Russia announced a ban on oil exports to Western powers Wednesday even as Kremlin officials seemed to keep the door cracked open to cease-fire talks over Moscow‘s nearly yearlong military invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian leaders this week have signaled desires for a United Nations-moderated peace summit, but analysts said the prospect of direct Ukrainian-Russian talks remains out of reach. They said neither country is showing a willingness to make the kinds of concessions that could kick-start negotiations to halt the war.
The Kremlin said Wednesday that Russia‘s oil export ban is a direct “response to the unfriendly actions by the United States” and its Western allies, which have targeted Russia with economic sanctions in retaliation for the Ukraine invasion. Most recently, they imposed a price cap on Russian crude oil.
It remains to be seen how the developments will affect global oil prices, but Russia is the world’s second-largest oil exporter and still carries significant sway over international energy markets.
The ban suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin remains unwilling to step back from his hostile posture toward the United States and NATO, which have recently redoubled their support for Kyiv in the face of Russian military aggression.
The support includes a long-awaited Patriot missile battery to help defend against a relentless Russian onslaught targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure.
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President Biden announced the Pentagon’s plan last week with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy by his side at the White House. Days later, Mr. Putin said he was prepared to “negotiate” with all sides and find a way to end the war.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told The Associated Press on Monday that Ukraine hopes to hold a peace summit, moderated by the United Nations, in February.
The comments have fueled hope for a road toward ending the conflict, but analysts said the war will likely drag on unless Moscow or Kyiv budges from entrenched positions.
“We’re in for a long haul until one side or the other is ready to sit down and talk,” Jim Townsend, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration, told The Washington Times in a recent interview.
The Institute for the Study of War said Mr. Putin‘s comments Sunday were misleading and part of a deliberate information campaign to persuade the West to pressure Ukraine into “making preliminary concessions.”
Analysts generally agree that lifting economic sanctions is one realistic olive branch the West could offer Russia, but the oil export ban that the Kremlin announced Wednesday could complicate such an approach. The ban suggests that Moscow is preparing for continued economic hostility with the U.S. and Europe.
A Kremlin statement said Mr. Putin signed the ban as an executive order “in response to the unfriendly actions taken by the United States, other foreign states and international organizations that sided with them, to establish a price cap on Russian oil.”
The Group of Seven leading industrial nations, along with Australia and the European Union, issued a $60-per-barrel price cap in early December on Russian crude moving around the world.
Although the cap is close to the current price for Russian oil, it falls well beneath Russia‘s selling price during the course of the past year. The windfall helped offset the impact of the Western financial sanctions on Moscow, according to Reuters.
A way forward
On the military front, Mr. Putin‘s recent comments indicated that Moscow might recognize that it is unlikely to achieve many of its overarching strategic goals in Ukraine through sheer force.
Russian forces have been pushed out of key cities such as Kharkiv and Kherson in recent months, and drone strikes have hit military facilities inside Russia in the past several weeks.
The Ukrainian military has not publicly claimed credit, but Kyiv is widely believed to be responsible. The strikes have proved that the Russian homeland is now a target and could suffer more attacks as the war drags on.
Pentagon officials have said Russia could begin running out of ammunition early next year, forcing it to rely heavily on allies such as Iran and North Korea to replenish stockpiles.
Still, the Kremlin hasn’t shown a willingness to make concessions to begin cease-fire talks. Shortly after Mr. Putin made his comments on Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow wants an outright demilitarization of Ukraine.
“Otherwise, the Russian army will take matters into its own hands,” Mr. Lavrov said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that any peace negotiations would have to include a recognition by Kyiv of Russian control over four eastern Ukrainian provinces that Mr. Putin claims to have annexed into Russia.
The claimed annexation, which Mr. Putin announced in October, has been rejected by Ukraine, the U.S. and most other nations.
With that as a backdrop, Ukrainian officials have all but ruled out any peace process that includes the ceding of Ukrainian territory to Russia. Kyiv even wants all Russian troops and their paramilitary proxies out of Crimea, which Russia forcibly annexed in 2014.
Mr. Kuleba told the AP on Monday that Ukraine will insist that Russia face an international war crimes tribunal, another precondition that the Kremlin will almost surely reject.
Mr. Zelenskyy stuck by that position in an address Wednesday.
“No crime committed by the occupiers in Ukraine can go unpunished,” the Ukrainian president said. “And no matter how much resources and time it takes, accountability for the occupiers must be unavoidable.”
Still, Mr. Zelenskyy‘s government has made clear that it understands how the war is likely to end. “Every war ends in a diplomatic way,” Mr. Kuleba told the AP. “Every war ends as a result of the actions taken on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.”
Some military analysts say now is the time for Ukraine to press its advantage on the battlefield and that the U.S. and its European allies should be wary of pressuring Mr. Zelenskyy and his government toward the negotiating table. Further aiding the Ukrainian counterattack, the analysts say, will put Kyiv in an even better bargaining position and will eventually force Mr. Putin to make concessions.
“The Ukrainians have competently weakened the Russian invading force. The Russian army has lost roughly 100,000 soldiers, and many aspects of the Russian military are depleted,” Rebeccah Heinrichs, director of the Keystone Defense Initiative at the Hudson Institute, wrote in a recent analysis. “Now is not the time for Ukraine to sue for peace. A premature effort to pressure Ukraine to accept a negotiated outcome would be ruinous for the security of Ukraine and NATO.”
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.