liberated the Kharkiv region, imposing significant costs on their Russian invaders. Russian forces, in their latest offensive (which started on May 10, 2024), advanced into the border town of Vovchansk, roughly 75 kilometres from Kharkiv city. By mid-May, Russian forces gained 278 square km of territory in the Kharkiv region, establishing another front for the Ukrainians, who hitherto, had to contend with combating the Russians in the east and south-east since the onset of the Russian invasion in 2022.

Moscow’s gains have been a direct consequence of Western, especially American, military aid drying up, which was only released on April 24 following the passage of aid bills worth $60 billion stalling for months in the United States Congress. This interregnum in the supply of military equipment created a window of opportunity for the Russians to retake territory they had lost following hard-fought Ukrainian gains, which Ukrainian forces had to surrender due to the lack of artillery rounds, surface-to-air missiles, armoured vehicles, and anti-tank weapons. 

Indeed, getting the latter set of capabilities to Ukraine’s forward deployed forces still remains the most pressing and immediate battlefield necessity for Kyiv. Preventing Russian fighter aircraft launching stand-off attacks from within Russian airspace is another urgent requirement for Ukraine, which Ukrainian forces can only counter if they secure long-range surface-to-air missiles. Coupled with these supply constraints, which have started to flow to the Ukrainians, there are restrictions on the use of American-supplied weaponry. Limits on the Ukrainians using American-origin weapons by Washington has shielded the Russians from incurring losses and suffering destruction against their logistics, supply lines, combat units, weapons depots, command and control nodes, and reserve forces located in rear areas.

Notwithstanding a recent shift by the Biden administration to permit the Ukrainians to strike military targets within Russian territory, at best, only 15-20% of the territory controlled by the Russians has been rendered vulnerable to the US-supplied army tactical missile systems (ATACMS) and high mobility artillery rocket system. The remaining 80-85% of Russian territory still remains insulated, despite being within range of Ukrainian ATACMS. Washington’s fears of escalation mean that such prohibitions on Kyiv render imposing costs on Moscow, and do not produce converged effects that the American weapons are intended to produce. This makes it very difficult for Ukrainian forces to shift battle lines in their favour significantly, let alone decisively.

Additionally, the Ukrainian leadership is confronting manpower shortages to meet recruitment targets, which the Russians too face, but not as acutely as Kyiv, because Moscow is also able to conscript soldiers by coercion, which Ukraine’s democratically leadership cannot.

If or when push comes to shove, battlefield conditions and operational realities will determine terms of the peace settlement between Moscow and Kyiv. Ukraine, as of today, is on the backfoot, but Russia too cannot force a favourable outcome until well into 2025. Consequently, the peace Summit in Burgenstock has turned out to be a futile exercise. 

Harsh V Pant is vice president-studies and foreign policy, Observer Research Foundation.
Kartik Bommakanti is senior fellow, strategic studies, Observer Research Foundation.

The article was first published in Financial Express as Peace summit on weak footing on June 21, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja, a visiting researcher at IMPRI.

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