The patterns of behaviour by the occupying troops now emerging as Ukraine liberates areas around Kyiv have direct implications for how the war between the two countries can – and must – be ended. It is now harder for Ukraine’s friends and supporters to ignore what Ukrainians – and other countries bordering Russia – have known from the start: that they are defending themselves against a war of annihilation.
Organized mass murder of civilians in the occupied areas of Ukraine is not only a natural function of the manner in which Russia fights wars. It also flows entirely logically from the image of Ukraine that has been relentlessly inculcated by Russian domestic propaganda over the course of a decade.
Ordinary Ukrainians with a belief in their own country and its independence from Russia upend the entire foundation of what Russians have been told about Ukraine, simply by inconveniently existing.
The atrocities Russian troops commit as part of Moscow’s genocidal assault must be turned into Ukraine’s most powerful weapon for winning the war, by ensuring its Western friends find no excuse for slackening munitions support or pushing Kyiv to make concessions in order to end it.
Despite the ongoing destruction of Ukraine’s economy and the appalling trauma to innocent civilians under direct occupation or indirect shelling and blockade, paradoxically the greatest danger for Ukraine is an end to the fighting at this point. Emerging evidence of how the civil population is suffering makes it all the more vital to liberate Russian-held areas. But this is far from the only danger a ceasefire would bring.
The risks of a ceasefire
A suspension of the war would inevitably slacken the pressure on Western politicians to support Ukraine, whether with military supplies, through keeping sanctions in place or raising the costs to Russia. A notional peace would allow those that wish to, once again to turn their backs on the conflict and the ongoing challenge from Russia.
Meanwhile it is primarily Russia that would benefit from the breathing space a ceasefire would provide. Russia knows that it needs a break in the fighting to regroup, to conduct its reorganization of its forces to focus on the eastern front without interference from Ukraine and, most of all, to bring in additional manpower to reconstitute its mauled fighting force for a fresh offensive.
Now the Russian military understands the nature of the war it has started, it would be able to start afresh far better organized for fighting it. But it also knows that Ukraine’s supporters will still be keen to grasp any opportunity to end the fighting, including through pressuring Kyiv into accepting highly disadvantageous ceasefire terms. And of course, if Ukraine resists this pressure, Russia has the advantage that Kyiv then seems the unreasonable party.
To achieve that, Russia might well be willing to at least give the appearance of compromising on some of the disagreements between the two sides. But this would in all likelihood be a sham designed to deceive those Western partners that are prepared to ignore all previous experience of Russian ‘ceasefires’ in order to pretend to themselves - and to Kyiv - that this time Russia might be negotiating in good faith.
It follows that a temporary ceasefire sets the worst possible preconditions for a sustainable peace settlement, including through the ever-present risk of ‘temporary’ ceasefire lines becoming more permanent divisions within Ukraine in a new frozen conflict, ready to be defrosted at a time of Russia’s choosing.
And the greatest danger for Ukraine lies in well-meaning European partners, appalled at the horrors being inflicted, pressing President Zelenskiy to accept Russian offers that appear reasonable to Western politicians but whose implementation would be toxic for Ukraine’s future as an independent state – in exactly the pattern repeated through ceasefires in Georgia, Syria and Ukraine itself under the Minsk accords.
How much does Putin know?
Meanwhile the biggest obstacle to achieving a peace settlement between Russia and Ukraine that is instead both feasible and durable lies not on the battlefield, nor even at the negotiating table, but in Vladimir Putin’s mind.
It is clear Russia launched this war on the basis of assumptions about Ukraine and Ukrainians that were rooted in fantasy. The defining factor for whether Russia can now engage in a meaningful conversation about how to end the conflict depends entirely on the extent to which that fantasy has now been brought to earth by the reality of Russian military failure.
Putin cannot fail to have realized that Ukraine did not fall into his hands in a matter of days as anticipated. The question now is why he thinks that is – and whether his understanding of Russia’s inability to meet its military goals reflects the real situation, or whether he is still insulated from it by his preconceptions and the failure of those around him to temper them with inconvenient facts.
Putin’s understanding of what is happening will determine what Russia thinks is an acceptable outcome to the war – and so in turn will determine the real success or failure of peace talks and any eventual genuine peace agreement.
Russia’s hasty reinvention of its initial war aims, and the pivot of both its forces and its aspirations away from the conquest of the whole of Ukraine toward far more limited goals in the east of the country, constitute a recognition that Russia has failed. But it may not mean Putin recognizes that Ukraine could cause Russia to keep on failing – and therefore leave Moscow even further from achieving its original aims.
What might Russia accept?
Russia’s initial aims have gradually fallen away or been abandoned as they have been shown to be entirely unrealistic. Talk of the nonsensical ‘denazification’ of Ukraine is now only for domestic consumption, and seizing control of the whole of Ukraine – or even the country east of the Dnipro – is now a distant prospect so long as Ukraine can hold the line against Russia’s eastern offensive.