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Why Vladimir Putin has no interest in ending the war

If the Russian president wants to stay in power, his country needs to keep fighting in Ukraine.

By Lawrence Freedman

“Jaw, jaw is better than war, war.”
Winston Churchill, 1954

As is often the case with familiar quotations, this is not quite what Churchill actually said. His official biographer Martin Gilbert reports that the original was “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war”, which is not quite as punchy. The sentiment remains the same, however – talking is to be preferred to fighting. But the context is also important because Churchill was explaining why summit diplomacy was vital to prevent another great power war. He was not arguing that diplomacy was always preferable to continuing with the fight once a war had begun. After all, one of his first acts as prime minister in 1940 was to reject suggestions that it was time to explore a negotiated peace just because, at that time, Nazi Germany appeared to have the upper hand in the war.

Another biographer of Churchill, Boris Johnson, used the phrase last December in conversation with Vladimir Putin about the need for talks as an alternative to fighting. But while jawing might be preferable to warring, jawing and warring at the same time is much more problematic. A deal to stop a war will define who has won and lost. Neither side will want to agree so long as there is a possibility that its position may be improved through further fighting. When it comes to the current war in Ukraine there is a further problem. Since the spring, observers have thought it would make sense for Putin to offer a ceasefire that would leave him with something to show for invading Ukraine, even though for the same reason Volodymyr Zelensky would be bound to reject such proposals. Yet without there being any proposals on the table from Putin, Zelensky is still regularly urged to take the prospect of negotiations seriously in order to gain relief from this bloody war, and to remove the risk of escalation. Far less attention is paid to the Russian side of this equation. Why is Putin not demanding talks? Is it because he still dreams of victory? Perhaps, but a more disturbing reason is that he dare not conclude the war in a way that requires him to acknowledge failure.

In one fundamental sense little has changed in this war since the end of February. Ukraine is determined to resist the Russian invasion and is both confident in its ability to do so and fearful of the dire consequences should it fail. For the war to end Russia must accept that it cannot subjugate Ukraine and give up on its attempt to do so. Once it became clear after the first couple of weeks that Russia’s initial strategy was failing there was much discussions in the West about the need to find Putin an “off-ramp” or some “face-saving” device to make it easier for him to accept this failure. Some areas where Ukrainian concessions might be possible were identified, often around whether some formula should be found that kept it out of Nato while remaining secure. There were even some negotiations, including at foreign minister level, but no compromise was found. By April, Kyiv was less interested in helping Russia find a way out. Its behaviour in the occupied territories and persistent efforts to make life as miserable as possible for ordinary Ukrainians by attacking their homes and energy supplies made it impossible to contemplate rewarding Russia by conceding any conquered territory.

Zelensky’s attitude is best summed up in a recent interview: “You don’t have time for this diplomacy because they lie. It’s not diplomacy. They lie, you know, they want to find ‘diplomatic directions’ to stop the war. It’s lying. Yesterday they said, ‘we are ready, Ukraine is not ready.’ And today they attacked us by 54 rockets. What? They are crazy.

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“So they are ill – I can’t understand – on their head. So what are they speaking about? How can we speak if they attacked us with 54 rockets? This day – half of the day. What about are they speaking now? I think they live on another planet. It’s not about compromise or no compromise, of course, only victory.”

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[See also: How will the Ukraine war end?]

Few dispute Ukraine’s right to take this position but there have been regular questions about its wisdom. For some the problem is that its war aims are unrealistic. Ukraine lacks the strength to take back all its territory and so it should cut a deal to avoid yet more death and destruction. For others the problem is that it is too realistic. Suppose Ukraine continues to liberate territory and even begins to move to free Crimea from Russian rule. Might that lead Putin to use nuclear weapons to prevent total humiliation? Better to negotiate now so that Putin has no need to resort to such a terrible threat. For those who take this view, Ukrainian objections are not overriding. If Zelensky’s government persists in trying to push Russian forces out of all of its territory, despite the difficulties and risks, then they should be invited to a “conversation” with Washington to discuss how they must take account of the wider international interest in preventing escalation and be reminded how much they depend on Western support to keep their forces supplied and their economy afloat.

In an earlier piece I explored the difficulties associated with trying to bring peace through negotiations. The only deal that would meet the standards of international law, is routinely rejected by Moscow because it does not accept that it is the aggressor and is obliged to withdraw from occupied territory. A more cynical “grand bargain”, reflecting the existing balance of power and giving something to both parties even if neither are left totally satisfied, is unlikely to be found while both have reason to hope that they can improve their positions. Even if the outlines of a deal could be designed and there was sufficient goodwill, currently in extremely short supply, to pursue it, turning it into treaty language would be a tortuous process. The issues to be decided are complex and could not be sorted in a hurry. Zelensky has promised to take any agreement to a referendum. Moscow will want sanctions eased but this will be conditional on Russia honouring its part of any bargain that has been struck. That is why I argued that a more promising approach would be to go for a ceasefire/disengagement agreement, negotiated on a military-to-military basis, which would require Russia to withdraw to internationally recognised borders. But this is only promising compared with other even less credible options and would still depend on Ukraine making more military progress.

What is striking in all these debates about how to get to a deal is how little Russia contributes. Moscow never says it has no interest in negotiations, but then patiently explains why the problem holding them back is Kyiv’s refusal to accede to its demands. Putin has shown no urgency when it comes to bringing the war to a quick conclusion. Even if a serious offer was put on the table we cannot assume that he would give it careful consideration. We need to consider another possibility: that Putin has no interest in ending the war soon if this would require him acknowledging that he has failed to achieve his key objectives.

An article by Emma Ashford for Foreign Affairs illustrates the problem. She explains why there is a case for negotiations whether Ukraine is doing too well or not well enough, and explores the issues that would need to be addressed. She assumes, probably correctly, that the United States would need to play a leading role in any talks, not least because of the sanctions issue. She is emphatic that the West should not “push Ukraine to concede” and acknowledges that little is likely to happen in the diplomatic sphere until the situation in the military sphere becomes clearer.

Her argument is more that at some point a negotiation will occur and the Joe Biden administration needs to prepare for that eventuality. Nonetheless that clearly involves some strong guidance: “Washington should encourage Kyiv to take a more moderate stance on issues, such as Crimea, that are likely to figure in a future settlement; to tone down triumphalist talk; and to emphasize the economic rewards that Ukraine stands to receive through international reconstruction aid and European economic integration under a settlement.”

Out of this emerges Ashford’s preferred solution, which is one that was widely canvassed early in the war when it might have had some traction, involving Ukraine agreeing that it will not take back Crimea and perhaps leave alone the annexed territories in the Donbas region.

The real difficulty with her analysis comes when she gets to Russia. We learn a lot about the arguments that Washington might put to Kyiv about the need for compromise but not much about how the case might be made to Moscow.

“[P]olicymakers need to focus on Putin and the small group of elites around him and consider what settlement they might be willing to accept,” she writes. “Given Putin’s mobilization of several hundred thousand additional front-line troops, it seems increasingly clear that he will seek to avoid a complete, devastating loss at any cost. But like many other authoritarians before him, he can sell a poor result as a win. This means that it may be possible to find some face-saving deal in which de facto realities, such as Russian legal control of Crimea, could be recognized, and which the Kremlin could portray to the Russian public as genuine concessions by the West.”

Yet Putin has described the sort of settlement he would be willing to accept and it is not one that Kyiv, or its Western backers, could agree to. The issue of Crimea is, as far as the Russian president is concerned, not even part of the discussion. Putin has had no doubt about the “legal control” of Crimea since 2014. But now he is also refusing to accept there can be any doubt about the legal status of the four provinces he has annexed – Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk – even though none are completely under Russia’s control. His condition for talks is that Zelensky accepts that these are forever part of Russia. If he had been trying to manage expectations to prepare the Russian people for an eventual compromise, announcing the annexations was the worst possible move.

[See also: Russia is trying to engineer a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine]

For this reason he will not be able to claim anything that falls short of that recognition as a “win”. Putin may be a master of manipulating Russian public opinion, but even for him there are limits. As the bad news began to come in during September, with the successful Ukrainian offensives and then the botched mobilisation, there was no attempt even among Putin’s cheerleaders on Russian state media to pretend that all was well. Giving up what has been proclaimed to be a chunk of Russia could not be finessed.

Even assuming that Zelensky would be prepared to concede Crimea and bits of Donbas, Putin can no longer present this as a “win”. And if that is the case then it will look like a loss, which contains many dangers for Putin.

There is an important distinction between not winning and clearly losing. Given the current state of the war, his main priority is not so much to win – although that aspiration has not disappeared – but to avoid a complete loss. For Putin the stakes are personal. This is his war and he has not hidden what he sought to achieve. Once it is impossible to deny failure then his judgement will be shown to be flawed and his position will become vulnerable. Put simply: for Putin to stay in power Russia needs to stay in the war.

His concern is not only that any conceivable deal will appear as a loss, but a deal that truly ends the fighting will be followed by a reckoning. So long as the war continues, Putin is protected to a degree by patriotic urges to support the motherland when it is in peril, and also the opportunities war provides for censorship and tight control of dissent. Without the war the consequences of his folly will be exposed. His legacy would not be expanded territory but a contracted economy, continued international isolation, a diminished reputation, and a multitude of disillusioned followers, bereaved families and traumatised veterans with nothing to remember with pride.

Staying in the war was the point of mobilisation. Without it, shortages of manpower meant that Russian forces would struggle to keep it going. The first tranches of mobilised troops were dumped in the front line to hold positions under threat from Ukrainian advances. Putin’s aim remains to hold these lines for the next few months so that when winter ends, the rest of those troops can be turned into a moderately professional force capable at least of allowing the battles to grind on – just so long as more military humiliations can be averted. 

If Ukraine can be denied victory the Russian president can hope, as he has hoped from the start, that the country will start to buckle under the weight of the social and economic pressures caused by his strikes against critical infrastructure. Yet even if this leads Kyiv, along with its weary international backers, to go grovelling to Moscow to explore a negotiated peace, he will still only want peace on his terms. Otherwise it is not worth having. For if it is in any respect a “just and lasting peace”, that acknowledges Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, then the question of “what was all that for” will be impossible to ignore in Russia. Thus, any suggestions for a compromise peace will not be assessed on their merits but for signs of Kyiv’s desperation. If Zelensky appears desperate enough then talks might be worthwhile, but only to see if more concessions can be extracted. As the Ukrainian president’s quotations above illustrate, Zelensky is certainly exasperated but he is not desperate.

There is an important difference between the Ukrainian and Russian situations. The war and the September mobilisation have disrupted Russian society but life can go on. There are no disruptions to energy and food supplies. Homes have not been blown apart. There is no need to rush regularly into air raid shelters. Sanctions have hurt the economy and its degradation will continue steadily, especially as energy prices fall and Russia can no longer participate in what were once key markets. All forms of manufacturing, including defence, have been badly hit and few international companies are looking to invest in Russia over the long term. The costs of this war are huge and will relegate Russia to an even lowlier position in the international economic system. Nonetheless, the economy is not approaching a cliff edge.

There is no offer that might be tabled by Ukraine that would tempt Moscow because withdrawal from occupied territory would be a core condition for it. Any deal would require Moscow to move explicitly from its current maximalist position and signal some readiness to compromise on the territorial issues. How might this happen? One obvious route would be a change at the top in Moscow. This might happen but few Kremlin watchers expect it or can explain how it would come about, or even offer confidence that any replacement would be easier to deal with. The major opposition to Putin’s conduct of the war has come from disgruntled hardliners. My own view for some time has been that one possible route, which is not to say probable, would be if Russia’s military concluded that its position is untenable, which is also why I suspect a military-to-military deal on disengagement is one of the better options. 

For there to be any rethink in the Kremlin, more needs to happen on the ground. After the impressive Ukrainian offensives of September, October was a much slower month. There were a number of reasons for this: keeping up supplies of ammunition; wet weather making for boggy conditions and slow movement of vehicles; Russian defensive lines being filled up with the new draftees. Ukraine knows the costs of rushing into assaults across open ground and so, to use an American phrase, prefers to prepare the battlefield by using its advantages in accurate artillery to work on Russian supply routes, ammunition dumps, command posts and troops concentrations, where they can be found. There have been some significant advances into Luhansk. There has been talk of Russian forces preparing for a vigorous defence of Kherson city but enthusiasm for this option may be waning. There is evidence of Russians evacuating the city with as much loot as they can carry. The sole Russian offensive against Bakhmut in Donetsk has reportedly led to utter carnage (including many of the former prisoners recruited by the Wagner group along with other “single-use soldiers”). So the military initiative is still with Ukraine.

It might have been hoped that the accumulation of bad news from the front would weaken Putin’s resolve and lead him to discuss peace deals in more realistic terms. An additional basis for hope might be found in the saga of the on-off grain deal. After an audacious Ukrainian attack on the Russian navy near its Crimean port of Sevastopol a furious Putin announced that he was suspending Russia’s participation in the export of Ukrainian grain by sea to countries that could experience food shortages without it. Turkey, which had brokered the deal in the first place, insisted that the shipments would continue, at which point Putin relented. The suspension was over. There are obvious positives from this episode: the trade continues; Putin has shown that he knows how to back down, especially when the alternative is to start sinking food ships; Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has demonstrated that he is always available as a mediator (he has also been active in prisoner exchanges). But there was also a severe backlash in Russia (as there had been with past prisoner exchanges) over the appearance of weakness and concessions.

This illustrates Putin’s problem. If, as I suspect, he fears having to order his troops to withdraw from all of Ukraine because of the anger and recriminations that would follow, then he will struggle to take the initiative even if his forces continue to be pushed back towards Russia’s true borders. He can still blame the military retreat on the generals, at least, and he has a ready-made excuse for Ukraine’s current strength – the range of support given by the US and its allies. The Russian people can appreciate that if they are really fighting all of Nato it might be tricky to prevail.

Letting events on the battlefield take their course carries its own dangers for Putin. The spectre of defeat will hang over the Kremlin. The decision-making process will malfunction and frustrations will grow among the elite. Potential successors will start jockeying for position. The military will get caught between their need to conserve forces while not abandoning strategic positions, between a system demanding success yet incapable of providing the necessary resources.

Faced with stark choices Moscow might suddenly discover a serious interest in negotiations. Until then, however, there is little choice but for Kyiv, with Western support, to persevere with its efforts to liberate territory until a point is reached in which a Russian defeat can no longer be denied – or, to use another Churchillian phrase, to “keep buggering on”.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. A version of this piece originally appeared on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

[See also: Vladimir Putin counts on “dirty bombs” and dipping temperatures in Ukraine]