There has been much talk and reporting of the coming Spring counteroffensive by Ukraine forces, but with the fight for Bakhmut not going so well for Kiev, there's also been talk of the need for compromise, at a moment Ukrainian casualties in the east are believed to be high.
Last week we reported on President Volodymyr Zelensky's voicing rare doubts concerning Bakhmut - as if preparing his people for news of a devastating defeat. And now, on Wednesday, the Financial Times is reporting the single most important development to come out of the conflict in a long time: Zelensky's office says he's ready to compromise on the future of the Crimean peninsula.
Naturally, the Ukrainians present themselves as speaking from a position of having the upper hand, which is the general tone of the remarks that Andriy Sybiha, who is deputy head of Zelensky’s office, gave to FT. Per the publication, "Kyiv is willing to discuss the future of Crimea with Moscow if its forces reach the border of the Russian-occupied peninsula" - which marks the "most explicit statement of Ukraine’s interest in negotiations since it cut off peace talks with the Kremlin last April."
"If we will succeed in achieving our strategic goals on the battlefield and when we will be on the administrative border with Crimea, we are ready to open [a] diplomatic page to discuss this issue," Sybiha said, previewing his high hopes for an imminent counteroffensive.
He explained however that "It doesn’t mean that we exclude the way of liberation [of Crimea] by our army." But given that Ukrainian forces are nearly completely surrounded in the strategic city of Bakhmut in Donetsk region, despite pouring in massive amounts of manpower and equipment, the whole notion of "liberation of Crimea" is a pipe dream.
Western officials themselves have in many cases long acknowledged the extreme unlikelihood of any Ukraine attempt to take Crimea at reaching success. The FT report hints at this in the following:
Sybiha’s remarks may relieve western officials who are skeptical about Ukraine’s ability to reclaim the peninsula and worry that any attempt to do so militarily could lead President Vladimir Putin to escalate his war, possibly with nuclear weapons. To date Zelenskyy has ruled out peace talks until Russian forces leave all of Ukraine, including Crimea.
All of this represents a public reversal of sorts from Zelensky's prior hardened stance of seeking the return of every inch of Ukrainian territory. For example, last October while feeling emboldened after billions in defense aid was pledged from the US and Western allies, he declared in a nightly address, "We will definitely liberate Crimea."
More recently, Zelensky's outlook & messages on the future have been mixed to say the least:
If Bakhmut fell to Russian forces, their president, Vladimir Putin, would “sell this victory to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran,” Zelensky said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press. #StandWithUkraine https://t.co/mAj6Y3wy4z pic.twitter.com/BW99uvD5aJ— Dénes Törteli 🇪🇺🇭🇺🇺🇦 (@DenesTorteli) March 29, 2023
On April 2, the last occupier fled from the Kyiv region. The day will come when we'll say: the last occupier fled or was killed in the Donetsk region, Luhansk region, Kherson region and our entire south. Crimea will be free and safe again. Ukraine will return all its territories. pic.twitter.com/DeFbkVg81q— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) April 2, 2023
"We will return this part of our country not only to the all-Ukrainian space, but also to the all-European space," Zelensky had said, not for the first time. He also repeated the same as recently as Sunday.
Interestingly, FT cites yet another high-ranking Western defense official who admits the near impossibility of Ukraine actually taking Crimea militarily:
Rear Admiral Tim Woods, the British defense attaché in Washington, said on Wednesday that Crimea would need "a political solution because of just the concentration of force that is there and what it would mean for the Ukrainians to go in there". He added: "I don’t think there’s going to be a very quick military solution . . . hence we need to see what are favorable conditions for Ukraine to negotiate and I think Ukraine would be up for that."
Russia of course knows this. For Moscow the question will not be Crimea being at issue on the negotiating table, but the status of the eastern territories. Likely the Kremlin will base its willingness to strike a peace deal to end the war based on recognition of the eastern oblasts. On September 30, President Putin signed "accession treaties" declaring Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson as part of the Russian Federation.
At this point, Zelensky is unlikely to let the four territories go, but if Crimea is let go - that at least constitutes positive momentum toward the negotiating table. But still, all of these questions will likely be decided on the battlefield, until either side reaches the point of exhaustion.
Meanwhile, while Washington has shown little interest in peaceful settlement based on ceding territory to Russia (in fact, many reports have alleged the opposite: that the US and UK have actively sabotaged the possibility of negotiations), Ukraine continues to be steadily pushed out of Bakhmut.
#Bakhmut map. Russian forces liberating the city few blocks at a time. Tough battles over the last 15% of the city.— S.L. Kanthan (@Kanthan2030) April 5, 2023
Ukraine, the geopolitical pawn, is literally fighting Russia to the last person, as the U.S. wanted.
Yesterday Today pic.twitter.com/ZjFokwnbXG
* * *
As for Zelensky himself, he's been sounding more and more pessimistic of late, as we described exactly a week ago...
Zelensky described that the capture of Bakhmut will mean that Putin will smell weakness. According to the Ukrainian leader's words:
Speaking with The Associated Press, Zelenskyy said that if Bakhmut were to fall, Putin could "sell this victory to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran," as leverage to push for a ceasefire deal that would see Ukraine agree to give up territory.
"If he will feel some blood — smell that we are weak — he will push, push, push," Zelensky continued.
"Our society will feel tired" if the Russians gain victory in Bakhmut, he said. "Our society will push me to have compromise with them." Implicit in these words are perhaps a first-time admission that significant sectors of the Ukrainian population are ready for compromise and peaceful negotiations to end the war.
And tellingly, CBS commentary on the AP interview included the following observation: "He appeared acutely aware of the risk that his country could see its vital support from the U.S. and Europe start to slip away as the 13-month war grinds on." Zelensky admitted: "The loss of Bakhmut would mean a political defeat, could lead to a general defeat in conflict."