Russian air strikes against Ukrainian cities continue to target critical infrastructure and civilians in an attempt to break the resolve of the Ukrainian population.
Russia’s warfare demonstrates on a daily basis what this war is about: the destruction of the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian nation.
The repair of infrastructure is a race against time, with winter temperatures making each power outage and disruption to the heating system or water supplies potentially deadly. Large-scale human suffering and further displacement are part of the Russian calculation.
On the ground, Ukrainian troops are preparing for further offensives, but they are also coming under pressure, most recently in the Donbas region where Russia has reconcentrated its efforts after having to retreat from the city of Kherson and some of its surrounding areas.
While there is still widespread support for Ukraine in its defense against Russia’s aggression across most Western capitals, the idea of a negotiated end to this war has cropped up repeatedly. And it has been taking on a new momentum.
The difference is that this time the vague idea of negotiations has been aired by U.S. state officials, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on a recent trip to Kyiv. U.S. military assistance to Ukraine has been critical to the country’s defense since February 2022, but the scope and cost of this type of support has come under closer scrutiny recently from sections of the Republican party.
While U.S. President Joe Biden has been eager to emphasize publicly that the time is not ripe for negotiations, French President Emmanuel Macron has fueled new doubts over the United States’ and the EU’s commitments to Ukraine.
Upon his December 2 return from his visit to Washington, Macron spoke not only about the need for negotiations but also for concrete security guarantees for Russia within a future European security order. Macron explicitly referred to NATO’s eastward enlargement as being unacceptable for Russia.
This statement has set off alarm bells in other Western capitals, including in Berlin—usually a close ally of Paris. Macron seems to have forgotten that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had put Ukraine’s neutrality up for negotiation just weeks after Russia’s full-scale invasion began. At that time, Russian President Vladimir Putin had no interest in bargaining over this issue, making it clear that this war is not about NATO but about Ukrainian sovereignty.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also been criticized for his most recent phone conversation with Putin on December 2. While Putin apparently pushed Scholz to abandon German military support for Ukraine and call for negotiations, Scholz is reported to have pointed to the need for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory before negotiations can start.
There is uncertainty in the European media and public discourse about Scholz’s take on negotiations. In spite of rising energy prices and other costs of living, the German public still exhibits majority support for Ukraine, including for military assistance. But when the additional question about diplomatic efforts to end the war is put in opinion polls, as of November, there is now also a majority expressing a wish for more engagement in this regard.
Public opinion in some parts of the EU is increasingly contradictory: continued support for Ukraine, including through military assistance, is expressed alongside the desire for more diplomacy.
This is precisely the kind of discrepancy Putin and the Russian state aim to expose to tilt the tables in their favor. Various members of the Russian elite have spoken about the possibility of negotiations—without however exhibiting any serious political will to make concessions or to withdraw from Ukraine.
Statements about the scope for negotiations have mostly been put out by Presidential Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, only to be invalidated shortly afterwards by another official—for example by Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation. This variation in emphasis has two objectives: first, it is part of the Kremlin’s communication with domestic audiences, which wrongly casts Ukraine in the role of the party unwilling to end this war. Blame thereby shifts away from Russia to Ukraine and its Western supporters, who are portrayed as deliberately prolonging the war.
The second objective is to create uncertainty about Russia’s plans, so as to provide a platform to those in the West who argue for negotiations and to amplify latent societal wishes in countries like Germany or France.
In recent months, discussions about reconstruction in Ukraine have gained momentum—in Kyiv, but also in Brussels and at the consultative meeting in Berlin on October 25 sponsored by Germany, Ukraine, and the G7.
In light of the destruction of infrastructure, it is important to be clear that reconstruction of Ukraine begins now and not at some distant point in the future after this war ends. It should also be clear, however, that reconstruction cannot be separated from further military assistance.
Only the combination of military assistance and reconstruction efforts now will one day put Ukraine in the position to decide if and when it wants to negotiate. At the moment, any ceasefire or peace negotiations can only have one effect: buying Russia time to regroup and renew its attacks in the spring.
Gwendolyn Sasse is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin.