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A debate has reportedly emerged within NATO circles over the possibility Ukraine could seize the momentum in its fight against Russia and take back Crimea and the Donbas region.
Following Russia’s withdrawal from the Kyiv region to focus on the Donbas in Ukraine’s east, NATO expects a “standstill for a while,” an unnamed alliance official said.
But in comments also reported by Ukrainian media, the official told CNN: “I think [Ukraine] could [retake Crimea and the Donbas], yes. Not now, not soon, but if they can keep up the fight I think so.”
Talk of the future of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, was ramped up by Kyiv on Monday. It leapt upon a statement by Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who said Moscow had “no territorial disputes” with Finland or Sweden, which are seeking to join NATO.
However, Peskov did say that Ukraine joining the bloc would mean Russia would have a “territorial dispute” with an alliance member.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky, said this was a significant change in language, with local news outlet Unian reporting that it suggested Russia is “morally preparing the population for the surrender of the peninsula.”
Arestovych said that previously Crimea was not considered a “territorial dispute” for Moscow and that its status as part of Russia, which the world community disputes, had been secured by a “referendum of the people.”
He said either Peskov “misspoke” or he is “changing the political vocabulary,” which means “changing the political position.” This could mean “a future peace agreement in which Crimea will be a ‘territorial dispute.'”
Despite Arestovych’s optimism, Joshua Tucker, director of the NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia said that he did not expect Crimea to be a feature of any deal to end the war.
“I would be shocked if Peskov was suggesting that Russia is prepared to acquiesce to Ukrainian control of Crimea as part of peace talks,” he told Newsweek.
“From Russia’s perspective, Crimea is not a territorial dispute with Ukraine—it is Russian territory,” he said. “More likely he was referring to the Donbas region.”
However, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Kristina Kvien has also given an upbeat assessment of the chances that Ukraine could win back territory.
According to a translation, she told Ukrainskaya Pravda that given that Kyiv’s forces had driven Russian troops back from the capital and from Kharkiv, “the assumption that it will expel the Russians from other occupied regions is not devoid of logic.”
British magazine The Spectator reported that some in the U.K. security establishment believe Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky should try to push Russia out of Crimea, “not because the aim is realistic,” but because it would tie up Russian forces and stop them “from recovering and re-arming.” This came with the caveat that Ukraine using western-supplied equipment in Crimea would risk escalation.
“We are now at a critical juncture in which Ukrainians will have to decide whether to take Crimea back on the battlefield or be content with the victory against Russia they currently have,” said Mai’a Cross, politics professor at Northeastern University, Boston.
“I don’t think Russia will willingly give up Crimea because this would represent a serious blow and would be very difficult for Putin to explain domestically,” she told Newsweek.
“There are a range of opinions emerging amongst Western powers on how this should end, but the Ukrainians will ultimately have the power to decide. I think they should act quickly and avoid having the war drag out.”
Vladimir Putin‘s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is about to enter its fourth month with intelligence assessments painting a picture of a faltering Russian campaign.
On Wednesday, the U.S. think tank the Institute for the Study of War said Putin’s forces would continue “to prioritize holding positions around the Russian border to prevent further Ukrainian advances north of Kharkiv City.” Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second-biggest city and is located in the Donbas.
On Thursday, the British defense ministry said that senior Russian commanders who are considered to have performed poorly in the war have been fired.
Senior Russian officials are scrambling to avoid culpability for the stalled invasion, which will put “further strain on Russia’s centralized model of command and control” and make it “difficult for Russia to regain the initiative,” the U.K. defense officials said.