Russia is softening up Ukraine with increased aerial bombardments while hinting at a diplomatic way out. This has led to equally predictable talk in the West of concessions that Ukraine must make – the need for it to ‘play ball’. Such calls can be well-meaning but sadly fail to understand both Ukraine and Russia.
Ukraine’s heroic self-defence so far has surprised many but it should not have – partly because even during the smaller-scale invasion in 2014 its army put up far more resistance than Russia expected, but also because it is a different army and a different Ukraine now.
After eight years of Russian provocation and partial occupation, Ukraine’s fighting force is now better trained, equipped, and motivated. Its army may be outnumbered and technically outmatched but Russia has failed to use its advantages to adequate effect – the Ukrainians are dug in and they are determined.
Ukraine’s government and its 44 million people are no less resilient, and history is replete with examples of plucky underdogs quite prepared to fight and die for their homeland. They know the full implications of continued resistance and the devastation Russia will cause to pound the country and its people into submission. They also know full well that Russia will emphasise its demands in these negotiations by causing the maximum possible suffering to the people of Ukraine first.
With negotiations set to continue, the greater threat to Ukraine comes from the international community in many respects. And the European Union (EU) especially has a rather ugly recent history of successfully pressuring independent states into making concessions to Russia by ‘accepting the inevitable’.
In 2008 French president Nicolas Sarkozy triumphantly delivered a six-point peace plan from Moscow to end Russia’s invasion of Georgia, which remains 20% smaller to this day, and in 2015 Ukraine was forced to sign a second Minsk Agreement on terms favourable to Russia. Just a few weeks ago, French and German leaders were still urging Volodymyr Zelenskyy to acquiesce to Russia’s interpretation of it, which would effectively mean the end of his country.
Offers lack incentive for either side
The ‘off-ramps’ still currently under consideration for offering to Putin are primarily at Ukraine’s expense – principally these are to accept its reissued and fresh demands of no accession to NATO (and the EU too), the independence of the separatist regions, an acceptance that Crimea is Russia’s, and no Western military bases on its soil.
Despite the negotiations, Russia is not – at least not yet – incentivised to make genuine offers Ukraine can reasonably accept because its principal goal remains to ensure Ukraine does not face westwards, and that goal remains despite Moscow abandoning earlier aspirations of a nonsensical ‘denazification’ of Ukraine.
In fact, there is not enough either side can offer which the other is prepared to accept – and to do so would be far more than just political suicide for Zelenskyy and Putin, they would be a fundamental change in the nature of both countries. And while those changes may be in Russia’s real interests – as opposed to Putin’s stated version of them – compromise along Russia’s lines now is not in Ukraine’s interests if it wishes to exist as a country.
Despite Putin’s invoking of the spectre of nuclear war being entirely predictable – and far from the first time he has done it – the nuclear question still requires careful consideration. There is a supposition is that when he realises all is lost, a desperate and unstable Putin will use this option.
But this ignores the fact nuclear threats are a standard part of his repertoire – not a warfighting but a successful diplomatic tactic, deployed whenever he wants Russia to get away with something heinous. Whenever Russia wants operational latitude, mentioning nuclear weapons creates a fear abroad of provoking Putin.
All solutions carry an element of risk
The harsh reality is there is currently no risk-free exit from this situation because the logical extension of ‘not provoking Putin’ is to agree to every single Russian demand with nary a sanction in response, as any pushback or slightest criticism simply raises the ‘nuclear question’ again. But in that scenario, nowhere is off limits to Russia – certainly not other former Soviet states, such as the Baltic states and ex-Warsaw Pact countries.
Threats, no matter how apocalyptic, must be absorbed calmly and assessed on their true merits, not based on hysterical reaction. Precedent shows de-escalation and a willingness to negotiate only convinces Putin he is on the right track, while appeasement spurs him to make further demands.