Predictions of a decisive offensive in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on the one hand, and speculation about peace talks on the other hand, have gained new intensity in both Russian propaganda and Western commentary in recent days—however, neither makes much sense. Russian artillery and air strikes against the solid Ukrainian defense lines up and down the Donbas front line have escalated, but Moscow’s battalions, exhausted by two months of unexpectedly hard fighting (and two months of winter camping prior to the 2022 invasion) have been unable to gain much ground. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres’ upcoming visits to Moscow and Kyiv, scheduled for this week (April 26–27, after both countries celebrated Orthodox Easter), is well-intentioned but will most probably prove fruitless. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy can only confirm his readiness to meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin; while the latter will surely blame Ukraine for sabotaging negotiations and reiterate the message given to European Council President Charles Michel that a meeting with Zelenskyy is contingent on the “results” of the peace talks (RIA Novosti, April 22).
The fact that negotiations continue through daily virtual talks was confirmed in Moscow, even if the positive spin was reduced by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who asserted that Russia would not tolerate any “ultimatums” from Ukraine (Izvestia, April 22). Zelenskyy had previously stated that talks would be broken if Russia continued to murder the defenders of besieged Mariupol (RBC, April 16). Putin responded by giving a direct order to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu not to storm but merely to blockade the last bastion of armed resistance, at the Azovstal steel plant, located across the river from the port city’s central district (Kommersant, April 21). The televised meeting provided Russian experts and bloggers with a rare opportunity to comment on the small size of the table, which Putin was clutching with an oddly rigid right hand, and on Shoigu’s public appearance after a long absence (Svoboda.org, April 22). The main point, however, was the substance of Putin’s seemingly sensible order, perhaps reflecting doubts in the Kremlin about the propaganda-induced resolve to score a victory at any price (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 21). Nonetheless, the Russian forces apparently made another attempt at storming the imposing plant complex on Saturday, with shelling and ground assaults continuing into Monday (Ukrinform, April 25).
The futility of negotiations is determined not by the complexity of the issues related to security guarantees but by the firm Ukrainian demand that all Russian troops withdraw to the positions held prior to February 24, when the present war started on Putin’s order (Meduza, April 22). This plain proposition denies Russia any territorial gains, including the defiant Mariupol, and erases the land corridor to Crimea, which Moscow tries to consolidate by installing local puppet governments in the partly occupied Kherson region (Grani.ru, April 21). Putin never officially announced the intention to build such a corridor, but the plan was recently spelled out by General Rustam Minnekayev, the acting commander of the Russian Central Military District (Interfax, April 22). The problem with this far-reaching strategic plan is not that it contradicts the more cautious discourse preferred by most of Russia’s top brass but that it clashes with the situation on the ground, where Russian troops have retreated from Mykolaiv (Novaya Gazeta, April 20). Ukraine cannot win the war by merely defending against Russian attacks, but the increased supply of heavy arms from the United States, as well as from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and other European countries, makes it possible to launch counter-offensive operations, aimed specifically at Kherson (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, April 21).
Moscow is irked and alarmed by these expanded deliveries for several reasons. First, they even more firmly anchor Ukraine to the West, as the visit to Kyiv of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has demonstrated (RIA Novosti, April 25). Second, Moscow is upset because the Russian military-industrial complex, targeted specifically by Western sanctions, is increasingly revealing that it is unable to produce key weapon systems necessary to compensate for the heavy losses incurred on the Ukrainian battlefield (Svoboda.org, April 23). Putin tried to obscure this shortcoming by boasting about the first test launch of the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (IBCM), which he announced was ready for deployment back in May 2018 (Kommersant, April 22). The Sarmat may finally become operational in another four years. But what matters now is the complete disorganization of the Russian aircraft-building industry, which cannot obtain crucial technological components due to the breakdown of supply chains (Riddle.io, April 18).
Problems with arms production may have a direct impact on the sustainability of combat operations, but they are merely a manifestation of deeper problems with Russia’s economy, which, Putin promises, can withstand the “blitzkrieg” of Western sanctions (The Bell, April 23). In fact, the sanctions were never supposed to deliver an instant disaster; but their impact is growing daily, and no emergency funding from the federal budget can compensate for the inevitable shutdown of many Russian production facilities (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 20). The Kremlin believes that financial reserves (even if halved by Western measures) and the continuing inflow of petro-revenues can ensure the resilience of key industries; however, this betrays an ignorance of how modern economies function (Rosbalt, April 22).
The departure from Russia of most Western investors and brands affects not only the service sector but also the performance of crucial oil and natural gas infrastructure, greatly amplifying the impact of sanctions. Thus, there may be no particular need for Western policy-planners to further tighten these punitive economic measures (Forbes.ru, April 22). For the first two months of the war-caused domestic calamity, Russian unemployment has remained hidden by delayed layoffs and temporary salary payments; but during the summer, millions of workers will find themselves redundant (The Insider, April 23). Soviet-style “command economy” methods can do little to jumpstart the Russian economy, which has grown profoundly dependent on cooperative ties with Western partners. Yet Putin’s court has little grasp of these complexities and prefers to believe that a little more social spending and plentiful propaganda can keep the population content (Meduza, April 20).
This mismanagement is as damaging for the struggling Russian economy as the persistent demands to deliver a convincing victory are for the execution of the military campaign. The two initial blunders of Putin’s judgement—that the Ukrainian state would break under the military assault and that the West would enforce only symbolic sanctions—drive Russia along parallel tracks toward an unwinnable war and economic degradation. The envisaged sequence of successes—first, the complete occupation of Donbas, then, the enforcement of a ceasefire, and finally, the loosening of the sanctions regime—has already hit a military roadblock, and it badly misconstrues Ukrainian defiance as well as Western resolve to deny belligerent Russia its victory. Every missile strike on Kyiv or Odesa adds to the international momentum to turn the course of the war toward Russia’s inglorious defeat.