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Putin’s ‘peace’ demands

This article was originally submitted on the 30th March

Last week, Russian officials announced that the fourth round of peace negotiations with Ukraine had failed to produce any agreement between the two sides.  Unfortunately, such an outcome was only too predictable. Russia’s conditions for peace are such that it is difficult to imagine the people of Ukraine, who continue to sacrifice their lives to prevent their country from becoming a Russian satellite-state, accepting the same fate in the cloaked veil of a ‘peace deal’. And to be clear, such would be the consequences of Putin’s peace conditions.  

Putin seeks Ukrainian recognition of Russian controlled territories in the country, including Crimea – Russia’s 2014 annexation of which Ukraine has never formally recognised – and bound soon to include the ravaged port city of Mariupol. The stakes Putin has made within Ukraine make up roughly one third of its entire territory.

However, the biggest snagging point obstructing a peace deal lies in Putin’s demand for the neutralisation of Ukraine.  Such would require the demobilisation of Ukrainian defence forces and the end of its military alliances – essentially leaving the door wide open for a future Russian incursion.  This question poses what will almost certainly prove an insurmountable barrier to any agreed upon peace deal.  The extent of Putin’s delusion regarding the threat posed by NATO and its allies renders the creation of a militarily impotent Ukraine a security imperative. Zelenskyy has conceded that Ukraine will not seek membership of NATO, and has agreed to consider neutral status on the basis that any agreement would be subject to a referendum.  But neutrality on Zelenskyy’s lines is likely to differ significantly from Putin’s, for a settlement absenting Western security reassurances would be disastrous to his country’s survival.  

On the other hand, any deal which could lead to the placement of Western military capabilities within Ukraine would surely be unacceptable to Russia, in practice differing only superficially to formal membership of NATO.   

The reality is that there exists a gap between what Putin is demanding Ukraine concede in peace talks and the current balance of power in the military conflict. This is not to underestimate the sheer scale of devastation wrought by the conflict – the number of civilian casualties is well over 2,000, and almost a quarter of the country’s population has been displaced.  The UN has warned of a growing humanitarian crisis in the east of the country, with cities such as Mariupol lacking access to food and water.  Zelenskyy’s concession last week that Ukraine would never join the NATO alliance was a significant climb down from his previous stance, seemingly acknowledging the desperate situation in Ukraine.   

Despite this, morale remains high – with Ukrainians continuing to withstand Russian forces around Kiev, and backed up by Western supplies of weapons and a recent American provision of $800 million in security support and aid.  

Ukraine is unlikely to accept Putin’s peace deal whilst its forces continue to resist the Russians, and Putin has little reason to backtrack on his demands.  The Russian army has been taken aback by Ukraine’s fighting strength, but it has still only lost 10 percent of its forces on the ground. Within the last week, chilling reports have emerged suggesting that Russia is considering the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine.  By withdrawing from Ukraine, Putin only stands to lose.  Why risk facing internal humiliation in Russia whilst his forces still possess the military upper hand?

Indeed, international observers including the American State Department and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss have even expressed doubts that Putin is negotiating in good faith, instead attempting to create a ‘smokescreen’ whilst planning a fresh offensive.

Putin’s current peace conditions, if accepted, would surely precede the steady erosion of Ukrainian independence, transforming it into a client state of Russia – akin to the puppet regime in Belarus.  Ukraine is aware that its survival depends on Western security guarantees, and any peace deal absent of this assurance is tantamount to conceding military defeat.  

Given the unacceptability of these conditions, and the vanishingly small prospect of a Russian withdrawal, the most likely scenario is also the most tragic.  Discounting the remote possibility of an internal coup, Russian forces will continue to maim Ukraine indiscriminately until the bitter end.

Image courtesy of UP9 on Wikimedia Commons