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Analysis: Why Ukraine’s battle for survival may be far from over

Russian forces Wednesday escalated their assault on soft targets, which prompted President Joe Biden to call Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal. The fate of hundreds of people sheltering in a theater in the coastal city of Mariupol is unknown after a Russian barrage slammed into a building flanked with the word “children” on the ground to ward off attacks. Another bombardment hit a swimming pool in the same city used as a shelter.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, after delivering a moving virtual address to the US Congress, revealed that at least 103 children have perished so far in Moscow’s onslaught. The World Health Organization criticized what it said were deliberate attacks on Ukraine’s health care infrastructure. More than 3 million Ukrainians have fled in a refugee exodus, according to the UN.

These are not simply tales of unfortunate, innocent civilians caught in the crossfire or a larger conflict. There are too many attacks for this to be anything but a deliberate Russian strategy of trying to bomb Ukraine into submission one civilian at a time. This assault designed to cause maximum pain and destruction is likely to further deepen the schism between the two countries and make it harder to find an accommodation to end the killing.

The imprecise and bloody Russian offensive is effectively a mid-20th-century war playing out 20 years into the 21st century. Scenes of fleeing civilians and extraordinary destruction in besieged cities almost look like they are taking place in grainy black-and-white 1940s newsreels treated with modern color techniques to bring them to life. But this is happening now. And it’s an atrocity on a grand, modern scale. The idea that the land wars that scarred Europe’s history and caused millions of deaths were over has been comprehensively debunked.

“Putin is inflicting appalling, appalling devastation and horror on Ukraine — bombing apartment buildings, maternity wards, hospitals,” Biden said Wednesday, unveiling another $800 million in military assistance for the country. “I mean, it’s godawful.”

The possible contours of a ceasefire or longer-term term deal to end the fighting have been widely discussed. They could include a pledge by Ukraine that it would not join NATO. Russia might demand some form of neutrality for its neighbor and a measure of demilitarization. Ukraine might need security guarantees from Western powers to sign up for a deal. But its aspirations to join the European Union would be very difficult for Putin to accept.

The Kremlin said Wednesday that “demilitarization” of Ukraine could be a compromise, suggesting a Swedish or Austrian model of a state, but that idea was rejected by the Ukrainian side.

As tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have shown, knowing how a conflict should end doesn’t make it any easier to reach that point. Any diplomatic plan to end the war in Ukraine would likely be fraught with uncertainties — including the political capacity of both Russians and Ukrainians to offer concessions after such bitter fighting and large losses on each side. Plus, any real talk of Western security guarantees would require a level of input from outside nations that may feel like a stretch — and also would rely on Putin accepting a foreign role in Ukraine.

Biden’s comments on Wednesday — when he told reporters at the White House in reference to Putin, “I think he is a war criminal” — raised a more fundamental question. It’s fair to ask whether the West, and more particularly Ukraine, will ever be able to deal with a Russian leader it regards in such a way.

Yet the appalling humanitarian disaster unfolding in Ukraine — and the possibility that thousands of innocent lives could be saved — make it imperative for Kyiv and Western nations to try to come to some accommodation with Putin, as bitter as that may be. But even then: Will the Russian leader ever accept it?

Putin’s resistance to peace

There are many logical reasons why Putin might be ready to sue for peace. The war has been a strategic and economic disaster for Russia. In the space of a few weeks, dizzyingly broad sanctions and punishments have made Russia a diplomatic, financial and cultural pariah. A US official said Wednesday that Russian forces had become “generally stalled” near Kyiv with expectations of a blitzkrieg to the capital a distant memory. A new influx of US and other Western arms could increase what US intelligence agencies already believe are huge Russian casualties in the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance.

Yet at every stage of the conflict, before the invasion and after, Putin has chosen to escalate, to become more inhumane. Ukrainian cities are under siege. In some, food and water are running dry. There is no sign that the Russian President has any qualms at the vicious human toll his actions are taking. His past history suggests that if it takes a grinding, prolonged campaign to destroy Ukraine with blunt weapons like artillery and rockets, he is willing to see it through. There is, meanwhile, no sign that the extraordinary sanctions that have effectively cut off Russia from the world are weakening his domestic political position in a Kremlin system he has long dominated.

Only Putin can end the war -- but he's escalating its brutal toll and spillover potential
Zelensky’s declaration on Tuesday that his country would have to accept that it will not join NATO appeared to be a concession to Putin. But it is hard to see how the Russian leader could accept that as condition enough to withdraw his forces given his warnings at the beginning of the war that Ukraine didn’t have a right to exist and that its people were really Russian.

So for all the terrible cost to Ukrainians and Russians, and despite Western questions over whether he is acting rationally, Putin may still see a logical reason for pursuing the conflict. A country that is destroyed cannot join the West. Putin was offered multiple “off ramps” in the run-up to the invasion, in endless phone conversations with Western leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, and rejected them all. It would be unwise to expect him to change his mind now.

Still, given the Russian leader’s success in eradicating critical media and dissent in Russia, it’s theoretically possible he could save face by declaring any eventual agreement a vindication. But the latest bombardments don’t suggest the Russian leader is in any mood for compromise.

Ukraine could face painful compromises

The journey that Ukraine would need to make toward a ceasefire with Putin also seems to be lengthening. The extraordinary pain already borne by the country, and the defiance shown by Zelensky as he leads a warrior nation in resistance, may raise the stakes for any eventual peace plan.

Put callously, the extent of killing, deprivation and humanitarian blight that the country can stand may shape the government’s position on ceasefire negotiations. It is unclear whether the coming influx of Western weapons and the success of Ukrainian resistance will embolden the government in Kyiv to fight on. Senior Zelensky adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, for instance, said on Wednesday that the Ukrainian army was beginning to counterstrike far larger Russian forces in a number of directions, CNN’s Sam Kiley reported.

Why Zelensky won't get what he wants most from Biden

While there have been some optimistic signals from the Ukrainian side about talks with Russian officials, the terms of a final settlement could be difficult. Having galvanized a nation in a fight for independence and sovereignty, Zelensky may be loath to allow Russia to hold onto areas in Crimea and eastern Ukraine that it has seized — and would probably demand that it retain.

Any requirement for a demilitarization of the country to satisfy Russian calls for neutrality could leave it vulnerable to another invasion. And Ukraine has had a bitter experience with foreign security guarantees. A post-Cold War agreement that led to the dismantling of the country’s Soviet-era nuclear deterrent contained assurances that its sovereignty and independence could be recognized by Britain, the United States and Russia. That didn’t stop Putin’s invasion. Add to that Russia’s multiple statements that it had no plan to march into Ukraine, which means there is no trust in Kyiv for Moscow.

Any pledge that Ukraine would not seek membership in the European Union would also be a bitter pill for Zelensky. Putin might require such a promise since the war and more than a decade of interference in Ukraine’s affairs were largely motivated by his fury at the idea of the nation with the closest ethnic, cultural and historical ties to Russia moving toward the West.

Still, Russia’s invasion has backfired in at least this regard. Ukraine has effectively become part of greater Europe in everything but name. Millions of its people have fled to a haven in the EU and will have long-term ties with the bloc. And key European powers, including Germany, have reshaped decades of foreign policy to support Ukraine — just one of the ways in which the continent will never be the same, whenever the war ends, even if it takes much longer.

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