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What is Vladimir Putin’s way out in Ukraine?

The challenge for Ukraine and the West is to establish a peace process that encourages the Russian president to walk away from his delusions.

By Lawrence Freedman

The important thing to keep in mind about Vladimir Putin is that he is a spy and not a soldier. He began his career in the Soviet era KGB and was head of its Russian successor, the FSB, before becoming prime minister and then president. He has an instinct for the covert, the fabricated and the dishonest, for gaining advantage through manipulating perceptions, leaving his opponents disoriented and motivating his supporters by warning of dark threats.

He has relied on this approach increasingly over the course of his presidency, constructing a worldview to justify policies that appear to be increasingly detached from reality. How much of this reflects his true convictions and how much he knows to be fake is hard to discern. His descriptions of Ukraine’s proper relationship with Russia and the character of its leaders may reflect his convictions, however fantastical they may seem to outsiders; claims that the Ukrainians are blowing up their own residential buildings or are on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons are wholly cynical. 

The best soldiers, by contrast, rely on honest appreciation of the situation in which they find themselves. At the start of wars they might be prey to their own delusions about their military position and overconfident about the victories to come, but there is still a harsh reality to war that cannot be denied. If supplies are not getting through, units have been destroyed and key objectives have not been reached, that is the situation to be addressed. Pretending otherwise can make defeat more likely and more painful when it comes. 

The gap between the spy’s perspective and the soldier’s perspective on this war may be growing in Russia. No amount of obfuscation can hide the fact that this has been an operational and logistical shambles. However much the armed forces are currently regrouping and redirecting their campaign, the longer the war goes on the greater the potential losses in troops, equipment and reputation. It is a reality that Putin is now desperate to hide from his own people, crushing dissent with draconian measures, attempting to cut his country off from all sources of news that might contradict state media. But the realities will continue to intrude, reflected in the anger of desperate mothers or the persistent bravery of demonstrators on the streets of St Petersburg and Moscow.  

Can a war launched on lies be stopped with the truth? The challenge from the start for those wondering how this war can best be concluded has been to identify a peace process that encourages Putin to walk away from his delusions. Even if the Russian military campaign had been far more successful there was never the capacity to install and sustain a puppet government. This leads to questions about whether there are secondary objectives — such as territory in the Donbas, in the east, or the neutralisation of Ukraine — that might satisfy Putin. But even here there are issues about the process itself. What will be required not only to get the two sides to agree but for them to be confident that any agreement would be honoured? 

A peace process cannot be detached from developments in the fighting. It both reflects them and seeks to influence them. Peace negotiations do not represent an alternative to war. They are best viewed as a continuation of war by other, non-violent means. This point can be demonstrated by considering in turn the various initiatives under way at the moment, all addressing different aspects of the conflict.

The major focus of direct Russo-Ukrainian negotiations up to now has been a humanitarian ceasefire. In past conflicts these have led to pauses in the fighting to allow exchanges of wounded soldiers and prisoners and also provide a route for civilians to escape from fighting. The Russians do not appear to have much interest in arranging the return of prisoners and wounded, perhaps because they are not keen to have people returning to their homes talking of the dreadful time they have had and how their officers misled them into fighting by telling them they were on exercises. (There have even been allegations that the Russians do not want their dead returned because of the same propaganda costs.)

As for helping civilians to escape, the Russians have undermined the credibility of their claims to be caring about innocent victims by playing games with the process. They promised corridors to safety but then made it impossible for hungry, ill, and exhausted people to leave because of renewed shelling or mined roads. The next step was to offer routes that would take the civilians into Russia and Belarus. Unsurprisingly this was rejected. Whatever their current privations they do not wish to be used as Russian propaganda assets. Although 5,000 people were evacuated from Sumy, in north-east Ukraine, on 8 March, this included 600 Indian students, from one of the few countries that has not completely turned against Russia. Elsewhere, and especially in Mariupol, in the south-east, the exercise has been manipulated so that instead of helping people escape, their despair and discomfort is maximised, presumably in the hope that they will demand that their leaders capitulate.  

This is another aspect of a Russian tendency to use humanitarian language and initiatives to mask war-like moves. The potential propagandistic aspects of such gestures were apparent with the announced, and wholly unnecessary, evacuation of civilians from the Russian-sponsored Donbas enclaves just before the start of the war. This was to give verisimilitude to Moscow’s fabrication about an imminent Ukrainian “genocide”.

Unfortunately, weaponising the current relief efforts undermines their value as a humanitarian device. The International Committee of the Red Cross will do their best to make them work, but so far they have added to as much as subtracted from the misery of those caught up in the fighting and have created an even more hostile population in a region once supposedly favourably disposed towards Russia. They also reinforce doubts about whether Russia could be trusted to adhere to any future agreement.

Another sort of ceasefire is a straightforward cessation of hostilities to be enacted at an agreed time at which the shooting must stop. While the intention might be to follow this with negotiations on a durable settlement that is not always the case. Almost 60 years after the armistice at the end of the Korean War there has yet to be a peace treaty between North and South Korea. When the US called a ceasefire in the Gulf War in 1991 there was an explicit threat that the war would resume should Iraq fail to comply with quite a detailed series of demands, including the elimination of their weapons of mass destruction. That was the claimed legal basis for the US and UK invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In some conflicts there have been imposed ceasefires. The prospect that a ceasefire might come about as a result of international pressure, for example through a UN Security Council resolution, can influence the fighting as armies rush to seize whatever ground they can to get themselves in the best position for when the moment comes. Thus towards the end of both its 1967 and 1973 wars Israel sought to delay accepting ceasefires for as long as possible to ensure that it held the maximum amount of territory, which it could either keep or at least use for later bargaining. As the Indians drove towards Dhaka (in what is now Bangladesh) in 1971, Pakistan looked to a ceasefire to halt them before it was forced to capitulate. Even with Britain during the Falklands War, the government was clearly worried about the pressure it might face from the Reagan administration in the US to agree to a ceasefire before fully retaking the islands from Argentina, complicating attempts to reaffirm UK sovereignty. This was even though as a permanent member of the Security Council the UK had a veto — which in fact it exercised when a resolution was proposed when British forces were close to victory.

Russia is of course also able to veto any such resolution. It does have an interest in one regular feature of such ceasefires in that they tend to follow the principle of “keep what you hold”. New de facto borders are established where the troops end up. This is why, as a rule of thumb, those facing defeat tend to be most in favour of ceasefires, especially if without them they risk having to relinquish any war-time gains. Those on the offensive tend to be less keen. One way to chart the course of war can be to monitor the changing attitudes of the warring parties to proposals for a cessation of hostilities. Could we get to a situation where one side faces defeat and so proposes a ceasefire to minimise the pain, even if this means confirming the consequences of defeat? 

Most analysts now accept that the first two weeks of the war have gone badly for Russia and put it in an uncomfortable position. There is still a debate about possible next steps for the Russians, given that their initial plan has failed so badly. Most attention has focused on the brutality of their attacks on cities, as if this might coerce Kyiv into suing for peace. The lack of any serious movement into the major cities is notable, and it may be that the Russian high command is concerned about pushing reluctant troops into urban warfare for which the Ukrainians have made elaborate preparations. It also remains the case that expected moves, including the assault on the Black Sea port of Odessa, have yet to take place but cannot be precluded.

One possible shift in Russian strategy (although it was expected early in the campaign) might be to target the city of Dnipro in eastern central Ukraine. Forces that have been close to Kharkiv could advance on Dnipro from the north while others could come up from the south. As some high-value Ukrainian forces are still fighting in the south and east, the risk is that they could then get isolated and taken out by superior Russian forces, while if they retreat to avoid this fate then they allow Russia to take the area they have been obliged to evacuate. Mariupol, which despite everything has not yet surrendered, might then fall, giving Russia a notional hold over a continual strip of land from the Donbas round to Odessa.

To repeat a point made many times before, that would not prevent continuing civilian resistance and an embryonic insurgency in the area. There are a lot of other “ifs” in this scenario, including the ability of Russian forces to move quickly and in the relative open towards Dnipro while Ukraine still has a fighting air force and drones, and apparently better intelligence and communications, but as a strategy it has some political logic. It would mean that Russia had territory with which to bargain in an eventual peace conference. 

Another possibility, relevant if only because Ukrainians now take it seriously, is that the Russian troubles in the north continue to mount, and while they are making some modest advances close to Kyiv many are followed by Ukrainian counterattacks. It is struggling to replenish and supply its forces in the field. At some point the Russian general staff might press on Putin the need to extricate their troops from a situation in which they are struggling to make progress and are taking regular hits, although it is hard for the moment to imagine Putin countenancing such a move.

Russia has the most interest in a keep-what-you-hold ceasefire. For Ukraine this would give legitimacy to Russian forces continuing to occupy chunks of its territory and for this reason they will continue to oppose it for now even if they suffer some battlefield reverses. They will also think that, over time, there are underlying factors that work in their favour. Valuable military supplies are continuing to enter the country and strengthen Ukraine’s defences. The West will not let their economy collapse. Meanwhile the Russians are having to find reserves and their economy faces ruination.

The final possibility would be a negotiated peace whereby the parties address the main issues in contention and come up with treaty language to resolve them. This has largely been discussed in terms of potential mediators. China, Israel and Turkey have all been mentioned. The role of mediation can be overstated. One role is simply to pass messages from one party to another. That is not needed in this situation. A second is to come up with creative answers to vexing issues. This requires extensive diplomatic skills but also a prior agreement between the parties in principle on some of the fundamentals and a welcome for the mediator’s interventions. The third possible role is to strongarm the parties into concessions they would rather not make. This is why it has been argued that Russia’s dependence on China might make President Xi Jinping an effective mediator, but this would still require him to come up with his own ideas for an equitable settlement. He has made vague assertions in favour of peace but it is not clear that he and his foreign ministry have the detailed knowledge of the situation to come up with credible plans.

The Americans have the knowledge and leverage, with their Nato partners, over Ukraine because of their financial and military assistance, but they are not going to put pressure on Ukraine to accept anything that allows Russia to gain from its aggression. (This is even more the case with suggestions that it is up to the US to deal directly with Russia to help it save face, for example by taking Ukraine’s possible Nato membership off the table. Ukraine is the country at war, not the US, and it is the one that will need to come forward with any concessions.)

For the moment direct talks are possible and most likely to be productive, although it remains hard to be optimistic. The Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers are due to meet in Turkey on 10 March. With that in mind both sides have sketched out their proposals. These proposals will be judged not only on whether or not they impress the other side but also whether they can convey reasonableness to the international community.

All that can be said on the Russian side is that they have edged away from regime change in Kyiv, or at least are prepared to see Zelensky stay as president, but they still insist on neutralising Ukraine, so it can join no international organisations, along with recognition of annexed Crimea and the independence of the enclaves in the Donbas. 

On the evening of 8 March Zelensky’s office issued his proposals. These were carefully constructed so as to suggest forms of compromise. The first raised the possibility of “a collective security agreement with all its neighbours and with the participation of the world’s leading countries”, which will provide guarantees for Russia as well as Ukraine. In principle this has attractions for Putin, because it would render membership of Nato unnecessary and would preclude Ukraine acting as a base for long-range US weapons. On the other hand it would give Ukraine some sort of US-backed security guarantee and it would not lead to Ukraine’s demilitarisation. Ukraine has had these sorts of guarantees before, notably in the 1994 Budapest memorandum, in return for giving up its nuclear arsenal. Moscow explicitly repudiated them, on the grounds that the government in Kyiv was illegitimate, so this raises obvious questions about what sort of guarantees could render this credible.

On Crimea Zelensky seems to be looking for a compromise that allows both sides to maintain their positions on where the territory truly belongs while in practice apparently accepting for the moment that it stays with Russia. This is realistic. On Donetsk and Luhansk, the two enclaves in the Donbas, his language was more elliptical. “It is important to me how people who want to be part of Ukraine will live there. I am interested in the opinion of those who see themselves as citizens of the Russian Federation. However, we must discuss this issue.” There is an obvious trap for Russia here. The leaders of these self-declared “Peoples’ Republics” want independence or even to join with Russia but it is by no means clear that will be the popular view in these territories. Putin used an expansive definition of what should be included on 21 February when he recognised the independence of all of the Donbas, but the two enclaves amount to only about a third of the region. After all these territories have been through in recent days it is hard to imagine that they are feeling Russophile at the moment.  

Zelensky’s language could be seen as going back to the Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015, which raised issues of how these territories might be incorporated back into Ukraine with some special rights, but also how elections would be conducted to find their representatives. Moscow would be nervous about the results of free and fair elections under international supervision. 

Nothing in Zelensky’s proposal, therefore, is tantamount to capitulation and it looks reasonable. If Moscow decides that there is something here to work on, if only because they might interpret any proposal as a weakening of Ukraine’s resolve, then it is possible to imagine substantive talks being set in motion. Yet at the moment these proposals are suggestive without being substantive. Exactly what they might mean in practice would require meticulous drafting and careful explanations, including with regard to the role of third parties in their enforcement and monitoring. That will take time.

Which takes us back to the question of a ceasefire. Will the guns stop for talks to continue? There is a problem here for Ukraine because it would want to avoid a keep-what-you-hold approach, as that would work to Russia’s advantage. But it would give both sides the opportunity to consolidate and replenish their forces. In many other wars fighting has been paused for negotiations, only to start up again when they don’t succeed. At the same time Russia will want sanctions to be lifted as soon as possible, and it is hard to see this being done so long as Russian forces remain in Ukraine and with no deal agreed.

There is a potential off-ramp for Putin here if he wants to take it although it will give him far less than he wants and not enough to justify a ruinous war. We return to the issue with which this post opened about Putin’s actual beliefs and whether he is capable of manipulating Russian public opinion to believe that the result is a good one, even though independent observers might conclude that it falls far short not only of what he claimed he wanted but also what he actually expected to get. Perhaps he might rely on his ability to impose his own interpretations on treaty texts to make them align with his views, so reinforcing rather than easing the mutual antagonism and taking us back to where we started? Given the way that Russia has behaved up to now in both the run up to the war and the ceasefire negotiations there is little reason to trust Moscow.

It suits neither country, though, to continue this war indefinitely. Neither has a confident route to a decisive military victory. In academic writing on the conditions for peace negotiations one that has often been identified is a “hurting stalemate”. The situation is currently too fluid to be described as a stalemate but it is certainly hurting both sides. 

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