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Peace in Ukraine may only be possible through an unhappy armistice

Kherson, 12 June: Volunteers rescue residents from the flood waters | Alamy

Lord Dannatt

Lord Dannatt

4 min read

Zelensky may have to reconsider approaching the negotiating table – but it must be his decision, not one forced on him by the West

The Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944 draws a number of parallels with the current situation in Ukraine, but major differences too. There was no doubt in the early dawn of 6  June 1944 that the Allied counter offensive to defeat Nazi Germany had begun: 150,000 soldiers landing simultaneously on five beaches left no room for ambiguity. In Ukraine, operational security cloaks the opening moves of the much-anticipated offensive, the sabotage of the Kakhovka dam has constrained Ukraine’s tactical options while simultaneously providing her with a major humanitarian and public health challenge.

The biggest diversion from the 1944 narrative is over strategic objectives and their likely achievement. The Second World War Allied leaders had agreed the strategic objective of Germany’s unconditional surrender. The Russian pincer from the East and the Western Allies advance across the Rhine and into the heart of Germany meant that the final denouement in the bunker in Berlin was an inevitability, albeit a hideously costly one in terms of blood and treasure. The same clarity cannot be brought to the situation between Russia and Ukraine today. 

Volodymyr Zelensky’s often stated objective of expelling all Russian forces from Ukraine is irreconcilable with Vladimir Putin’s objective of wanting to own or control all or part of Ukraine. There is no basis for peace negotiations nor an inclination to begin them. For this reason, eyes are focused on the battlefield where success or failure of the Ukrainian counter offensive will set the conditions for whatever comes next.

On the right of the arc of optimism, it can be construed, even fervently hoped for, that the Ukrainian military, armed, trained and supported by the West will deliver such shattering blows to a dispirited and mortally wounded Russian army that a rapid collapse – such as on the Kharkiv-Izium axis last autumn – will drive the Russians from the field in a Waterloo-like reprise. However the harsh reality is that such an outcome, while highly desirable, remains highly unlikely. Of course I would like to be proved wrong. The reality, by the onset of this winter, is that the Ukrainian counter offensive will only achieve limited success.

There is no basis for peace negotiations nor an inclination to begin them

Depending on the determination and skill of the Ukrainian attackers and effectiveness of the Russian defensive preparations, the end of the campaigning season might see Ukrainians in control of Zaporizhzhia and drive a wedge towards the Sea of Azov, splitting Russian forces into two. The sabotaging of the Kakhovka dam has ruled out a strike across the Dnipro River towards Kherson, thus threatening Crimea, although some progress may well have been made in the centre around Bakhmut and further north. 

If elements of the Russian army remain intact and secure on Ukrainian soil, Putin may have achieved enough to secure his future. Ukrainians will have shot their one-time bolt and their support from the West may start to wane. In that respect, time is on Putin’s side even if the quality of life for the average Russian continues to decline. Nevertheless the Kremlin controls the public narrative which paints the West as the aggressor and Putin defending Mother Russia.

It is under these circumstances and with the prospect of a never-ending war, that Zelensky may have to reconsider approaching the negotiating table. And it must be his decision, not one forced on him by the West. However the irreconcilable positions of the two sides will not have changed – so is the only option a mirror of the armistice on the Korean Peninsula? No more war, but no peace. That is an appalling prospect for Ukraine to contemplate and an equally appalling prospect for the rest of Europe. 

Lord Dannatt is a Crossbench peer and former chief of the general staff

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Read the most recent article written by Lord Dannatt - Britain is not prepared for World War Three

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