After the Russian humiliating retreat from Kyiv, all eyes are on the Donbass where a major battle is expected to take place in the near future. Meanwhile, Russia and Ukraine will continue holding peace talks, and the Kremlin is expected to keep demonstrating its political weakness.
On March 31 Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree allegedly forcing “unfriendly” European purchasers of Russian natural gas to set up a special ruble bank account in Russia’s state-controlled Gazprombank to pay for their supplies. Two days later, however, the Kremlin announced that it does not plan to cut off gas exports to Europe yet, and several European countries openly rejected Moscow’s demand for gas payment in rubles.
If Russia does not halt gas supplies to “unfriendly” countries by May, the West will undoubtedly interpret Putin’s announcement as yet another empty threat. More importantly, the European Union and the United States will continue imposing sanctions on the Russian Federation as long as the war in Ukraine goes on, and restrictive measures are unlikely to be lifted even after a peace deal between Moscow and Kyiv is signed.
Diplomatically, the Kremlin has already shot itself in the foot when it agreed not to continue holding talks in Belarus. According to the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, “Ukraine was against negotiations in Belarus”, which is why Moscow had to accept to meet with Ukrainian delegation in Istanbul, Turkey. Thus, Russia made a unilateral concession to the country it reportedly aims to “denazify”.
Many Russians are not particularly happy about the fact that Moscow and Kyiv are holding talks, be it in Istanbul or elsewhere. For instance, famous Russian journalist Vladimir Solovyov – critics call him a propagandist – claims that “any negotiations with Nazis are interpreted as Russian weakness”. In addition, Igor Korotchenko, a member of the civil council of Russia’s Ministry of Defense, insists that a potential peace agreement with Ukraine “will not only be a mistake, but it will be a betrayal”.
At the same time, Ukrainian officials stressed that the Russian side at the talks in Istanbul has accepted almost all of Kyiv’s demands. The Kremlin has reportedly agreed that Ukraine should hold a referendum on the neutrality of the country, but if the Ukrainian citizens do not approve a deal, Kyiv will launch new peace talks with Moscow. In other words, Russia agreed to hold endless talks with those that Russian President Vladimir Putin called “a band of drug addicts and neo-Nazis”. Moreover, there are indications suggesting that Putin is ready to meet with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in Istanbul “in the near future”, even though Moscow has not achieved a single military and a political goal in the Eastern European country.
That is why some Russian analysts criticize the country’s chief mediator Vladimir Medinsky, and fear that the Kremlin is preparing the ground to sign another Khasavyurt Accord – the document that brought the first Chechen war to an end under Boris Yeltsin in 1996. As a result of the deal, Russia withdraw its forces from Chechnya in exchange for its capital, Grozny, being demilitarized. Indeed, it is entirely possible that Moscow could try to implement a similar exit strategy in Ukraine, although a potential agreement with Kyiv is unlikely to be signed before “the battle for the Donbass” is over.
Given that Russian troops have a hard time seizing the strategically important town of Marinka in the Donbass, it is highly uncertain they will manage to establish full control over the coal-rich region any time soon, if at all. Meanwhile, Ukraine is expected to continue conducting strikes on Russian territory, which will represent additional humiliation for Moscow. The Kremlin, for its part, will continue making concessions to its Ukrainian and Western partners. On April 3 Russia agreed to allow evacuation of foreign citizens from the port city of Mariupol. Could “foreign citizens” actually be foreign mercenaries? One thing is for sure – the battle for the Donbass will be a turning point of the Russo-Ukrainian war only if Russia fails to capture the energy-rich territory. In that case, Ukraine will likely launch a major counter-offensive, and sooner or later Russian forces will have to retreat from the region, which will mark the end of Putin’s military adventure in Ukraine.
If the Russian Army wins in Donbass, the war will go on because Kyiv, unlike Moscow, does not seem to be ready to sign any form of capitulation.
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