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Negotiations? Putin’s word in peace talks would be worthless

There are no “differences” for Kyiv and Moscow to settle in this war. One nation has tried to eliminate and subjugate another
January 25, 2023

Can any negotiations truly bring us closer to peace in Ukraine?

Those arguing that Russia and Ukraine should get around a table often complain about the lack of will to negotiate on both sides. In their logic, the west should put pressure on Ukraine to make certain concessions to Russia because, in return, Russia would accept those concessions and cease hostilities. 

The prospect of peace does not depend on whether or not both sides of the conflict are willing to sit at the negotiating table. It hinges on Russia’s credibility as a treaty party, and on the signal that any ceasefire agreement would send to other dictatorial powers who harbour ambitions to control the territories of their neighbours.

Credibility is the key factor. How likely is it that any peace agreement would be respected by the parties involved? Can those calling for abstract “peace negotiations” guarantee the sustainability of any agreement? 

Here’s the problem: Russia’s track record of keeping its international commitments is disastrous. It has regularly failed to abide by its international legal commitments, in areas from arms control to human rights, from trade to the environment. 

The truth is that Russia has ignored, violated or ultimately withdrawn from many of the major international treaties it has signed or ratified over the past couple of decades. One has to wonder how any “guarantees” signed by such a “good faith” party can be taken seriously? Can Henry Kissinger—or anyone else calling for a “peace settlement” with Putin—guarantee that Russia will respect a peace agreement and not merely use it as a pause to allow itself to regroup and strike again? (Kissinger has called for a ceasefire based on Russia withdrawing to the frontlines as they stood in 2021.) 

All objective indicators suggest that Putin would use any pause provided by a temporary ceasefire to prepare for a new strike against Ukraine. As of mid-January 2023, Russia had not completely annexed the territory of any of the four mainland Ukrainian regions it has partially occupied: Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. Crimea alone remains the only fully occupied Ukrainian region. In Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, regional capitals are under Ukrainian control. And Russia has not only openly declared its intent to illegally incorporate these regions but has suggested that, because Donetsk and Luhansk should have been under complete Russian control since 2014 anyway, this objective was the real reason for the invasion in February 2022. (This was evident in the infamous meeting of Russia’s National Security Council, which happened three days prior to the invasion.)

Even now, Russian officials are hinting at the possibility of more Ukrainian territories being annexed. In mid-December 2022, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to deny the ambitions of annexing Odesa and Chernihiv, saying that “this matter should be resolved by the people of these regions”. On 7th December 2022, Putin explicitly claimed the annexation of Ukrainian territories as the main goal of his “special military operation”—contrary to previous statements about unhappiness with Nato expansion, “denazification” of Ukraine and so on. 

With such a clear declaration of intent by Russia to continue to occupy Ukrainian territories—an aim that is currently constrained only by Putin’s technical inability to do so, because his forces are decimated after months of war—how is it possible to trust any Russian signature on a potential peace agreement? 

There are no sustainable guarantees that the fighting would stop if Russia was allowed to swallow parts of Ukrainian land

Given the background of Russia’s actual behaviour before and during the war—with its constant lies, barbaric atrocities and total disregard for human life and dignity—could such a “treaty party” be seriously trusted in the future? 

People who stress “the need to resolve the conflict through negotiations”—assuming they are acting in good faith—are often influenced by experience of military conflict resolution in the past. 

A classic example works like this: two parties have differences. Their inability to resolve these differences leads to military confrontation. The parties are somehow brought to the negotiating table. The differences are narrowed down to certain bullet points and solutions proposed. Then, step by step, a peace agreement may be reached. Such negotiations are never easy or straightforward, but in many cases they yield results—if not full resolution of the conflict then typically a lasting armistice.

The current conflict, however, is anything but typical. There’s no actual “dispute” between the parties involved. This is probably the first attempt by one nation to openly and completely eliminate and subjugate another since the annexation of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990. The parallels are uncanny: in denying Kuwait’s right to be a sovereign state and trying to incorporate the country into his own, Saddam Hussein was acting much like Putin now is over Ukraine.

Regarding Russia and Ukraine’s “differences”, which some observers argue could theoretically be resolved through classic peace negotiations, it is worth noting that Moscow’s widespread claims and ambitions vis-à-vis Ukraine didn’t exist shortly before the intervention. That’s clear proof that they were invented to create a casus belli.

In late December 2013, just two months before the annexation of Crimea, Putin explicitly said at his annual press conference that Russia had no interest in taking control of Crimea and that Crimea was a legitimate, internationally recognised Ukrainian territory. 

He repeated this message after Russia’s annexation of Crimea had effectively begun in February 2014, and it didn’t become fully clear until 6th March 2014—just 10 days before the sham “referendum” in Crimea—that Russia’s real intent was to incorporate the area into its own territory. By the time this true goal became evident, however, Russian troops had already seized control of the peninsula. Before deploying troops and seizing strategic objects, Russia only expressed “concerns” about the “interests” of the Russian-speaking people of this region, and made no mention of the word “annexation”.

There was no sizable political movement in Crimea or Russia that sought to incorporate the region into the country before February 2014. Apart from a fringe minority, politicians who raised the “Crimea issue” largely called for greater autonomy for the peninsula within the state of Ukraine. 

Putin’s December 2013 statement that Russia considered Crimea an integral, internationally recognised part of Ukraine was uncontroversial among Russians. Opinion polls in Russia prior to Crimea’s annexation in March 2014 never suggested that Russians had any issue with Crimea being part of Ukraine.

The same was true in 2022. Before the invasion, Russia had never raised any intention of annexing  other Ukrainian territories. Then, in February, Russia justified its invasion with allegations of security concerns and the need for “denazification”. This made Putin’s actual goal evident: to occupy more Ukrainian territories, such as Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.

In this context, it is impossible to talk about “differences” between parties that could be resolved through classic negotiations. There are no differences to be settled: Russia and Ukraine coexisted peacefully for decades, without any major problems, right up until Putin made a deliberate and violent push to take Ukrainian territory by force, just like Saddam did against Kuwait in 1990. It’s hard to find a common ground for negotiations from this starting point.

The only real question is whether Russia should be given parts of Ukrainian territory simply because it wants them and was already able to take some of them by force. Some people say such a handover is the right course of action, because they believe that would help to stop the fighting. (There’s also another argument—that Ukraine should give up lands because some of them were part of Russia “historically”—but that would, of course, create a dangerous precedent for massive international redrawing of borders by force; nearly all of us live in places that used to belong to another country at some point in the past.)

There are however no sustainable guarantees that the fighting would stop if Russia was allowed to swallow parts of Ukraine. Moreover, the experience of the wars in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014–22 suggests that Putin and the Russian elite would only be encouraged by the legitimisation of land grabs, prompting them to invent more pseudo-historic excuses in the future.

Georgia is important here because it set the first precedent of this kind. After the 2003 Rose Revolution, which brought a pro-western government to power in Tbilisi and thus soured relations with Russia, Moscow used multiple reasons to justify its growing hostilities towards the Georgian government. This led up to war in August 2008, and Russia’s later de facto annexation of the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions of Georgia by stationing troops there and “recognising” their “independence”. 

There’s the pattern: Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and Ukraine again in 2022. Russia used multiple justifications for hostilities and invasions, but always ended up simply grabbing land. It is extremely naive to search for other motives to explain Russia’s actions. International tolerance of those land grabs has clearly stimulated Russia to plan more.

A worker inspects an oil refinery in Hungary. Sanctions on oil  and gas are helping change public opinion within Russia © Akos Stiller/Bloomberg via Getty Images A worker inspects an oil refinery in Hungary. Sanctions on oil and gas are helping change public opinion within Russia © Akos Stiller/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A worker inspects an oil refinery in Hungary. Sanctions on oil and gas are helping change public opinion within Russia © Akos Stiller/Bloomberg via Getty Images

How do you reach a “peace settlement” with a country that wants your land and has the means to take more? Just a reminder: when Iraq invaded Kuwait on 2nd August 1990, the international community responded swiftly and unequivocally. The UN Security Council adopted resolution 660 (and a subsequent series of relevant resolutions), condemning the invasion and demanding immediate and unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait to the positions they held immediately before.

Even “frozen” land grabs can be considered a win for an aggressive power like Russia. Putin obviously believes that his lasting legacy will be strategic advantage rather than a permanent change in how the democratically elected leaders of the west operate. He believes that he will remain in power, and be able to negotiate permanent recognition of “temporarily” annexed territories with the next generation of western leaders; he also believes that the next generation will behave in the same ways as many of the current crop of western politicians, succumbing to his blackmail in order to end the bloodshed today, but transferring the responsibility for what happens tomorrow to those who come after. 

Such short-sightedness and political free-ridership contributed to the failure of the Minsk agreements (an attempt between 2014 and 2015 to instigate a ceasefire between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists). The lesson of this episode in history is simple: Putin just used Minsk to buy time, and struck again after the western patrons of the agreements had departed.

The bald fact is that we cannot trust Russia to keep its commitments. There is no real basis for compromise as long as Russia refuses to renounce its true motivations for land grabs. Any temporary “peace agreement” that even partially legitimises land grabs may trigger attempts for more of them in future. This would destabilise the world order, as other regional powers would see the west’s eagerness to accept land grabs for the sake of “peace”, and act accordingly.

Anyone arguing for abstract “peace negotiations” should be asked to provide a detailed response to these three points. Failure to do so means that the call for negotiations doesn’t withstand a simple reality test.

So where do we go from here? Commentators in the west should realise one simple principle before they argue for a solution to Putin’s war against Ukraine: Putin doesn’t care about you and doesn’t think you are important. He is totally contemptuous of the international rules, and breaches them whenever he sees fit. 

Putin believes in his resource supremacy, and that the constant democratic rotation of western leaders, combined with the western public’s fatigue towards the war, inflation and the energy crisis, will take a toll. He believes that he has got more time and resources than you, that he is capable of winning the war of attrition. The only thing that he believes he needs to do is wait. He is not yet constrained domestically, after crushing political resistance at home. But he knows that western politicians are constrained—by resource shortages and by public opinion.

Western commentators should realise one simple thing: Putin doesn’t care about you 

How do you bring Putin to the negotiating table to end the war? Exhaust his capabilities. It is possible: after all, damage to his military, economy and public support is growing over time, and growing fast. Western sanctions, the brave resistance of the Ukrainian people and the efforts of Russian opposition leaders to change domestic public opinion are all contributing to the effort.

Putin won’t negotiate seriously until he feels significant constraints. He will only use a potential ceasefire to regroup and strike again. Shame on those western politicians who have overlooked this process, which was visible in plain sight between 2014 and 2022. Don’t repeat the same mistake.

If Putin is given even a hint that his tactics of grab-and-negotiate work, he will only be encouraged. Peace is not achieved when people stop shooting—the fight can resume at any time. Peace is a lasting solution. It can only be achieved when an unprovoked aggressor is shown the damaging consequences of his aggression. This hasn’t happened to its full extent yet—but it will, if the west doesn’t blink. Patience is needed. Peace will follow.