As the battle for Ukraine turns into a bloody, mile-by-mile fight in numbing cold, Ukrainian and Russian officials have insisted that they are willing to discuss making peace. But it is increasingly clear that both sides’ demands even to start talks are flatly unacceptable to the other, leading American and European officials to conclude that serious discussions on ending the war are unlikely in the near future.
There have been no peace talks between Ukraine and Russia since the early weeks of the conflict, which began when Russia launched a full-scale invasion on Feb. 24. This week, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, detailed a proposal for a “peace” summit by the end of February, but told The Associated Press that Kyiv would negotiate with Moscow only if Russia first faced a war-crimes tribunal.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, responded that Kyiv would have to accept Moscow’s demands — including giving up the four Ukrainian regions that Moscow claimed to have annexed in September — or else “the Russian Army will deal with this issue.”
The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said on Wednesday that “there cannot be a peace plan for Ukraine that does not take into account today’s realities with Russian territory,” including the four annexed regions, according to the Interfax news agency.
Stella Ghervas, a professor of Russian history at Newcastle University in Britain, said that “the Ukrainian proposal offers a glimpse at Ukraine’s vision of how the war with Russia could one day end.” But, she said, “Lavrov’s reaction is not very promising, and it’s an indicator that a peace negotiation could be months and months away.”
The hard-line positions suggest that both sides believe they have more to gain militarily. Ukraine holds the battlefield momentum, having retaken much of the land that Russia captured early in the war, although Moscow’s forces still occupy large chunks of the east and south. And Russia is pressing its own advantage, readying more troops and launching aerial attacks on infrastructure that have deepened Ukrainians’ misery even as Russia’s army struggles on the ground.
Last month, addressing a summit of leaders of the Group of 20 nations, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine presented a wide-ranging 10-point peace plan that called for the full withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory, including Crimea and parts of the eastern area known as the Donbas that Russian forces seized beginning in 2014.
It also demands an international tribunal to try Russian war crimes; Moscow’s release of all political prisoners and those forcibly deported during the war; compensation from Russia for war damages; and steps by the international community to ensure the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and provide for its food and energy security.
It is a much tougher set of requirements than Ukrainian negotiators initially offered at talks in Istanbul a month after Russia’s invasion, when they proposed adopting neutral status — in effect abandoning a bid to join NATO, which Russia has long opposed — in exchange for security guarantees from other nations. Russian atrocities have multiplied since then, and the damage to Ukraine’s cities and its economy has deepened. In August, Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Mr. Zelensky, said that the framework proposed in Istanbul was no longer viable.
“The emotional background in Ukraine has changed very, very much,” he told the BBC. “We have seen too many war crimes live.”
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said over the weekend that he was prepared to negotiate over “acceptable outcomes,” without specifying what those might be, while making clear that he had no intention of ending his attacks.
Western officials have dismissed Mr. Putin’s periodic offers to negotiate as empty gestures. Even as Russia’s economy reels under Western sanctions — Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said on Wednesday that the Russian economy had contracted by 2 percent over the past 11 months, the Reuters news agency reported — Mr. Putin has emphasized that there are “no limits” to Russia’s military spending. This month, his defense minister ordered another expansion of the armed services by more than 300,000 members, to a target size of 1.5 million.
All of that suggests, said Marnie Howlett, a lecturer in Russian and Eastern European politics at the University of Oxford, that “there is not necessarily a push for a negotiated peace or even some sort of negotiations, but still a push for whatever endgame is being sought militarily.”