The Observer view on negotiating with Vladimir Putin: it’s too soon | Observer editorial

Vladimir Putin’s decision to stay away from this week’s G20 summit of world leaders in Bali is telling. While Indonesia insisted that Russia’s president was welcome, his presence would have been an embarrassment. He is an international pariah – and he knows it. Even China appears to be losing patience.

The reason for this is, of course, Ukraine, where Putin’s calamitous “special military operation” diminishes him and his country by the day. Last week’s liberation by Ukrainian forces of Kherson, following victories around Kyiv and in Kharkiv region, was the most significant Russian reverse since the invasion began in February. Putin annexed the Kherson oblast in September after a phoney referendum and declared it sovereign territory. The provincial capital, the only one in Kremlin hands, would “never” be surrendered, he vowed.

Now, his troops, fearing encirclement, have cut and run, scuttling off to the relative safety of the east bank of the Dnipro River. Exhibiting trademark political cowardice, a shellshocked Putin has been trying to distance himself from this disaster. He left it to his hapless defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and newly appointed hardline commander in Ukraine, Gen Sergei Surovikin, to break the humiliating news to TV viewers.

But every Russian knows who is responsible. For dictators like Putin, that is the price of absolute power. The Kherson debacle has further dispelled the aura of a wise, all-knowing, tsar-like father figure that he has cultivated over two decades. Sadly, Putin is not yet finished, but his public standing is considerably weakened. This sense that Russia is on the back foot is one of several factors fuelling speculation about peace talks. Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs, argued last week that a “window of opportunity” was opening as winter freezes the frontlines. Kyiv’s troops were unlikely to advance much further until spring, he said, and could then face a better-organised enemy. Negotiators should “seize the moment”.

Fears that the war may drag on inconclusively for years, replicating the eight-year Donbas stalemate, feed the talk about talks. The human cost is undoubtedly horrific, with an estimated 100,000 military casualties on each side. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have also been killed, injured, traumatised and displaced.

Meanwhile, Pentagon chiefs worry about escalating financial costs and weapons shortages – a problem already affecting European Nato states. The US has provided $19.3bn (£17bn) in lethal aid to Ukraine, including an additional $400m last week. There is talk of a new $50bn congressional package by year’s end. This will not please some newly elected Republicans, who want to cut aid. Rising political pressures are not confined to the US. Far-right and far-left European parties, peace campaigners and Putin admirers such as Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, also question unlimited EU support for a limitless conflict amid an energy and cost of living squeeze. They want the war to stop now.

That is not a view shared by Ukraine’s leadership and citizens. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his advisers say bluntly there is nothing to negotiate about while Moscow’s aggression continues and, in any case, Putin cannot be trusted. They point out that there is no sign Russia is ready for serious talks. Rather, it is digging in and preparing for a long winter of attritional warfare.

Putin’s terroristic missile and drone attacks on electricity and water infrastructure appear only to have hardened ordinary people’s resistance. Last week, Zelenskiy reiterated Ukraine’s demands: “Restoration of territorial integrity, respect for the UN charter, compensation for all damages caused by the war, punishment of every war criminal and guarantees that this will not happen again.” The risk of growing differences between Kyiv and Washington is evident. With European Nato allies, not least Britain, preoccupied by conflict-related economic problems, the Biden administration has increasingly taken charge of the western war effort. But a recent, informal US suggestion that Ukraine adopt a more flexible position went down very badly in Kyiv. Disagreements over how to proceed have also emerged within the US government itself, with Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s national security adviser, reportedly resisting Gen Milley’s advice. Sullivan and other White House aides argue any pause in the fighting would give Russia time to reinforce, regroup and rearm.

Although the US believed the war would be settled through negotiations, it was not “pressuring” Ukraine, Sullivan said last week. “We’re not insisting on things with Ukraine. What we are doing is consulting as partners.” Nevertheless, the impression remains, after his visit to Kyiv last weekend, that the US has begun to explore what a settlement might ultimately look like.

A yearning for a quick, painless end is a natural response to slaughter and misery. Disrupted grain supplies to developing countries, fears of nuclear escalation, dire environmental impacts, the weaponisation of fossil fuels and the economic pain felt by people everywhere all add to pressure for a swift resolution. Endless war is not an option. Negotiations with the Russian government, not necessarily with Putin, will happen eventually. But the time is not yet ripe. Ukraine must be allowed to choose its moment and begin any talks from a position of maximum strength. Putin must not be rewarded for his butchery. More victories like that in Kherson can pave the way to peace.

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