Volodymyr Zelensky can claim victory if Putin fails to take Kyiv

In an assessment shared by some military analysts, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko has insisted Russian troops will never seize his city. How Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky could sell retaining the capital to his people will be key to a peace deal that might include tough compromises.

Klitschko’s defiance comes as Kyiv continues to be battered by Russian forces but Moscow’s march to take the capital has not materialized, adding to Zelensky’s bargaining power as he seeks talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

“Control over Kyiv is an important symbol for both sides,” said Peter Rutland, professor of Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

“Whether the capital falls or not, the problem for Zelensky remains that large parts of Ukraine will be under Russian occupation,” he told Newsweek. Zelensky “will have to negotiate some sort of deal with them [Russia] to get them to withdraw from the territory that they have occupied.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said on Saturday that Russia continued to make “incremental gains” in Ukraine’s south, increasing its grip on the city of Mariupol and controlling regions such as Kherson.

Despite gains east of Kharkiv, which it still does not control, and progress in regions north of Kyiv, a convoy stuck outside the Ukrainian capital for days is a sign Russia’s campaign is not going to plan more than three weeks on from the start of hostilities.

Zelensky has conceded that Ukraine will not join NATO, a key demand from Moscow, which along with Ukraine’s impressive resistance to Russian aggression, provide strong bargaining chips.

But whether Putin could accept not taking the capital might depend on what kind of victory he can present to the Russian people, whose jingoism he stoked on Friday in a speech at an event to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the seizure of Crimea.

For Zelensky, holding on to Kyiv, “would be presented as something of a victory, because the general consensus before the war was that the Russian campaign would be quick,” said Katie Laatikainen, political science professor at Adelphi University (NY).

However, she told Newsweek, “it is not clear that the impressive resistance by Zelensky and the Kyivans will be enough to dissuade Putin from wanting something more than Ukraine renouncing membership of NATO to end the conflict.”

“Putin has framed this conflict in such a way that he needs something more than that to declare victory,” Laatikainen said.

She said that Putin “will want recognition of the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and recognition of the independence of Donbas and Luhansk, demands that Zelensky has said are not acceptable and which violate the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

Zelensky had expressed hope that negotiations with Moscow were making progress. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also said the sides were “close to an agreement.”

However, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told The Times she feared these negotiations were simply a “smokescreen” and could allow depleted Russian forces to regroup and then step up their attacks.

Michal Baranowski, Warsaw Office Director of the German Marshall Fund, said that the shelling of Lviv in western Ukraine on Friday showed that Moscow had no intention of easing up its campaign regardless of how it was portraying the negotiations.

“The Russian ministry of foreign affairs is providing a diplomatic cover, or perhaps even switch-of-hands, for Russia’s escalation,” he told Newsweek. “The end of this war will be first negotiated on the battlefield. Only then Russia and Ukraine will be ready to make the necessary difficult compromises to stop the bloodshed.”

“The key measure of success for President Zelensky is whether sovereignty and security of Ukraine is preserved and guaranteed. For that to happen, Russia has to first de-escalate,” he said. “Unfortunately, we see the opposite is happening.”

On Saturday, Zelensky made another appeal to Russia for talks and warned that its growing troop losses will end up being so large that the country will not recover for “several generations.”

Recognizing Crimea as Russian, vowing not to join NATO and agreeing to neutrality could be concessions that Zelensky might make that may be offset by the symbolism of holding onto the Ukrainian capital.

However, Wesleyan University’s Peter Rutland said: “Even if Kyiv falls to the Russians, that would not be the end of the war. After all, Napoleon took Moscow in 1812, and look what happened to him.”

For more information on the war in Ukraine follow Newsweek‘s live blog.

This composiite image shows Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, on October 21, 2021, in Sochi, Russia and Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky in Munich, Germany, on February 19, 2022. Zelensky has called for talks with Putin as Russia’s military campaign falters.
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