‘No Chance of Peace Talks in the Short Term’
April 5, 2024
  • Kirill Shamiev

    Visiting Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations
  • Elena Dunaeva
Political scientist Kirill Shamiev explains why the equilibrium in the war is currently in Russia’s favor, what factors are working against Moscow and whether another round of mobilization will be announced in Russia, as well as what is holding up mobilization in Ukraine and foreign assistance for Kyiv.
The original text in Russian was published in Cherta and is being republished here in a slightly amended version with their permission.
A Russian soldier in Avdiivka, February 2024. Source: Wiki Commons
In recent months, there have been attacks by Ukraine on oil storage facilities and oil refineries, regular shelling of Belgorod and attempts to cross into Russian territory. At the same time, Russia is actively attacking on several segments of the front. Can we say that the war has entered a new phase?

Qualitatively, nothing has changed in the Russia-Ukraine war. During the first year of the war, Russian troops really suffered from Ukrainian attacks; Ukraine had the opportunity to retake some of its territory, and they took advantage of that opportunity. But after the announcement of partial mobilization in Russia, the Ukrainian counteroffensive was stopped.

The next year, 2023, many were hopeful regarding the Ukrainian counteroffensive, but the Ukrainian army did not achieve its goals. There are different reasons depending on who you ask: Ukrainian analysts will give certain ones, American analysts others. But Ukraine’s chance to quickly end the war passed at that moment.

Russia effectively dug in and was able to accumulate weapons, as well as train and further mobilize prisoners and contract soldiers to make up for its losses, and thanks to that, carry out offensive operations in Avdiivka.

When the Kremlin says that the first part of the war was a special operation, it is the truth. The special military operation failed, after which a war of attrition began.
That stage began after the first three or four months of the war and continues to this day. Unfortunately, this will continue in the next year until the parties come to an understanding that this needs to end somehow.

Now, the equilibrium is not in Ukraine’s favor: it is at war with a country that has triple the population, a larger economy and an authoritarian regime that can do what it wants with people, regardless of the political consequences.

At the same time, support from the US is severely limited due to political disagreements in Washington, while Europe is too slow at ramping up its aid to Ukraine and its own military-industrial complex.
Therefore, 2024 is set to be a very difficult year for Ukraine and a window of opportunity for Russia, which the Kremlin will try to make the most of.
A missile attack on Belgorod, December 30, 2023. Source: VK
But by 2025, European assistance should begin to improve qualitatively. And we will see how the US elections turn out in November.

The advantage now lies with Russia, which has more shells and more men. Yet this does not mean that Russia will easily achieve all its objectives, as the quantitative advantage is not so significant and is not turning into a qualitative advantage. It is only strengthening Russia’s offensive capabilities and leading to more casualties.

We see how Ukraine is trying to respond, staging actions like shelling Belgorod and making some dubious attempts to cross the Russian border. It is not entirely clear what the strategic repercussions will be.

If these attacks have no military logic, what are they for?

I have a feeling that by making incursions into internationally recognized Russian territory and launching attacks on Belgorod or drone strikes on Moscow City and other symbolic targets, the Ukrainian military command is trying to stretch the Russian air defenses and also destabilize the political situation in Russia, showing that the Kremlin is losing control of the situation and Vladimir Putin cannot defend the Russian homeland.

But this is not a very sound strategy. We see that the Russian regime has become extremely personalistic and repressive, including vis-à-vis the elites: while ordinary people can be imprisoned for reposts, members of the elite fall out of windows (see Russia.Post on elite repression).

I follow the Telegram channels of Russian combatants and see that attacks on Russian territory only make them angry and want to continue the war.

This idea about destabilizing the internal situation in Russia is also supported by how the Ukrainian military command is trying to present the Russian Volunteer Corps (see Russia.Post about it here) and other volunteer units as the real Russian opposition. There are indeed Russian citizens there who went over to the Ukrainian side or decided to fight for Ukraine, but this does not mean that they have any agency in Russian politics.

You said that until 2025 Ukraine will not receive any significant aid from Europe. Why?

It is very important, when we look at the news [about aid to Ukraine], to distinguish commitments from payments. In fact, only about 50% of what was promised has been delivered to Ukraine.
The EU can allocate as much funding as it wants, but the factories are running at capacity, and after a decade of inactivity, they now need to expand production.
There are also administrative problems, as the EU is 27 member countries, and there are problems with coordinating the various military-industrial complexes within the EU. And not every country actually wants to help Ukraine, for example, Slovakia or Hungary.

As a result, of the entire amount allocated by the EU only about a fifth has been realized, it turns out. But the wheels are turning, and by 2025 most of these problems should be resolved.

We already see that the EU is beginning to pay more and more attention to defense issues. This is a fairly serious change in EU policy, as in its founding documents defense is regarded as an issue to be dealt with by member countries internally, not by supranational structures. But now that is changing, and perhaps we will see greater defense integration, greater defense coordination at the level of supranational bodies.

In March, the first-ever European Defense Industrial Strategy (EDIS) was unveiled. It is to be accompanied by a new European Defense Industry Program (EDIP), which will allocate EUR 1.5 billion to strengthen the competitiveness and responsiveness of the defense industry. The EU wants to produce [domestically] 60% of the defense products used by European armies by 2035 (currently 20%).

This will mean a major improvement in European defense capabilities. I think this dynamic is cause for concern within the current Russian government.

What is more important to help Ukraine: supplies of new weapons or uninterrupted supplies of what is already available?

That is a complex topic. I would say that what is more important here is the uninterrupted supply of what the Ukrainians demand, and not only supplies, but also the training of Ukrainian soldiers and the continued sharing of intelligence. There are a lot of factors that affect Ukraine’s ability to defend itself.
Practice has shown that this whole idea about superweapons, all sorts of Wunderwaffe that will change everything, does not work.
Leopard 2A5. Source: Wiki Commons
When the Javelins were provided, everyone said: “that’s it, it’s over, the Russians are kaput.” Then artillery appeared, M777 howitzers appeared – there was the same talk. Then Leopard and Challenger tanks, Turkish Bayraktar drones – more talk about how the Russians are kaput. But we see that the sides are adapting, adapting to new types of weapons, and Russia is also doing this quite well.

In reality, what matters is how weapons are used and the training of personnel, as well as just having artillery shells and missiles for air defense to defend against Russian attacks.

There is another factor here – that of replenishing troops. A lot of people were killed or wounded on the Ukrainian side, and currently it is approaching the situation in which Russia found itself in the first year of the war, when there were not enough people to achieve military objectives.

Yet it is proving very difficult to pass a law on mobilization in Ukraine. This is a drawback of democracy – it is difficult for politicians to make unpopular decisions: at first there was talk of mobilizing men aged 25 and older, but now they say that even this will not be enough, and that the age will need to be lowered further.

But young people do not want to go to war. In the first year there was a patriotic fervor, but then the understanding came that this was a very hard war. There is constant talk in Ukraine that neither the US nor Europe is helping – naturally, this delegitimizes of the whole idea of mobilization. No one wants to die for nothing – this is natural and normal for every person.

Will there be another round of mobilization in Russia in 2024?

It will happen if the Kremlin decides to carry out major offensive operations. We see that when Russia attacks, it does so in a way that leads to many losses. And mobilization will be needed to make up for all those losses.

In my view, this time the picture will be different from what we saw during the first round of mobilization. There will be more training, more efforts made to equip the units and make them cohesive, because there are now more possibilities for this and officials better understand how to do it. Mobilization will be needed at least to make up for the losses that will occur by the autumn and to prepare for what promises to be a hard year for Russia in 2025.

If offensive operations are successful, the Russian army will use these reserves to conduct deeper operations. The combat zone will expand, the front will lengthen and naturally more people will be needed to hold it.
In my view, mobilization is highly likely. But it will be much more businesslike and calmer than the panic that occurred during the first round.
So, we have no democracy and any decision can be made. Sanctions are not working and there is enough money to continue the war. What then prevents Russia from taking and winning this war right this year?

There is a limit to the quality and quantity of military equipment; 15,000 units [of equipment] have already been lost. Now the Russian army is mainly relying on Soviet stockpiles, which they are trying to hastily modernize and send to the front in an acceptable condition.

There is a problem with the professional skills of soldiers. Of course, now the Russian and Ukrainian armies are the two most experienced armies at conducting large-scale combat operations. But all the same, these skills are unevenly distributed, especially if new people come, including officers.

The quantitative and qualitative superiority in artillery shells is also insufficient to carry out decisive offensive operations. Plus, in Russia you cannot just wave a magic wand and mobilize a huge number of people. You still need to calculate how this will affect the labor market and the Russian economy.
Russia is not the Soviet Union; it does not compare with it either in terms of spending on the armed forces or the number of young people.
A Rolf ad for a "night of sales" on March 12 with discounts of up to 30%. In the beginning of 2024, the automotive dealer had its assets, valued at RUB 64 billion, taken over by the government. Source: VK
What are the realistic conditions for peace negotiations now? How realistic is it that this will happen in 2024?

I do not see any talk about negotiations now on the Russian side. The Kremlin says that Ukraine does not exist, that we will destroy them.

On the Ukrainian side, too, there is still motivation to continue the war, to defend themselves. But we see from polls that people in the eastern regions, which are in greater danger, are already tired of the war and are more inclined toward peace talks, as they have already suffered so many hardships because of Russia.

But public opinion on these issues may change beyond recognition if suddenly Vladimir Putin and the Ukrainian leadership reach the conclusion that all this needs to end.

I cannot imagine right now what specific mechanism this would be, because a lot depends on Western support. It matters how this year goes, how the Russian offensive goes, what external shocks will affect the situation. There is no chance of peace talks in the short term. But at some point, all wars end in a truce or a peace treaty.

Is there war fatigue inside Russia? What are the signs of this?

I think that if a peace treaty is concluded, the absolute majority in Russia will move on and forget about the war. If there are no economic and political shocks, then everyone will breathe a sigh of relief. With the exception, of course, of the 10-15% of the public with openly fascist views who are ready to fight to the end.

But the state does not want to end the war yet and is making people think that it must go on. Now the country is focused on the confrontation with Ukraine, but if the war ends, the question will emerge: what next? And I think the Kremlin itself still has no answers on that count.

Currently, Russia is seeing fundamental changes in its politics and economy. A big experiment is underway to redistribute the assets of Western companies, to throw a huge amount of money into the military-industrial complex and structures affiliated with it. The Soviet lessons do not apply here, as it is a market economy after all.

In my view,
Russia will have seriously changed by the end of this war. It will be a new country with a new class of rich people, with ideological changes.
The media regularly publishes materials about the lack of support for the Russian army, hard conditions and the monstrous violence that occurs in the combat zone. Do you notice war fatigue among combatants specifically?

We see that the number of cases of unauthorized absence, desertion and other offenses related to running away is increasing. And this shows that some soldiers are dissatisfied with what is going on. I think that most of them are draftees. The longer the war continues, the more such cases there will be.

On the other hand, we should not project individual cases onto the entire army, as there are hundreds of thousands of soldiers and there are tens or hundreds of these cases.
Many servicemen are actually in the rear – this is an important part of the logistics of any war. There, they continue to serve and receive good money, their families receive support and there is the ideological boost that they are real patriots and theirs is a just cause.

There is also a psychological component here. It is very difficult to start thinking we are bad people. At worst, we were forced to do it; at best, we are doing a good thing. Because otherwise you can go crazy.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that if Putin now decided to sign a peace treaty, the majority of the military would be happy to demobilize, because few people want to sacrifice their lives. Even for a lot of money. Later the veterans of this war will really have to think about what to do next.
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