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8 Jan, 2024 19:36

‘Plan B’ for Ukraine: Calls for concessions to Russia are growng in both Kiev and the West, but are they realistic?

An increasing number of voices are acknowledging that the conflict won't end on Vladimir Zelensky's terms
‘Plan B’ for Ukraine: Calls for concessions to Russia are growng in both Kiev and the West, but are they realistic?

We are hearing more and more suggestions that Kiev should get ready for a compromise peace. In particular, there are mountings calls to cede territory to Russia.

Two things have changed in both the West and Ukraine: First, there are now growing demands for a “plan B,” as the former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko calls it, and, more importantly, the taboo on talking about this need is gone.

Given Ukraine’s difficult and dangerous – not to mention that things could quickly get much worse – military, financial, and political situation, these calls are no surprise. The real question is not why this is happening, but what it may mean for the future: Do these calls signal a real readiness to make peace? And if so on what terms? And is it a realistic prospect?

Let’s start with a voice from the West: James Stavridis – a retired American admiral, former military head of NATO, and dean emeritus of the prestigious US Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy – has used his perch as a Bloomberg columnist to ask how the war will end. He finds that Ukraine is unlikely to retake what has been lost to Russia and, in effect, recommends it “consider temporarily or even permanently ceding Crimea and the ‘land bridge’ connecting it to Russia.”

A few months ago, such a statement would have been scandalous; now it’s part of the new normal. Despite the fact that it directly contradicts Ukraine’s official war aims, namely, to make no territorial concessions at all. And note that such a scenario is what Stavridis pitches as the desirable outcome of continuing Western support: This is a former NATO commander telling the West that the new best-case result is a compromise peace that Kiev officially abhors.

What do we hear from Ukraine? The single most resonant statement there has come from Timoshenko. Once a cunning and energetic top player in Kiev politics and still leader of her own ‘Batkivshchyna’ party, she has clearly not given up trying for a comeback: Recently, she made headlines by resisting a new mobilization law and launching an offensive against LGBTQ politics. The two issues have little in common except they both show her angling for popular appeal: On the mobilization law she poses as the defender of the next cohort of young recruits to go into the meatgrinder (she suggests sending police and other “siloviki [security professionals]” instead…); and regarding LGBTQ, she presents herself as upholding traditional values.

Timoshenko’s most provocative sally, however, was to call on President Vladimir Zelensky to “show his leadership” by presenting a “plan B” for the war. One that would entail an “exit from the current difficult, quite tragic situation.” Affirming her commitment to victory and “territorial integrity,” she nonetheless insists that a “head-on” approach is no longer viable because Ukraine cannot sustain a long war in this manner.

And then there is Aleksey Arestovich. A former adviser to Zelensky and top promoter of war against Moscow, when it could still have been avoided, he has recently made a splash by suggesting that Ukraine and Russia should make peace and then unite against the West. That would be yet another way of ending the war, if it were realistic.

But what about the conditions that Stavridis, Timoshenko, and Arestovich foresee?

The former NATO commander is an example of how even those in the West who have rediscovered some realism, still suffer from wishful thinking as well. Stavridis’ scenario for ending the fighting involves not only Ukraine ceding territory to Russia, but also Moscow acquiescing in Kiev acceding to EU and NATO membership. If he is serious about this, then he is outlining what is a perfect non-starter for Russia. As its President Vladimir Putin has just reiterated, Moscow’s war aims still include Ukraine’s neutrality.   

Timoshenko’s ideas don't look much more hopeful. She may have only one real aim: to embarrass Zelensky and his “leadership.” Her “plan B” is still a plan “of victory,” and her rhetoric has remained generally strident: In a recent op-ed, she insists that Ukraine has “already won” multiple battles, such as being acknowledged as part of “the West” (good luck with that…), achieving domestic unity, and dismantling Russian influence. And yet, she is a wily operator: Could her list of victories already claimed also be read as signaling that, perhaps, for now at least, more may not be needed?

Arestovich, meanwhile, has been challenged by Evgeny Kiselyov – a Russian journalist now in exile in Ukraine – who essentially took the former Zelensky adviser to task for no longer being reliably anti-Russian.  Arestovich, in response, now claims that he was just trying to frighten the West and that he is earnestly looking for a way to avoid years of future war in Europe (and beyond), especially with Ukraine as a battleground. He has come to feel that a grand settlement between major powers is the only way out.

Which one is the real Arestovich: the one calling for an anti-Western alliance with Russia, the one who says (on a YouTube channel that he seems to assume no one in the West will ever hear about) that that was merely a bluff to cajole the West, or the one who hovers high above such tactical plays to ponder the very big picture, namely, how to secure global peace?

And yet, here as well, things may be more complicated: In the same interview and following the recent revelations of former Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Chaly, Arestovich also spends much time on the great missed opportunity of the Istanbul talks in spring 2022, confirming that Moscow then offered very advantageous conditions to Kiev and that peace was almost made. A “parade of unexpected generosities” from Russia he now calls what was on the table then.

Before Istanbul, Arestovich was also involved with the Minsk Agreements. Between the spring of 2015 and early 2022, Minsk II in particular, endorsed by the UN, could have served as a basis for a peaceful resolution of the then comparatively small-scale conflict. Yet neither the Ukrainian leadership nor its Western sponsors were interested in making the deal work, as Ukrainian politicians boasted at the time (usually on Ukrainian media) and Western leaders admitted in retrospect. It is no surprise to find Arestovich deriding the Minsk Agreements as a “trap” and a “dead end.” Yet while that merely confirms the Ukrainian obstructionism we already knew about, it is still interesting to note that, for him, Kiev got much better out of the Istanbul talks.

It would be naive to simply believe Arestovich. He, too, like Timoshenko, is a wily and ruthless operator out for more, including, as odd as it may sound, the Ukrainian presidency. At the moment, he is interested in weakening his former boss Zelensky as much as he can. Deepening the impression that the latter missed an excellent opportunity to make peace for Ukraine early on in the large-scale war makes sense for Arestovich. Yet even if Zelensky’s former adviser is biased by his own ambitions, in this case, his story is true. By now we have multiple mutually corroborating accounts pointing in the same direction.

In that sense, Arestovich’s new statements about Istanbul 2022 can be read as implying future possibilities as well: If peace was so close once, it cannot be entirely impossible now. Yet the former presidential adviser also warns – realistically – that terms as good as were available then to Kiev are not likely to return. Indeed, he confesses his pessimism as to finding an end to the war soon.

The “Plan B” team is daring to join the debate, albeit cautiously. That’s good news. But a closer look is disappointing. We find few serious, concrete, and explicit suggestions as to how to make peace. Stavridis, who has the freedom to be the most outspoken, combines his realistic call for territorial concessions by Kiev with NATO membership for Ukraine, an idea that he must know will never fly in Moscow. Timoshenko and Arestovich remain ambiguous, even self-contradictory. And none makes a genuine effort to think through what Stavridis – in his most insightful aside – at least mentions: that any plans will depend on Russia agreeing.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.