Is it time to think the unthinkable for Zelensky and consider a peace treaty with Putin? As counter-offensive stalls, winter sets in and the world focuses on Israel, military experts give their view

With 1ee-b250-ffd2f7091050" rel="noopener">Ukraine‘s much-anticipated counteroffensive stalling ahead of another winter and the world’s focus now on the Israel-Hamas war, some have questioned whether it’s time for Volodymyr Zelensky to consider a peace treaty with Vladimir Putin

Ukrainian soldiers have been unable to make significant gains against Russian troops who are entrenched in captured territory during their counteroffensive and casualties on both sides – already in the hundreds of thousands – continue to mount.

And with the prospect of a decisive military victory for Ukrainian troops quickly falling out of reach amid the grinding counteroffensive, the likelihood of another bloody summer next year remains dauntingly high. 

This stalling counteroffensive – coupled with the fact that the world’s attention is now on the Israel-Hamas war in the Middle East – has meant some have questioned whether Zelensky should consider signing a peace treaty with Putin. 

But military experts have told MailOnline that despite there being a stalemate on the ground, Zelensky cannot sign a peace deal – in the short-term at least. 

Charlie Herbert, a former British Army major general who served in Afghanistan, said doing so would just freeze the ‘murderous aspirations’ of Putin rather than stopping them altogether. 

A Ukrainian soldier is seen in a trench on the front line in the direction of Kupyansk, where clashes with the Russian army continue in the Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on 21 November

Ukrainian soldiers fire artillery at their fighting position in the direction of Bakhmut, Ukraine, on 18 November

Ukrainian soldiers fire artillery at their fighting position in the direction of Bakhmut, Ukraine, on 18 November 

Military experts have told MailOnline that despite there being a stalemate on the ground, Zelensky cannot sign a peace deal with Putin (pictured on November 23) - in the short-term at least

Military experts have told MailOnline that despite there being a stalemate on the ground, Zelensky cannot sign a peace deal with Putin (pictured on November 23) – in the short-term at least

Signing a peace deal now would mean the end of Ukraine as we know it – Aliona Hlivco, Henry Jackson Society director

‘Will President Zelensky sue for peace now? Absolutely not,’ Herbert tells MailOnline. He says while there is a ‘certain inevitability’ that the war will be brought to a close through some form of political agreement, it will not happen in the short term. 

‘As President Zelensky rightly fears, signing an agreement now only risks freezing the murderous aspirations of Putin, rather than curtailing them altogether,’ Herbert says.

Indeed, Aliona Hlivco, the managing director of the think tank Henry Jackson Society, tells MailOnline that if Ukraine makes a deal now amid a grinding counteroffensive with few significant territorial gains, Putin will just come back in ten years and destroy Ukraine. 

Hlivco, a former Ukrainian politician whose brother is fighting on the frontlines, says: ‘This is an existential war for Ukraine. If we make a deal now, like we did in 2015, Putin will only come back ten years later to eliminate the Ukrainian nation as an entity.’ 

Ben Hodges, former Commander of US forces in Europe, agrees that there can be no peace deal now, explaining that Zelensky knows Putin ‘cannot be trusted in any negotiation’ and how Russia is ‘playing a long game.’ 

Hodges tells MailOnline: ‘Zelensky has no desire to settle for anything with Putin. 

‘He knows that Russia can’t be trusted in any negotiation and that the Kremlin is playing the long game – hoping that the US and other Western nations will pressure Ukraine to consider a peace treaty.’ 

The West has not fully awakened to the reality that we are at war with Russia – Retired US Army Brigadier General Kevin Ryan

Kevin Ryan, a retired US Army Brigadier General, agrees and says that the security of Ukraine and Western nations – especially Estonia, Lithuania and Poland on NATO’s eastern flank – would be in peril if Zelensky signed a peace deal now. 

‘Ukraine is the first battlefield of Putin’s war with the West,’ Ryan tells MailOnline, adding that Western nations such as the US and UK have not yet grasped that this is not just a war between Russia and Ukraine. 

‘The West has not fully awakened to the reality that we are at war with Russia. Countries like Poland and the Baltics – they believe Putin’s words and actions and think we are in a war. 

‘But the US and UK and much of NATO? I think they believe this is only a war between Russia and Ukraine – one where we can be on the side-lines helping.’ 

Ryan insists no peace deal should be signed before Ukrainian troops regain the territory they lost in Russia’s 2022 invasion as well as Crimea – and that Western nations should do more to help Ukraine achieve that. 

Hodges agrees and says Zelensky knows he could never enter negotiations with Putin unless Ukrainian troops had regained control over Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in a sham referendum in 2014.  

Hodges said: ‘Zelensky knows he has to have Crimea. They’ll never be safe or secure so long as Russia occupies Crimea. Zelensky will never be able to rebuild Ukraine if Russia is in Crimea and is able to block or disrupt all of Ukraine’s ports.’ 

Indeed, Herbert says Zelensky will not sign any peace deal now. ‘But inevitably he will be looking for a range of options to bring this war to an end in a way that is tolerable to the Ukrainian people,’ Herbert says. 

‘They have sacrificed an enormous amount – more than I suspect we will will ever know or could possibly comprehend – but war without end is neither possible for Ukraine or her Western supporters.’ 

Prospect of a decisive military victory – on either side – remains illusionary amid grinding counteroffensive – Charlie Herbert, Former British Major General

All of the experts admit that Ukraine’s much-anticipated counteroffensive, which began in summer, has not as successful as Ukraine and its Western allies had hoped.

The counteroffensive has progressed at a much slower pace than anticipated when Western nations sent tanks and missiles to Ukraine, with Ukrainian troops struggling to dislodge Russian soldiers who are entrenched in captured. And this has meant Russia still controls nearly a fifth of Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers still fight on, determined to protect their land. But the situation is dire, with both suffering heavy losses with an estimated 100,000 casualties on each side. 

And since the counteroffensive began, Ukraine has advanced a mere ten miles. It lost 20 per cent of its battlefield weapons in the first two weeks of the operation.

‘The war is at a stalemate,’ retired US Army Colonel Gian Gentile says. 

Herbert says: ‘After months of relentless and grinding fighting, with enormous casualties on both sides and little change in the position of the front lines, it has become increasingly apparent that neither side had a decisive military advantage yet.’

Herbert says this means that the prospect of a decisive military victory – on either side – remains ‘illusionary’. ‘We shouldn’t be surprised,’ Herbert says.

‘The callous, sacrificial nature of the Russian ‘meat grinder’ tactics has proved beyond the capability of Ukraine to defeat quickly, irrespective of the relentless courage and determination of the Ukrainian armed forces.’ 

Ukrainian soldiers take aim on the front line in the direction of Kupiansk, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on November 21

Ukrainian soldiers take aim on the front line in the direction of Kupiansk, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on November 21

Ukrainian soldiers fire artillery at their fighting position as Russia-Ukraine war continues in the direction of Kharkiv, Ukraine on November 20

Ukrainian soldiers fire artillery at their fighting position as Russia-Ukraine war continues in the direction of Kharkiv, Ukraine on November 20

Ukrainian soldiers are seen on the front line in the direction of Kupiansk, Kharkiv region, on November 21

Ukrainian soldiers are seen on the front line in the direction of Kupiansk, Kharkiv region, on November 21 

And Zelensky admitted this week that Ukrainian troops face ‘difficult’ defensive operations on parts of the eastern front with bitter war cold setting in. 

Russian troops launched offensives on different sections of the front line in Ukraine’s east this autumn, trying to advance on the devastated town of Avdiivka and in the northeast between the towns of Lyman and Kupiansk. 

Snow and freezing temperatures that stood at about minus 5 degrees Celsius during the day on Wednesday and were expected to drop lower may further complicate operations on the battleground, where fighting is moving to an attritional phase.

But there have been some gains in recent weeks. 

Ukrainian troops are now working to push back Russian forces positioned on the east bank of the Dnipro River, the military said last Saturday, a day after Ukraine claimed it had secured multiple bridgeheads on that side of the river that divides the country’s partially occupied Kherson region. 

And Gentile, the associate director of think tank RAND’s Arroyo Centre in the US, says the morale among Russian soldiers is still low. He says that the West must take advantage of this and supply Ukraine with more weapons so they can win decisively.

‘Even though the Russians have constructed formidable defensive lines with mines, obstacles and trenches, Russian morale across the board is still quite low and they lack a true operational reserve to respond to a Ukrainian breakthrough,’ Gentile says.

Gentile, who served two tours in Iraq, added: ‘In other words, the Russian defences are susceptible to a Ukrainian offensive which could cause a systematic breakdown in the overall defences of Putin’s men.’  

Hodges also has hope. ‘The counteroffensive on the ground is not going as well as we’d all hoped but it is still moving forward,’ Hodges says. ‘Witness the Ukrainian landings and expanding beachhead on the left bank of the Dnipro river.’ 

Hodges says that these gains, however small, means Zelensky has ‘no need or desire to settle for anything with Putin’.

Herbert says that while the prospect of a significant change in the deadlock over the winter months is ‘slim’, it is ‘too early to consider with seriousness that either side is ready for some form of negotiated political settlement to bring this war to a close’.

And without any peace deal or settlement, Herbert says another ‘bloody summer of attrition next year remains the most likely scenario with bodies sides desperately trying to find technological, tactical and logistical advantage’. 

‘This will be a deadly competition to break the deadlock, not dissimilar to that faced by the Allied forces on the Western Front in the First World War,’ Herbert says. 

The West can end the war, if only it provides Ukraine with enough weaponry to win – Ben Hodges, former Commander of US forces in Europe

The time it will take for the war to end will depend on how much support the West continues to give Ukraine – and whether they will do more, the military experts say. 

Additional US funding for Ukraine is being jeopardised by political fights in Washington, where the new war consumes attention at the highest levels.  

Divisions over Ukraine have also emerged in the European Union, which says it cannot provide all the munitions it promised. EU summits and other high-level global meetings now tend to focus on the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

Philip Ingram MBE, a retired British Army Colonel and military intelligence specialist, said: ‘If support slips off before Ukraine has managed to defeat the Russians then that’s billions of dollars worth of aid that’s been given to Ukraine so far that has been wasted. 

‘Any Western government, including the US government, that decides to waste all that money and not give any more will be committing political suicide.’ 

Hlivco says: ‘Ukraine needs more weapons, more munitions, more long-range systems and more fourth generation fighter jets like the F16s. The whole counteroffensive failed because we have a lack of weapon supplies.’ 

When asked how long she thinks the war could go on for, Hlivco says: ‘My brother, who is a soldier on the frontline in Ukraine, said that they’re ready to fight this war for at least a decade. 

‘With the current level of weapon supplies, there is no indication the war will end sooner. The West can realistically end this war next year. If only it decides to.’ 

A Ukrainian soldier takes aim on the front line in the direction of Kupiansk on November 21

A Ukrainian soldier takes aim on the front line in the direction of Kupiansk on November 21 

Ukrainian soldiers of the 67th Brigade prepare the artillery at their fighting position in the direction of Kremmina on November 22

Ukrainian soldiers of the 67th Brigade prepare the artillery at their fighting position in the direction of Kremmina on November 22 

Ukrainian soldiers walk in a trench on the front line in the direction of Kupyansk on November 21

Ukrainian soldiers walk in a trench on the front line in the direction of Kupyansk on November 21

For Hodges, the most important move that the West can make would be to ‘declare publicly that it is in our strategic interest for Ukraine to win, to defeat Russia, and to eject Russia back to the 1991 border’ and send in more weapons. 

‘Such a strategic objective would generate much more effective policies regarding support to Ukraine,’ Hodges says, explaining how the policies should focus on sending more weapons to Ukraine. 

He says the provision of long-range precision strike capabilities – such as the 300km-range MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System and ground-launched small diameter bombs – would ‘enable Ukraine to make Crimea untenable for Russian forces’. 

‘The Ukrainians have already proven the concept with just three UK-provided Storm Shadow cruise missiles with their strikes on Sevastopol. Imagine if Ukraine had just 100 ATACMS long-range missiles,’ Hodges says. 

But so far, the US and its allies have not provided Ukraine with aid that would mean the war would come to a ‘decisive’ end, Hodges adds. 

‘The US administration will ultimately decide how this war ends,’ Hodges says. ‘The current policy of ‘with you for as long as it takes’ is another way of saying that we are not committed to Ukraine winning but instead will provide incremental aid that keeps Ukraine in the fight but which won’t be decisive.

‘This is bad policy and is a huge missed opportunity to help Ukraine inflict a defeat on Russia and change the security situation in Europe for generations.’

Putin is more than happy to put his young men in the meat grinder for a good while longer – Retired US Army Colonel Gian Gentile

Gentile says it hard to say how long the war will go on for if the West don’t send more weapons. 

‘It appears that Putin is more than happy to put his young men into the mud and meat grinder with minimal training for a good while,’ Gentile says. ‘How the war will end is ultimately a political decision for both sides.’ 

For Herbert, he says that there is a ‘certain inevitability’ that the conflict will be brought to a close through some form of political agreement – but insists such a deal should not be made in the short term. 

‘In the absence of a fundamental change in the trench deadlock, there is a certain inevitability that this conflict will be brought to a close not through the barrel of a tank, but through quiet diplomacy and some form of political agreement, but not in the short term,’ Herbert says. 

‘As President Zelensky rightly fears, this risks only freezing the murderous aspirations of Putin, rather than curtailing them altogether.’ 

In a dire assessment, Ryan says that the problem for Ukraine is its lack of manpower. And over time, he says that without the protection that being in NATO would provide, Russia’s poorly trained and equipped troops ‘will wear down the capabilities’ of Ukrainian forces. 

‘A time will come when Ukraine will be forced to accept at least a ceasefire if there is no change to the situation on the battlefield,’ Ryan says. 

Ryan says Ukraine must be made a member of NATO for the nation – and the West – to achieve their goals of a Ukraine that is ‘sovereign and free’. 

‘We need a Ukraine that is inside NATO and the EU, as a bulwark against the malicious actions of a Russia under the control of Putin and his acolytes,’ Ryan says. 

‘The goals [of Ukraine being sovereign and free] will not be won at the negotiating table,’ he adds. ‘They must be asserted by Ukraine and the West and protected with military power.’ 

‘We should not delay Ukraine’s admission to both NATO and the EU,’ Ryan insisted. ‘If we fail to achieve our goals against the Russia we face today, we will be harder pressed to achieve them against the Russia that Putin is building.’