Many Ukrainians now believe they can defeat Russia's army, complicating diplomatic negotiations

As Russia's relentless bombardment of Ukraine's cities continues, so do peace talks behind the scenes. Russia's battlefield challenges have given some Ukrainians hope that a military victory may be possible, increasing expectations of what concessions can be won during negotiations with the Kremlin.

Officials and former Ukrainian ambassador to Canada say they have little hope negotiations will bring peace

Andriy Shevchenko was Ukraine's ambassador to Canada from 2015 to 2021. He is a former journalist and member of Ukraine's parliament. Since Russia's invasion on Feb. 24, he has been working with international media to increase coverage of the war. (Jean Francois Bisson/CBC News)

The announcement from the Russian news agency TASS over the weekend might have sounded too good to be true for Ukrainians, and for those distraught by the devastation inflicted by Russian bombs and missiles on Ukrainian cities and civilians.

It quoted prominent Russian Duma deputy Leonid Slutsky as saying peace talks between Ukraine and Russia have made "considerable progress" and that "documents could be signed" within days.

In response, Ukrainian negotiators said they sensed a shift in the utterly unfounded Russian position of its "denazification" and "demilitarization" of Ukraine. They also said they sensed that their own demands were finally being listened to by the Russian officials on the other side of the table.

But in interviews with CBC News, Ukrainian leaders and one former Ukrainian diplomat are putting little faith in this current round of talks to stop the war.

Instead, they believe Russian statements that negotiations are progressing are, at best, disingenuous — and are more likely an effort to deflect failure to secure a ceasefire onto Ukraine.   

A charred Russian tank and captured tanks are seen in the Sumy region of Ukraine on March 7. (REUTERS)

'Everyone in Ukraine wants peace'

They also fear it will take another lengthy period of intense warfare, with a high number of civilian casualties, before the Kremlin is ready to make a deal that Ukraine could accept.

"Listen, I think Putin was very clear when he explained that he just does not accept the idea of Ukraine," said Andriy Shevchenko, a former Ukrainian MP who served as Ukraine's ambassador in Ottawa for six years, until 2021.

He told CBC News that most Ukrainians see Russian President Vladimir Putin's war of aggression against their nation as an effort to destroy the Ukrainian identity. 

"I think he cannot acknowledge any chance for Ukraine being a sovereign nation, deciding for itself what kind of future it wants to have," Shevchenko said. "Everyone in Ukraine again badly wants peace, but I think our expectations for these negotiations are very low at the moment." 

Shevchenko set up the Ukraine Media Centre in Lviv to further international coverage of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC News)

Shevchenko spoke to CBC News in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where he is organizing an international media centre to help share Ukrainian perspectives about the war with the rest of the world.   

Despite the danger, he continues to travel back and forth to the capital, Kyiv, where his wife is a TV presenter and reports on Ukraine's defence.

"We are dealing with a man [Putin] who is absolutely obsessed with historical delusions and hallucinations, and I think it's just a waste of time trying to figure out what exactly he wants," Shevchenko said. 

Until now, the public position taken by Russian negotiators has been to demand Ukraine's unconditional surrender, along with the removal of Volodymyr Zelensky as president.   

They have also indicated that any future Ukrainian government would have to change its constitution to prohibit it from joining organizations like the European Union or military alliances such as NATO.

The aftermath of Russian artillery shelling on a residential area in Mariupol where a rocket hit a house, according to the Armed Forces of Ukraine, is seen in this screengrab from a video uploaded on social media on March 10. (Armed Forces of Ukraine/Handout via REUTERS)

Russia expected a swift military strike: U.S.

Few people outside of the Kremlin, however, know exactly what Putin's next steps might be. The country's decision to criminalize publishing information contradictory to the Russian government's position on the war has made it extraordinarily difficult for media to access to it. 

American intelligence officials, however, believe Russia's original plan was to stage a lightning military strike on the capital Kyiv, capture or kill the Ukrainian president and replace him with a Russian-friendly leader.

Almost three weeks after the invasion, however, Russia's main military thrust on the capital appears to have stalled.   

Beyond Kyiv, its troops have failed to capture most of their key objectives, although the loss of civilian lives and the destruction inflicted on its cities has been horrendous.

Much of Kharkiv — a city formerly of 1.3 million people — is in ruins.

Mykolaiv and Mariupol to the south have badly damaged by bombing, although Ukrainian soldiers and civilians remaining inside those cities continue to prevent Russian troops from taking over.

Russia's State Duma member Leonid Slutsky in Moscow on March 14. (REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina)

Ukraine claims it has killed 12,000 Russian soldiers, destroyed almost 400 tanks and shot down 160 aircraft and helicopters, although the Pentagon has estimated its casualties as between 2,000 and 4,000.   

While none of those claims have been independently verified, even if the actual Russian losses are a third of what Ukraine says they are they would still represent a humiliating setback for a military that was once touted as one of the strongest in the world.

Still, for all of the efforts of Ukraine's army, Russian forces have managed to push deep into Ukraine's southern areas, capturing territory around the Sea of Azov and linking up to form what's known as a land bridge with separatist enclaves of Donbas and Luhansk.   

WATCH | How the invasion has devastated Kyiv: 

Kyiv's mayor on the 'nightmare' of Russia's invasion of Ukraine

5 months ago
Duration 4:20
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko sits down with The National co-host Adrienne Arsenault to talk about the 'nightmare' of living through Russia' invasion of Ukraine.

In any peace negotiation, experts told CBC News that it's difficult to picture Russia giving back the Ukrainian territory it has seized — and yet, for Ukraine's Zelensky, allowing Russia to keep the land would be toxic to a population that's furious with Russia for launching this war.

"I think the price that we have been paying is so tremendous, is so huge, and we are not ready to give up our territory and our people," Shevchenko said.

Alexander Lanoszka, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Waterloo, says Russia's behaviour over the past few days indicates the Kremlin leadership may no longer believe its military can accomplish a takeover of Ukraine, and the Ukrainian side may be correct at sensing some weakness.

Maksym Kozytskyy, the governor of the Lviv oblast, or administrative region, says he hopes the West will bolster Ukraine's position in its peace talks with Russia. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC News)

Why Ukraine might hold out on a deal

Russia "is taking battlefield losses; it's making unusual requests to China [for military help] as well as asking for Syrian mercenaries and Belarussian military participation, all of which suggests that there's a major lack of confidence on the Russian side that they can pull this thing off," Lanoszka said.

But he says Ukraine also runs the risk of overestimating its bargaining position and holding out for a more favourable offer — rather than the first that might end the war.

"If you see your adversary suffering and moderating their war aims accordingly, then that in turn encourages you to escalate your own war aims and to take the fight even further," Lanoszka said.

In the aftermath of the 2014 popular revolution in Ukraine that dumped a Russian-leaning government for one that was more pro-European, Russia seized the Ukraine-controlled Crimean Peninsula. The Kremlin also triggered and subsequently fuelled an eight-year war between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government in the Donetsk region. 

Many Ukrainians now talk openly about having their army not just push Russian troops back to where they were when their invasion began on Feb. 24, but to recapture the other Russian-controlled regions too, especially Crimea.

"They're angry and they have every right to be," Lanoszka said. "But that anger could obfuscate what could be done reasonably; I don't think Russia is going to concede Crimea."

In other interviews, Ukrainian officials refuse to directly address what they're prepared to give up in order to get a ceasefire.

"We will accept only one thing: the victory of the Ukrainian people over this horde," said Maksym Kozytskyy, the governor of Lviv oblast, as Ukraine's administrative regions, or provinces, are called.

Let them get out of Ukraine, and only then will we talk to them."

His region, along with the city at the centre of it in western Ukraine, was hit with several Russian airstrikes in the past week, including a devastating attack on a Ukrainian military base that used to host trainers from NATO countries, including Canada.

There were 35 people killed and more than 150 injured in the attack on the Yavoriv training base early Sunday morning.

Expectations of NATO allies

Rather than discussing possible compromises, however, Kozytskky told CBC News that Western nations should be asking how they can do more to improve Ukraine's negotiating position.

"The whole world overestimated the Russians' influence and their power — the Ukrainian army has demonstrated that," he said. "So let's talk honestly — if the West will help us with weapons, in time, our position during negotiations will be much stronger." 

Shevchenko, the former ambassador, says Zelensky's team is correct to pursue a negotiated settlement with Russia and since the country is firmly behind him, the president will have tremendous credibility if he asks Ukrainians to make sacrifices for the cause of peace.

At the same time, he says, he doesn't expect that time will come any day soon.

"What we do know is that Russia and Putin will stop only when and where we will stop them."


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.


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