Instead of attempts to bargain with Putin, it should now be obvious that the only way to secure a lasting peace is via Ukrainian victory and the decisive defeat of Russian imperialism, Peter Dickinson writes.
For almost a year and a half, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shocked and horrified the watching world more than any other event in modern European history.
Nevertheless, there are still many international voices arguing for some kind of compromise with the Kremlin.
On both the American right and the European left, and from China to Brazil, prominent figures continue to call for an immediate ceasefire, even though any negotiated settlement would almost certainly leave large swathes of Ukraine under Russian control.
Supporters of a land-for-peace deal typically claim to be realists motivated by a desire to end the carnage in Ukraine as quickly as possible.
While some are no doubt entirely sincere in their intentions, all of these so-called realists are united by a fundamental failure to recognise the true nature of the Putin regime and the genocidal character of the Russian invasion.
Brazen designs and imperial ambitions
The war unleashed by Vladimir Putin in February 2022 is no mere border dispute that can be resolved via territorial concessions; it is an old-fashioned war of imperial conquest that seeks to extinguish Ukrainian statehood and eradicate all traces of Ukrainian national identity.
Asking Ukrainians to reach a compromise with this eliminationist agenda is both grotesque and absurd. Nevertheless, that is exactly what we are currently witnessing.
It is perhaps hardly surprising that so many people still misunderstand Putin’s true intentions in Ukraine.
The Russian dictator has worked hard to muddy the waters, offering up a series of excuses to justify the war and distract attention away from his own imperial ambitions.
Putin’s most effective deception has been the claim that Russia is simply reacting to decades of NATO expansion.
Since the invasion of Ukraine began, numerous politicians and commentators around the world have echoed Putin’s complaints about the post-1991 growth of NATO, arguing that this process posed an intolerable threat to Russian national security that made war inevitable.
However, Russia’s own apparent indifference to Finland’s recent NATO accession has made a mockery of such assertions.
NATO is not the reason
The Finns, who share a 1,300km border with Russia, declared their intention to join NATO in May 2022 and joined the alliance eleven months later.
During that period, Russia took no steps to protest or increase its military presence close to Finland.
On the contrary, Putin downplayed the significance of Finnish NATO membership, while the Russian army actually withdrew the bulk of its troops from the border region.
Russia has since adopted the same unconcerned stance on imminent Swedish NATO membership, despite the fact that this will transform the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake.
Evidently, Putin does not regard NATO as a security threat to the Russian Federation.
Russian dislike of NATO enlargement is real enough, but it has nothing to do with legitimate national security concerns.
Instead, Putin objects to NATO because it prevents him from bullying Russia’s neighbours.
The continued absurdity of claims of Ukrainian 'Nazis'
While Russia’s NATO arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny, Putin’s other excuses are even more far-fetched.
Most notoriously, he has positioned his invasion of Ukraine as a crusade to “de-Nazify” the country.
A brief look at Ukraine’s political landscape should be enough to expose the absurdity of this claim.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and first rose to national prominence as a Russian-speaking comedian, but this did not prevent him from winning the Ukrainian presidency by a landslide.
While Zelenskyy enjoys record approval ratings, Ukraine’s far-right politicians remain firmly on the fringes of the country’s democracy.
Following years of embarrassing election failures, Ukraine’s nationalist parties united in 2019 under a single electoral banner but still ended up with just 2% of the vote.
While the Kremlin rants about imaginary Ukrainian fascists, there are few European countries where far-right politicians enjoy less support than Ukraine.
Putin’s talk of NATO and Nazis is designed to disguise the far darker motives driving his invasion.
In common with millions of his compatriots, Putin rejects the entire notion of Ukrainian statehood and sees Ukrainian independence as a symbol of the historical injustice that befell Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
When he bemoans the break-up of the USSR and “the demise of historical Russia,” it is primarily Ukraine he has in mind.
Subjugating Ukraine has become the cornerstone of what he regards as his sacred mission to revive the Russian Empire.
The Ukraine obsession is nothing new for Russia and Putin
Putin’s implacable opposition to Ukrainian independence also reflects his alarm over post-Soviet Ukraine’s embrace of democracy, which he sees as an existential threat to his own authoritarian regime.
It is no coincidence that Putin’s Ukraine obsession first became apparent in the aftermath of the pro-democracy 2004 Orange Revolution, which overturned a rigged Ukrainian presidential vote.
He is terrified that as democratic political traditions take root in Ukraine, this will spark demands for similar change inside Russia itself.
These fears are rooted in Putin’s personal experience as a young KGB officer in Cold War-era East Germany, where he witnessed the unravelling of Soviet power as pro-democracy movements swept the Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s.
Putin remains haunted by the prospect of a democratic Ukraine serving as the catalyst for a new chapter in the ongoing breakup of the Russian Empire and appears ready to pay almost any price to prevent that from happening.
Unhinged essays and naked landgrabs
This preoccupation with Ukraine has intensified over the years and has come to dominate Putin’s entire reign.
He is infamous for insisting Ukrainians are actually Russians (“one people”), and published an unhinged 5000-word essay in July 2021 that read like a declaration of war against Ukrainian statehood.
Putin went even further in the summer of 2022, directly comparing the ongoing invasion of Ukraine to the imperial conquests of 18th-century Russian Tzar Peter the Great.
Months later, he oversaw a lavish Kremlin ceremony officially annexing four partially-occupied regions of Ukraine, representing around 20% of the country. This naked land grab was part of the battle for a “greater historical Russia,” he explained.
Putin did not invent this anti-Ukrainian doctrine. On the contrary, it has been a central feature of Russia’s imperial identity for centuries.
Nevertheless, his Ukraine fixation is acute even by Russian standards and has distorted the country’s national discourse to the extent that genocidal rhetoric targeting Ukrainians is now a routine feature of Russia’s heavily censored mainstream media.
Unsurprisingly, this has poisoned attitudes towards Ukraine among ordinary Russians and has helped to fuel strong public support for the invasion, which has remained consistently above 70% according to Russia’s only internationally respected independent pollster, the Levada Center.
While there are legitimate concerns over the validity of opinion polls in dictatorships, there is no denying the almost complete absence of an anti-war movement in today’s Russia. In a very real sense, this is Russia’s war, not just Putin’s war.
From absurdities to atrocities — and eventually, genocide
The war crimes being committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine are the logical consequence of the anti-Ukrainian hysteria that has long been normalized inside Russia itself.
After all, as Voltaire famously warned, those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
Nor are these crimes the work of isolated individuals or rogue units. On the contrary, in every single liberated region of the country, Ukrainian officials have uncovered strikingly similar evidence of summary executions, torture, sexual violence, mass deportations, child abductions, forced russification, and the systematic suppression of Ukrainian national identity.
This descent into barbarism is a direct result of the genocidal intentions on display in Moscow.
All of this is perfectly well known in Ukraine, which explains why there is virtually no appetite for any compromise with the Kremlin.
One recent survey found that 84% of Ukrainians oppose any territorial concessions to Moscow and insist on the complete liberation of the country from Russian occupation, even if that means prolonging the war.
Ukrainians recognise that unless Russia is forced to withdraw completely from their country, Putin will use any ceasefire agreement to rearm and regroup before renewing his invasion.
To some outside observers, this steely determination to defeat Russia may seem uncompromising or even unhelpful. From a Ukrainian perspective, it is simply the only way to secure national survival.
A peace agreement would endanger others, too
Nor are Ukrainians the only potential victims of a negotiated settlement. Rewarding Russia’s invasion with territorial concessions would have disastrous consequences for international security.
It would embolden the Kremlin and invite further Russian aggression, with the likes of Moldova, Kazakhstan, and the Baltic states all potential targets.
Other authoritarian rulers would also learn the lessons of Putin’s success and embark on their own expansionist adventures.
The whole world would enter a new era of international instability marked by a rising tide of militarism and geopolitical intimidation.
As the massive-scale war on European soil approaches the one-and-a-half-year mark, it is worth underlining that nobody wants peace more than the Ukrainians themselves.
After all, they are the ones who are being terrorized and slaughtered on a daily basis; they are the ones forced to spend their nights in filthy trenches and makeshift bomb shelters.
And yet they are honest enough to acknowledge that a premature peace would be no peace at all. On the contrary, it would virtually guarantee more war.
Don't bargain with Putin
Anyone calling for an immediate ceasefire must reckon with this grim reality.
Russia is not a reasonable international actor seeking to address legitimate security concerns; it is an openly imperialistic power that categorically rejects the current international order and has made clear its intention to wipe Ukraine off the map entirely.
In such circumstances, supporters of a compromise settlement risk enabling genocide in the heart of Europe and robbing the wider world of the security that has fueled decades of rising living standards.
Any attempt to bargain with Putin would set a disastrous precedent for the future of international relations.
Instead, it should now be obvious that the only way to secure a lasting peace is via Ukrainian victory and the decisive defeat of Russian imperialism.
Peter Dickinson is the publisher of Business Ukraine magazine and UkraineAlert editor at the Atlantic Council.
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