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At day 225 of Ukraine’s invasion, Prague hosts conference on peace and war

A meeting of European leaders may open a way to diplomacy after months of attacks have exacted a gruesome toll on one of Europe's most troubled nations.

(CN) — The world reached a grim milestone Thursday of 225 days since the Kremlin threw world politics into disarray by invading its neighbor.

While the outcome of the conflict remains far from certain, urgency is setting in as winter increasingly becomes a factor in determining next steps. Both Ukraine and Russia are digging in to keep fighting into 2023.

Indeed, Russia's threat to bring nuclear weapons into the equation, a response to the success of Kyiv's NATO-backed counteroffensives in northeastern and southern Ukraine, has moved the world to the closest point of catastrophic nuclear confrontation since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

Settling the conflict through negotiations remains on the table, though a brokered end to the war seems at best months away from being even a possibility.

Europe and the United States are now hunkering down to survive Russian President Vladimir Putin's trump card: making it through a winter without Russian natural gas, crude oil and coal.

On Thursday, leaders from 44 European nations met at the Prague Castle where they were hosted by the Czech government. The summit, called the European Political Community, is the brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron.

The Elysée is attempting to create a new “club of nations” capable of developing a more nimble and strategically capable diplomatic umbrella group and foster a better pan-European security system.

Naturally, Paris sees itself playing a central role in such a European-based security system. France is Europe's military and nuclear leader alongside Great Britain.

For decades, France has expressed wariness of both NATO and the direction of the European Union project. French presidents consistently advocate a looser alliance among European nations, a kind of modern-day version of the famous 19th-century “Concert of Europe” that helped stabilize the balance of powers following the chaos of the French Revolution.

Since the end of World War II, France also has warned against Europe's reliance on American military might as its security blanket and called for a pan-European military alliance. Past European leaders have talked about including Russia in such a pact, but those proposals failed to materialize.

Macron described the convention “an important moment,” and he said the aim was to forge a common strategy to confront the challenges Europe faces. “Up until now, that did not really exist and could lead to divisions,” he said.

The prospects of anything concrete coming out of Macron's initiative are dubious because French overtures of this kind have failed in the past, and the U.S. remains the staunchest pillar in Europe's defense system. The Prague meeting was to continue on Friday.

Macron invited neither Washington nor Moscow to attend the talks in Prague. British Prime Minister Liz Truss was present, making this her first overseas trip since taking over at Downing Street from the scandal-ridden Boris Johnson.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was expected to speak to the Prague meeting via video and deliver another impassioned plea for military and financial aid for his war-besieged nation.

The war in Ukraine has shattered European illusions about not needing to build up their military might. Thirty years after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, European nations, chief among them Germany, are now rearming themselves.

At this point in the Ukraine war, the collective West, led by the U.S., has largely neutralized the threats posed by Putin's aggressive Russian regime; in many ways, the West sees that its aid to Kyiv has foiled the Kremlin's aims to subjugate Ukraine and make it a vassal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, waves from the Kremlin in Moscow on Sept. 30, 2022, during a treaty-signing ceremony to annex four regions of Ukraine to Russia. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Inside the Kremlin, there may be a shift in tone too.

On Thursday, Putin made a speech in which he said Russia felt no ill-will toward Ukrainians.

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Showing no signs of backing down, however, Putin announced the annexation of four Ukrainian regions only a week ago and ordered his army to round up more troops for the war in Ukraine.

In Russia, a country of 146 million people, Putin's “partial mobilization” has set off anger against the Kremlin's bloody fratricidal war. The mobilization is nevertheless moving forward, and it will give him more military options in Ukraine.

For now, though, the West has succeeded in isolating Russia internationally and inflicting both a moral and military humiliation on Moscow.

But Washington, too, is moving into treacherous waters as oil and gas prices soar in the West, discontent rises with NATO's growing involvement in Ukraine, and tensions flare in hot spots around the globe.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden and his Democratic Party are bracing for midterm elections that threaten their narrow majority. A Republican-held Congress could seriously damage Biden's Ukraine strategy.

On Wednesday, Tesla founder Elon Musk, the world's richest man and a growing political force in American and global affairs, went on Twitter and called for Ukraine to be split up with autonomy for Russian-oriented regions of the country's east.

Musk's views echo those of many Republicans who are leery of Biden's military adventurism in Ukraine, a powder-keg nation far from American shores and of dubious strategic advantage for the U.S. in its commitment to pivot to Asia and contain China's rising military might. Musk's views are shared by many anti-war Americans on the left, too.

In Europe, opinion polls show Europeans are generally in favor of a diplomatic solution in Ukraine, though they also support giving military and financial aid to Zelenskyy.

Cracks in Biden's strategy were exposed on Thursday when Saudi Arabia and other OPEC nations hammered out an agreement with Russia to reduce oil production. The decision will drive up oil prices right in the middle of a global energy crisis.

Saudi Arabia's move was seen as a serious blow to Biden's ambitions to get Riyadh to join the West's blockade of Russia. But it's not just Saudi Arabia that continues to maintain close relations with Moscow: India, South Africa, China and many other developing nations are refusing to stop trade with Russia.

Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 after months of failed diplomatic talks going back to November 2021. At the time, he framed the move as a preemptive attack against Kyiv's nationalist forces threatening an offensive against pro-Russian separatists holding out in the twin eastern cities of Luhansk and Donetsk.

The war appears to have reached a new stalemate as Ukraine's army faces the daunting task of mounting attacks on several cities in eastern and southern Ukraine under the control of Moscow.

There is the prospect of horrific street fighting if Ukraine launches attacks on Kherson, Lysychansk, Sevierodonetsk, Melitopol and other smaller cities directly in the line of Ukraine's massive monthlong counteroffensive to recapture all the territory it has lost to Russia since 2014, or about 15% of Ukraine's territory.

Both sides are amassing troops, materiel and equipment on the front lines, which range roughly along a “line of contact” that stretches for 800 miles.

Large numbers of civilians remain in the cities now under Ukrainian sights, and there is the risk these cities will be reduced to rubble, just like what happened to Mariupol in the first month of the war.

Kherson may be facing the biggest threat of destruction. Lying both on the Dnieper River and the Black Sea, the city of some 280,000 people fell to Russian forces without much of a fight shortly after the invasion started. Since then, it's been saved from the worst of the fighting.

For months, Ukraine has been preparing to launch an attack on Russian forces embedded in Kherson in a bid to protect Odesa and regain precious Black Sea shorelines. But Kyiv now faces the unsavory prospect of seeing mass casualties take place on both sides, just as happened in Mariupol.

The death toll from the long siege of Mariupol, defended at the time by Ukraine's far-right Azov Regiment, remains unclear but certainly thousands were killed and most of the city's buildings suffered major damage.

Russia has been busy trying to rebuild Mariupol, a strategic port city whose capture gave Moscow control over the Sea of Azov and allowed Russia to reopen water supplies to Crimea.

After fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014 between Ukrainian and Russian nationalist forces in the so-called War of Donbass, Kyiv closed off water supplies to Crimea, causing major problems for the peninsula.

Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea in February 2014 following the violent events surrounding the Maidan Revolution, an uprising led by western Ukrainians wanting to topple a pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and drive him from power. Yanukovych's political base was drawn from the Donbass and southern Ukraine, areas with large Russian-speaking populations and his ouster was fiercely contested by eastern Ukrainians.

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Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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