One of the interesting sidelights to the crisis in Ukraine is the hyper-reaction of the American media. It has been a blend of foaming at the mouth jingoism, unhinged hysteria and absolute nonsense. Since the rest of the English-speaking world follows the lead of the American media, the world has been flooded with what probably sounds like a tidal wave of craziness. The start of actual fighting in Ukraine has made the situation worse in the information space.
As is so often the case, the one place you must avoid if you want to know what is happening in Europe right now is the American media. They have fallen for at least one Sam Hyde gag. They have been caught using old pictures from different events and screenshots from movies. They seem to be willing to believe the most outlandish nonsense about both sides. Of course, the Ukrainians are the Spartans at Thermopylae and the Russians are bloodthirsty Nazis.
What we know so far is that there has been some contact between Ukrainian forces and Russian forces. We also know the Russians are now staged in-country, outside various cities and strategically important spots. We also know that the Ukrainians have been willing to talk, after initially refusing peace talks. The first round happened a couple of days ago and another round is scheduled this week. We also have not seen much in the way of reliable footage indicating heavy combat.
Taken as a whole, with the understanding that lots of pieces of the puzzle are missing, the most likely situation right now is not much is happening. The Russians swept in but stopped short of going into major cites. They have most certainly occupied the disputed provinces in the east and have liquidated the Ukrainian irregulars. Otherwise, the lack of images is the result of two armies in a stand-off as the political and psychological war rages around them.
For their part, the Ukrainians have no reason to engage the Russian army directly, as they would eventually lose. It may take a few weeks, but the outcome is certain and the price to the civilian population would be high. They have the backing of the West to a point and the longer their army is in the field and functioning, they have a chance to cut a deal with the Russians. For Zelensky, his army and his cities are chips he will play over the next weeks to make a deal for himself.
Interestingly, the Russians may have a similar calculus. As long as their army is camped outside Kiev, they have options they did not have last week. For example, they can settle the question of the eastern provinces now. The facts on the ground matter and those two provinces no longer belong to Ukraine. They can also force NATO to discuss their security concerns in a serious way. The longer their army is in the field the more willing the West is to cut a deal with them.
That is where the Ukrainian and Russian similarities end. Zelensky agreed to talks because he knows the other option is he becomes a CNN anchor. If the press reports were true and the heroic Ukrainian army was fighting the Reds to a standstill, his position would be simple. Russia leaves or else. He is at the table to buy time and avoid being run out of his own country. He is looking for a face-saving deal that leaves him in power and in good standing with the West.
The Russians want what they have plus two more things. They have the provinces and they are not going back to Ukrainians control. What they want from the peace talks is agreement from Zelensky on this fact. That becomes an endorsement of the deal and thus strips the West of claims to the contrary. They also want an end to discussions about Ukraine joining NATO or the EU. If this comes from the Western puppet government, it basically comes from Washington.
A wildcard in all of this is time. It is assumed the Russians wanted to quickly knock out the Ukrainians, but that appears to be false. They want a deal with this Ukrainian government, not one they install. That means they came into this with a much longer timeline than has been suggested. How long they are willing or able to keep their army in the field is unknown, but it is probably months, maybe longer. All we know is we do not know their timeline for ending this.
For now, the Ukrainians have all the time in the world. The West is waving around their flag on social media and promising support. They know this is mostly public relations and that eventually, the West will move into other issues. For now, they have no reason to cut a deal with the Russians. They have every reason to stall for time and hope some miracle happens that causes the Russians to change their position. Like the Russians, they have months, maybe longer to wait.
Another wildcard in all of this is economics. Ukraine and Russia ship a lot of food and energy to the MENA countries. The reason that region was convulsed by revolts ten years ago was food and fuel prices spiked. In a world already suffering double-digit retail inflation and supply chain problems, another factor driving up prices for essentials could create massive headaches for everyone. It is not as if the Western countries are in peace and harmony right now either.
That brings in the other wildcard. Another wave of migrants from the south could easily swamp Europe this spring. What keeps the waves of migrants from flooding Europe are countries like Syria and Turkey. The former is a Russian client state and the later has a lot of axes to grind with the Europeans. Turkey has been in economic crisis for months, so opening up the migrant valve could be a useful way to lower the temperature domestically, especially if there are food shortages.
What all of this means is this conflict could stagger on for a long time before the parties decided they have to settle things. It also means the geniuses in Washington who instigated this did not anticipate any of what is happening. That will surely cause problems in trying to reach a deal. They have backed themselves into a corner and cannot sign off on any deal right now. That will drag out whatever negotiations are happening between Ukraine and Russia.