“Winter Break” in Ukraine – Time to Reorganize or Negotiate?
By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi | December, 2022
|Photo: OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine | CC BY 2.0|
Approximately ten months into the war in Ukraine, it is clear that neither party is capable of achieving decisive victory militarily, and, instead, both seem to be making every effort to improve their positions in preparation for winter months. Both sides realize that this season, during which the ability to carry out offensive maneuvers is limited, may dictate the course of the campaign in 2023. The present paper aims to describe Russia and Ukraine’s strategies, and examine whether the conditions for promoting an arrangement that would resolve this conflict have matured.
Competing strategies – Crushing and reorganizing vs. utilization of momentum
Russia has adopted a combined strategy based on illustrating the cost of losing for Ukraine and operative regrouping of its forces. Thus, while it continues to exert energetic pressures on Europe, Russia has increased its strikes against infrastructure and power stations across Ukraine, including central and western Ukraine, disrupting the supply of water, electricity, and other utilities, and raising concerns over a humanitarian crisis during the freezing-cold winter months. At the same time, the Russian army is trying to improve its deployment on the ground in an attempt to avoid another collapse, similar to the one that took place several weeks ago around Kharkiv. It is, therefore, withdrawing in a relatively organized fashion from regions it had occupied at the beginning of the war (Kherson), improving its defensive layout, continuing to take steps to train civilians drafted, as well as replenish military inventories that have depleted substantially during the war (inter alia by receiving Iranian help to manufacture drones on Russian soil).
Ukraine, for its part, strives to keep up the military momentum before winter sets in, while attempting to exhaust the Russian army, inter alia by striking supply lines, and perhaps even carrying out another attack. President Zelensky is hoping that additional successes on the battlefield will convince western leaders that prolonged fighting will force the Russian army to withdraw from more regions, and lead Moscow to seek an arrangement from a weaker standpoint. He therefore finds no logic in pursuing an arrangement at present, but, instead, believes in increased military aid, including the provision of air defense systems (an area in which the Ukrainian army is particularly lacking).
First signs of dialogue?
What appears to be a “draw” in this war, coupled with the high costs it entails, has recently led key parties in the West to advocate the possibility of finding an outline toward an arrangement. In the backdrop are the Ukrainian army’s recent successes, as well as the realization that, even if Russia will be curbed and stopped from winning this war, it cannot be defeated nor forced to cease fighting. Furthermore, there is rising concern that, in the event that Putin will be cornered, he may be prompted to use extreme means of retaliation.
One manifestation of this view was provided by chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, who is among those spearheading the approach that the time has come for an arrangement to be examined. He maintains that the Ukrainian army’s recent successes, as well as Russia’s ongoing failures, should be utilized to take a seat at the negotiating table from a position of strength, while Russia is at a weak standpoint, so as to enable a political resolution of the conflict. One reason to promote dialogue at this point in time, in his opinion, is that the chances of the Ukrainian army winning and driving Russia out of all the territories it has occupied during the war are slim. Like him, President Macron has also been urging Russia and Ukraine to negotiate a resolution of this campaign.
And, indeed, several incidents in recent weeks may be indicative of a change of approach in Washington and Moscow. For instance, Burns, the head of the CIA, met his Russian counterpart, Naryshkin, in Turkey, and later visited Kiev. Earlier, the American media reported that National Security Advisor Sullivan has been holding secret talks with senior Russian officials in recent months. During October, several telephone calls have also been made by and between the Russian defense minister and chief of general staff and their U.S. counterparts. The accumulation of direct interactions between senior defense officials in both countries, after a long period of disconnection, may indicate the parties’ willingness to look into the possibility of negotiating an arrangement and/or at least ensure that matters will not spin out of control in Ukraine.
In any event, the road to an arrangement is paved with obstacles, and the key question remains the future of the territories that Russia has been occupying since the invasion (as well as the issue of Crimea). For while Putin cannot let them go, especially after he has declared that they have been annexed to Russia, Zelensky also lacks the mandate from the Ukrainian public to give them up, even in exchange for ending the fighting. In the current state of affairs, the only option for an arrangement in the foreseeable future (if any) seems to be finding a creative model whereby each party’s sovereignty remains intact, or any other formula (such as the Hong Kong model), that will allow both sides to present the agreement as an achievement on their part. The decision to renew the talks, coupled with the level and identity of the representatives both countries will choose to appoint, could indicate whether an arrangement is indeed achievable, or whether these winter months will be spent regrouping and preparing for another bout of fierce fighting in the spring of 2023.
Implications and recommendations for Israel
Since the war began, the Israeli government has adopted a cautious approach to providing air defense systems, despite Ukraine’s repeated requests that it do so, and its claims that Israel should clearly state that it is standing by Kiev, and be “on the right side of history”. The Israeli position springs from its complex relations with Russia, and primarily from Russia’s damaging potential, such as impeding the Israeli air force’s freedom of action in the Syrian arena, attacking Israeli targets (cyberattacks or electronic warfare), or challenging the safety of Russian Jewry.
Moreover, it is particularly against this backdrop of closer security collaborations between Russia and Iran, as well as the desire to prevent these ties from crossing over to more problematic areas (nuclear, Syria), that Israel must exhibit extra caution, and refrain from taking steps that could cause Russia to retaliate, playing into Tehran’s hands. One reason for embracing such a policy is the warnings relayed by Russian officials whereby Israeli involvement in the campaign would come at a cost.
Under the fragile security reality in the region, and in light of the fact that the conflict between Israel and Iran has gone up a notch, it is crucial for Israel to actively preserve its utmost capabilities and freedom of action in order to protect its interests and take action against Iranian targets in the area.
The new government is therefore advised to avoid supplying air defense and/or other weapon systems to Ukraine, while aligning itself with the western standpoint, expressing public support for Ukraine, condemning the war crimes perpetrated by Russia, as well as promoting cooperation with Kiev (whether directly or via third parties). Russia’s responses to Israeli statements made in recent months have illustrated that Moscow does not view them as having crossed any red lines. Be that as it may, Israel should insist on conducting its dialogue with Moscow (particularly on issues that are in dispute) behind closed doors and far away from any media attention.
Authored by Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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