On March 29, President Erdogan of Turkey hosted a short session of talks at the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul between Ukraine Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov and Russian Presidential Aide Vladimir Medinsky. Before the talks Kyiv tabled a wish list of 15 items summarising how it would be willing to make peace. Some general chat followed (the full meeting lasted three hours), after which the delegates departed to report back to their respective presidents.
Within hours the ten-point list of peace proposals was being described by the Financial Times as a draft peace agreement which had been “discussed in full” before the Istanbul meeting. Russia’s negotiators swiftly rebutted that description. The Financial Times did not claim to have seen the document, and stated that it was reporting on it second hand, based on descriptions provided by four unnamed sources, which are almost certainly senior members of the US State Department who have been briefed by Kyiv.
One named source for the FT article was Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to President Zelenskiy and who was at Dolmabahce. Podolyak’s summary suggests that the 10-point plan stipulates a full Russian troop withdrawal to the February 24 start lines, offers a commitment from Ukraine never to apply to join Nato, demands the continued existence of Ukrainian land forces and offers a commitment not to host foreign troops or exercises on Ukrainian territory.
Other sources suggest that part of the proposal is some form of security guarantee to be underwritten by one or more third-party states. Another reported provision is a protective guarantee for Russian language use (currently banned from all official business as well as education by the Law on Supporting the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State Language, which was signed into force in May 2019. The law also requires all citizens of Ukraine to be able to speak fluent Ukrainian).
Kyiv has reportedly included permission for it to join the European Union in due course in its 10 points.
It is very clear that the plan is not acceptable in Moscow. Also clear is that it is not a “draft peace treaty”, but rather a list of items which Kyiv would find acceptable. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov did welcome Kyiv’s willingness to adopt neutrality, saying: “This option is really being discussed now, and is one that can be considered neutral.”
Oddly, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that “absolutely specific wordings” were “close to being agreed” in the negotiations, which probably means that the wording of the parts of the plan that Moscow likes (neutrality, language and foreign bases) is close to agreement, but not much else.
Outside Dolmabahce, descriptions of what is actually happening in Ukraine still divide into two competing narratives, as bne IntelliNews reported three weeks ago, one from the Western powers (“West”) and the other from Moscow (“East”).
The West’s narrative is that Russia’s military campaign continues to be stalled, that Russian forces are being pushed back by Ukrainian counterattacks, that Russian forces are carrying out gross violations of the law of armed conflict by shelling civilians and civilian infrastructure, and that Russia’s economy is on the point of collapse. The West claims that Russian dead number up to 17,000, with twice that number wounded. The West’s picture is illustrated by maps published by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington based think-tank headed by Under-Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s brother-in-law Fred Kagan.
The East’s narrative is quite different. The siege of Mariupol is some 90% complete, that the Azov and Aidar brigades in Mariupol are responsible for preventing civilian evacuations (by shooting or shelling evacuees), that Russian forces are moving steadily north and south behind Ukraine’s Joint Forces Operation (the JFO with 65,000 men on the Donbas border) to trap the JFO and destroy it, that the JFO is unable to move for lack of diesel and gasoline, and is running out of ammunition, and that Russian dead numbered 1,300 at the start of this week. The East tables its own maps, which see little light of day in any European or US media channels.
The East’s narrative continues that Moscow’s plan is to surround the JFO and either destroy it or capture it; that Russian forces have now surrounded Zaporozhye, Dnipro and Kharkiv, and that Ukrainian forces elsewhere in Ukraine are now unable to manoeuvre or fly for lack of fuel, tanks and functioning aircraft. Russian forces poised outside Kyiv and Chernihiv are withdrawing as a trust-building move. The East’s narrative is supported by regular announcements of the capture of named towns and settlements flowing from Moscow’s Ministry of Defence, but not by Russian video reportage.
Both narratives agree that Russian cruise missiles (mostly Kalibr) continue to bombard targets in western Ukraine. In the East’s narrative these are fuel, ammunition and concentrations of soldiers, while in Kyiv’s narrative they are civilians and homes. Both sides also agree that the battle for Mariupol has killed many thousands of civilians. How many is, at present, unknown, but the local authorities previously said over 5,000 citizens had been killed. Many more must have died in the meantime thanks to the heavy shelling.
Russia’s narrative is largely unsupported by corroborating video evidence, but not completely. Two non-Russian sources are currently reporting daily from within Russian-controlled territory. In Kharkiv a Chilean national files daily reports which tend to confirm that the city of Kharkiv is peaceful, having been by-passed by Russian forces. In Mariupol and the Donbas an independent American reporter also files video reportage daily, sometimes two or three times per day.
Footage filed by this individual from Western Mariupol yesterday showed extensive shell-damage to residential apartment blocks – few blocks in view were un-damaged. In the background of the footage can be clearly heard intense artillery and small-arms fire, described by one interviewee as being 400-500 metres from the filming location in Mariupol’s Zhovtnevyi District. We take this as evidence that Ukrainian forces (probably of the Azov and Aidar brigades) were still holding ground in central Mariupol as late of late April 1. Other reports suggest that Ukrainian forces also still hold ground in the Azovstal steelworks on the left bank of the Kalmius River.
So it seems Mariupol has still not been fully taken by Russian forces. Video reportage from Mariupol strongly corroborates estimates from both sides of civilian deaths in the city at many thousands. Mariupol, with a population of 400,000, is a city of some 4,000 standard Soviet-era apartment blocks, each with a resident population of around a hundred people. Eye-witness reports from areas fought over in the siege consistently tell of multiple mortalities in many, probably most, blocks. Reports of unburied corpses are corroborated by video footage, and accompanied by reports of mass graves hurriedly dug and covered. It appears likely that civilian mortality in Mariupol will top 10,000, and might rise as high as 20,000 people.
The lack of other video reportage from the city is striking, and is a result of Moscow’s strategy to draw Western news teams to Kyiv early in the war.
Eye-witness reports from Dnipro describe the presence of Russian forces outside the city, and it is widely acknowledged that Russian troops are in control of the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant (NPP).
Each observer is entitled to draw their own conclusions on the competing narratives, but in my opinion the weight of evidence seems to support the East’s as being the correct one.
Moscow is now referring to the start of a “Phase 2” of the war, but it is not clear at all what Phase 2 means in practice, since the initial invasion was not referred to as Phase 1 but as a special military operation with two goals, which are being achieved in parallel. Those goals (denazification and de-militarisation) are sufficiently ambiguous to permit any number of phases, according to choice. So what is Phase 2?
One answer might be the surrounding and capture/destruction of the JFO, but it is more likely that that was the core objective of Phase 1.
Phase 2 might be a new threat – of armed thrusts against one or both of Kyiv and Odesa, or even into the open space of Western Ukraine. The Kyiv thrust at the start of the war advanced for a week and then stopped. Kyiv has consistently claimed that Russian troops have been outfought by Ukrainian defenders, a claim which lacks credibility since it is completely unsupported by any actual footage of major engagements. Instead the reportage that has emerged (from a press corps in Kyiv numbering well into three figures) is of minor skirmishes, occasional shell strikes and no significant movement of forces on either side, all of which is completely inconsistent with a determined attempt to attack Kyiv itself, but entirely consistent with a distracting “poise” on the part of Russian forces. It is also consistent with a lack of Russian offensive action, since to-camera reports from Kyiv rarely, if ever, contain any background evidence of conflict (artillery exchanges, small-arms fire or movements of armoured vehicles or aircraft).
Incidentally, Russian sources claim that much of the actual small-arms fire in and around Kyiv is generated by blue-on-blue engagements between Ukrainian militias, and/or from gang warfare between criminals armed by Ukraine’s government. That may or may not be true, but both are reasonably likely in the known circumstances.
Moscow’s use of second-line, light airborne and militia forces on the Kyiv front is further corroboration of the view that the front is a deliberate maskirovka for objectives elsewhere.
The Odesa front is interesting for its complete lack of reportage and movement. After taking Kherson in the first week of the war Russian forces moved west to take Mikolayev/Nikolayev, and then appeared to stop. Poised north-east of Odesa and less than 100 km from friendly forces in Transnistria, Russian troops sat, appearing to do nothing. While they sat Odesa has fortified itself for an assault, mining roads and beaches and equipping the city with a maze of barbed wire obstacles.
What seems more likely that is that Moscow had no intention of either attacking Odesa or of cutting it off from the rest of Ukraine. If one objective is to halt the flow of grain exports and oil imports through Odesa and Chernomorsk that can be served easily and without casualties by the Russian Navy, which does indeed appear to be blockading the port. At present AIS data shows some 40 ships alongside in Odesa and neighbouring ports and estuaries, and none en route to or from Ukraine via those ports. Ukraine added to the blockade by laying hundreds of sea mines off Odesa, and is now talking to Romania about using Constanta as a grain export route.
Equally unlikely is an attempt by Moscow to occupy the whole of Western Ukraine from its front at Odesa. Apart from the high cost in men and machinery of an attack on Ukraine’s national, and nationalist, heartland, the sheer size of the space to be occupied dwarfs the available manpower. West Ukraine covers 250,000 square kilometres, the size of the whole of the United Kingdom for comparison.
Russia has been here before, painfully. Between 1945 and 1949 Russia occupied West Ukraine in force with some 500,000 men; 49,000 of these were killed in the process by the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists. The OUN’s forces were much smaller, less well equipped and less well supplied than the present Ukraine army. Pacification of West Ukraine also included the deportation of some 900,000 people to camps in east Russia. Ukrainian nationalist dislike of Russia has deep roots in history.
In light of this experience it seems inconceivable that Moscow would choose to extend its invasion of Ukraine to include Western Ukraine, but it must be said that Russian President Vladimir Putin does not necessarily share a cool rational view of what is inconceivable – the war itself is clear evidence of that. There are evidential straws in the wind, which support the thesis that Phase 2 would be a Russian invasion of West Ukraine. The first of these is the presence of a large Belarusian force poised on the northern border of West Ukraine. Its presence begs the question of “why”? Is the reason for that presence a Russian plan to invade West Ukraine from the north and east? Quite possibly – we have been here before, recently.
The second straw is a military one – an invasion of West Ukraine would take a Russian force of at least 100,000 men. That 100,000 is currently fully occupied surrounding Ukraine’s JFO on the Donbas border. Once the JFO surrenders (perhaps 20 days from now) Russia’s main force would be available for a new campaign in West Ukraine, just 200 km west of its current positions.
The third straw is the lurking threat of supporting attacks by Russian amphibious forces, which might land west of Odesa, and/or from forces in Transnistria. And the fourth straw is visual evidence of the arrival of reinforcements from central Russia on Ukraine’s borders. Add to that mix Putin’s essay last year on the non-status of Ukraine, plus the fact that the heartland of Ukrainian ultra-right nationalism is in Lviv, and an invasion of West Ukraine moves from “inconceivable” to “possible, even likely”.
Combine the physical aspects listed above with the firmly established image of Moscow in the eyes of Western media, politicians and peoples as non-rational, even psychopathic, and the threat that Phase 2 is actually an armed invasion and occupation of West Ukraine becomes a credible possibility to the Western mind.
We simply don’t know the truth. There is a significant probability that Moscow is using its ambiguous reference to Phase 2 to stand up a threat to Western Ukraine just in order to be able to place it on the negotiating table as a major concession towards a peace. The standstill order to forces outside Kyiv could be the first conciliatory step in that direction.
There is a fourth candidate for Phase 2. Moscow has been vague on its plans for Trans-Dnepr Ukraine – the territory between the Dnepr River and the Donbas. The keys to this area (which produces half of Ukraine’s wheat and sunflower oil, and all of its small flow of domestic oil and gas) are two dozen bridges across the Dnepr River. Nine are in Kyiv, blocked in practice by the forces poised east and west of Kyiv. Three, in or near Kherson, are now in Russian hands. Nine more (at Zaporozhye and Dnipro) are probably isolated from territory to the east by Russian forces investing the two cities. That leaves four bridges at Kremenchuk and Cherkassy currently available to Ukraine to move forces and supplies across the Dnepr. Is Phase 2 the capture of those remaining bridges? With Trans-Dnepr Ukraine cut off and the JFO captured, a Russian occupation of the rest of Trans-Dnepr would take only a few days to complete.
Moscow’s intentions for Trans-Dnepr are not entirely obscure. Two weeks ago it announced plans to hold a referendum on independence in Kherson. Kherson city accounts for just under one third of the population of Kherson oblast of 280,000, and the oblast’s territory extends well west of the Dnepr. The referendum announcement triggered immediate protests in Kherson city, which appear to have continued (according to footage hosted by an Indian news channel on April 1). The 2001 census recorded that over 80% of Kherson’s population claimed Ukrainian ethnicity and only 14% Russian, though for many the choice may have been one of convenience over conviction, but a 2014 survey reported that only 10% of the population supported re-unification with Russia.
Given Kherson’s location next door to Crimea and its control over Crimea’s water supply, it is highly likely that Moscow will want to retain possession of Kherson whatever its population thinks, but a referendum in Kherson alone looks unlikely to deliver a vote for independence or unification with Russia.
So, If Phase 2’s objective is to gain a vote for some form of independence, Kherson’s Ukrainian loyalties would have to be diluted within a larger electorate. Russia is unlikely to worry overmuch about the existing Oblast boundaries, many of which either cross or even straddle the Dnepr. A referendum plan which exploits Russian ethnic concentrations further east (Russians to the east of the Dnepr, Ukrainians to the west), refugee flight (ethnic Ukrainians leaving eastern oblasts for shelter in West Ukraine), ethnicity switching (people of mixed ethnicity who are happy with either so long as they can live in peace), financial inducements (significantly better pensions, benefits immediately, plus better economic opportunities for the young in Russia), gerrymandering (ensuring that the more-Russian Zaporozhians vote together with the less-Russian Khersonians) and old fashioned ballot-stuffing might deliver a collective vote for independence east of the Dnepr river.
Kyiv has, of course, publicly stated its red line as the retention of all oblasts other than Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk. However, if Russia wins the ground war in east Ukraine (which looks certain at this point) there will be little Kyiv can do to enforce that red line. Evidence that President Zelenskiy knows how weak his prospects are can be found in the fact that it is Kyiv which has asked for peace talks and pre-tabled concessions, and that it is Kyiv which is pleading for a no-fly zone and additional supplies of weapons.
Having fallen on deaf ears among European politicians, both of these pleas have now migrated to glossy advertisements on social media channels aimed at the Western mass audience, which must be the first time in history that a belligerent in a major war has bought popular mass media exposure among neutral states to drum up support.
While we try to work out the meaning of Phase 2, and count the days until the JFO gives up, the East’s political and economic conflict with the West continues. The West’s hopes that Russia’s economy would collapse when its foreign reserves were frozen have proved empty. Indeed, the ruble has returned to its value on the day before the invasion began and Russia is selling oil and gas to both India and China despite US attempts to sanction energy sales. Reports from inside Russia consistently reveal wide popular support for the war, enhanced this week by video reportage (posted apparently by Ukrainians) of Russian prisoners of war lying bound and hooded being mutilated and even murdered by Ukrainian soldiers. Beijing has expressed support for Russia (though not for the war itself) along with a clear intention to ignore US sanctions aimed at dividing Russia and China. Most African nations have declared a firm neutrality.
If Moscow’s Phase 2 is limited to the excision of Trans-Dnepr from Kyiv then the moment of maximum danger for Nato’s European members may have passed. However, if Phase 2 turns out to be an invasion of West Ukraine it will return with a vengeance. Russian troops on the Dnepr is one (perhaps acceptable) thing to Europe. Russian troops on the borders of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Romania quite another. An invasion of West Ukraine could well trigger the Nato/Russia war that we have so far avoided.