Russia's infantry will be front and center in the battle for Donbas. Image: Tass

Russia appears to have started making unilateral concessions to Ukraine, presumably in hope of reaching a peace deal with the neighboring country.

Kiev, however, will unlikely agree any time soon to accept certain of Moscow’s crucial demands, including recognition of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, and Crimea as part of the Russian Federation.

After bilateral talks held in Istanbul on March 29, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that Moscow has decided to “fundamentally reduce military activity in the direction of Kiev and Chernihiv” in order to “increase mutual trust for future negotiations to agree and sign a peace deal with Ukraine.”

Kiev and its Western backers will inevitably interpret the retreat as a sign of Russian weakness. More importantly, Ukrainian populations living in regions that are currently under Russian control will not be confident that the Russian Army is there to stay, and local authorities will refuse to cooperate with the Russian forces in order not to be punished for “treason” once Ukraine regains control of the territories.

From a military perspective, Russia’s planned retreat from Kiev and northern Ukraine makes sense if Russian forces aim to focus on what Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu described as the “liberation of the Donbass.” Indeed, even with some 200,000 troops now on the ground in Ukraine, Russia cannot establish full control over Europe’s geographically second-largest country.

Given that Russian officials, including Shoigu, have repeatedly ruled out sending conscripts to Ukraine, the Kremlin is expected to change its military strategy and focus mostly on southern and eastern parts of the former Soviet republic in what some see as an emerging vision to cut Ukraine into eastern and western parts.

But not all Russian officials are happy about such an outcome of what President Vladimir Putin has referred to as a “special military operation” rather than invasion. According to Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, negotiations with Kiev make no sense. “I believe these negotiations are of no use. We need to completely finish what we started”, the Chechen leader stressed.

The officially stated goals of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine are “demilitarization” and “denazification” of the country, enforcement of Ukraine’s neutral status, repeal of discriminatory laws regarding the Russian language, as well as Kiev’s recognition of Russian control of Crimea and the Donbass.

In Kyiv’s Oolon district, a Russian shell hit a residential building on March 14. Moscow has indicated Kiev is no longer in its sites. Photo: Aris Messins / war.ukraine.ua

The Kremlin has not yet achieved any of its political and military goals, which likely explains why Kiev feels confident enough to issue its own list of demands to Moscow: unconditional security guarantees for Ukraine, a ceasefire, and effective decisions on humanitarian corridors.

Prior to the talks in Istanbul, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky openly said that Kiev does not intend to discuss demilitarization and denazification, nor the status of the Russian language in Ukraine.

Moreover, he stressed that Ukraine would talk about the “complex issue of Donbass” only after Russian troops retreat to the positions they held before February 24, i.e. back across the Russian border. Unless Moscow continues to make unilateral concessions to Kiev, it is highly unlikely that Russia and Ukraine will reach a sustaining peace deal any time soon.

Any deal with Kiev without previously achieving its political and military goals will be seen as Russia’s de facto capitulation and defeat.

Even if Ukraine agrees to amend its constitution and officially become a neutral country, there is no guarantee that it will not sign bilateral “allied agreements” with NATO members. Meanwhile, the West will continue supplying Ukraine with all sundry weapons, arming it for another potential fight with Russia.

During the Istanbul talks, Ukraine reportedly offered to settle the Crimea issue bilaterally with Russia within 15 years while vowing not to fight over the peninsula. If Moscow accepts Kiev’s offer, it will eventually have to negotiate the status of what it sees as its own territory. Such an approach, some suggest, could represent an existential threat to the wider Russian Federation.

There are now signs suggesting that Russia is making a certain u-turn in its Ukraine policy. Before Moscow launched its “special military operation”, President Putin promised to punish those responsible for the Odessa tragedy in May 2014 when pro-Ukrainian demonstrators burned alive dozens of pro-Russian activists in a Trade Unions House in the Ukrainian port city.

Now the Kremlin indirectly admits that it is not capable of punishing Ukraine for the abuse and reputed torture of Russian troops captured during the war, let alone dealing with those who are responsible for what Moscow sees as the “Odessa massacre.”

Ukrainian servicemen blow their horns in fortified downtown Odessa. Image: Facebook

“Russia has protested to Ukraine over the abuse of Russian prisoners, and Ukraine has promised to take the toughest measures against the ‘culprits,’” said Russian delegation head Vladimir Medinsky.

Such a statement, though, could be interpreted as yet another expression of Russian weakness. The Kremlin has failed to destroy the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and now is asking Kiev to improve the treatment of the Russian prisoners it holds.

That approach will likely only encourage Ukraine to continue fighting. Without establishing full control over Ukraine, Russia will never achieve its major goals – demilitarization and denazification.

Even if Russian forces manage to “liberate” the Donbass and preserve control over southern Ukraine, it will not mean an end of hostilities on the ground.

Follow Nikola Mikovic on Twitter at @nikola_mikovic

Nikola Mikovic

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”