Putin Will Not Agree To Anything Less Than Surrender By Kyiv
December 5, 2023
  • Mikhail Fishman

    Political journalist and the author of Successor: The story of Boris Nemtsov and the country where he never became president. Corpus, 2022
Journalist Mikhail Fishman looks at Putin’s Ukraine policy over the past two decades and concludes that there is no chance for peace talks in the conceivable future. Indeed, we should expect Putin to double down on his war against Ukraine.
The failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive has flipped the dynamic of Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine — both militarily and politically. Militarily, the Russian army has seized the initiative, outnumbering the Ukrainians in terms of personnel, armor and munitions. Politically, Putin feels confident, in contrast to the Ukrainian leadership, which is stuck in squabbles over who is to blame for the failure of the summer offensives.

Amid delays in the supply of military aid to Ukraine, the war’s new dynamic strengthens the conciliatory sentiment in the West. Across European capitals, an interest in a cease-fire and negotiations seems to be gaining momentum. Putin is fueling it with signals that he is open to peace talks.
Ukrainian forces retake Klishchiivka. September, 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
No compromise

But what exactly would his peace offer to Ukraine look like? As the Russian Foreign Ministry has repeatedly declared — the last time being in May — Moscow’s current conditions include not only “acknowledgement of the reality on the ground” and a pledge by Kyiv not to join NATO and the EU, but also the “demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine and the elimination of threats to Russia’s security posed by Ukraine.”

“Denazification,” like the “elimination of threats,” refers to the stated aim of Putin’s invasion when it was launched on February 24, 2022. Although there is always room for interpretation, this seems to mean taking over Ukraine.

Dmitri Medvedev, Russia’s onetime “substitute president” and still an influential member of Putin’s inner circle, who arguably acts as Putin’s messenger, put it bluntly in June when the Ukrainian counteroffensive started to unfold: “we have to stop the enemy and then start our offensive. Its aim is not merely liberation of our lands and protection of our people, but a full dismantling of the Nazi regime in Kyiv, which entrenched itself in the country 404” (“country 404” is a Russian meme suggesting Ukraine is an illegitimate state – RP). In short, Ukraine can never be a sovereign state — it may exist only as Russia’s protectorate.

Putin never gave up on this objective. At the end of the second year of Putin’s war, the elimination of Ukrainian statehood continues to define his mindset and guide his actions, both in the military and political arenas. While Western governments may be toying with the idea that the current stalemate on the battlefield might become the basis for a peace deal — or at least a more or less stable ceasefire — for Putin this is a non-starter. His short-term goal appears to be taking the entire Donbas region, which he annexed on paper a year ago. But his ultimate claim goes much further.
Putin would see as a personal defeat any resolution of the conflict that would imply that Ukraine, even territorially dismembered, still exists as a real state, let alone as a member of the Western alliance.”
Either Ukraine agrees to his terms — which would mean agreeing to a Kremlin-backed puppet government — or he will lay siege to Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro and Odesa to make sure that Ukraine is destroyed as a state.

Putin vs Ukraine: A brief history

Conquering Ukraine has topped Putin’s political agenda for almost two decades, going back to 2004, when Putin experienced his first defeat on Ukrainian soil — and his first overall — after having failed to install Viktor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine.

By then, Putin had taken full control of Russia’s political landscape, and the increasingly authoritarian Kremlin was already pulling away from the West. In the Ukrainian presidential election of 2004, Yanukovych embodied the pro-Russia choice, so Putin perceived the victory of the Western-leaning Viktor Yushchenko as his personal loss in a geopolitical battle: the West “stole” Ukraine from Russia – from him. And he had to get it back.

As time passed, this grievance evolved into a full-fledged worldview and political agenda — thoroughly articulated in Putin’s infamous Munich speech in February 2007, when he vehemently condemned NATO’s eastward expansion. Ukraine somewhat faded into the background during Medvedev’s presidency and the Reset policy, but it has never been dropped. In 2012, upon Putin’s return to the Kremlin, a top priority on his agenda was getting Ukraine back into Moscow’s orbit.

In November 2013, he pressed Yanukovych, then the president of Ukraine, to walk away from signing an association agreement with the EU, which had been several years in the making. This abrupt U-turn away from Europe sparked protests in Ukraine, which quickly escalated into a national uprising against Yanukovych’s corrupt and authoritarian rule – the Euromaidan, or Revolution of Dignity – but Putin refused to give up.

For the whole world, Putin’s invasion of 2022 was totally unexpected. Yet from his own perspective, it was not a spontaneous move, but another – radical – step toward suppressing Ukraine’s sovereignty.
The Euromaidan protests. Kyiv, February 1, 2014. Source: Wiki Commons
In February 2014, after Yanukovych failed to crush the Euromaidan and fled Kyiv, he first moved to Kharkiv, while Putin was busy framing the Euromaidan as a Western-backed coup. Putin’s idea was to use Kharkiv as a foothold for “Russian Ukraine” – to first split the country in two and then claim Kyiv for “the legitimate president of Ukraine,” as Putin positioned Yanukovych back then.

When this plan failed, Putin annexed Crimea and encouraged secessionism in the eastern regions of Ukraine. When the secession effort failed, too, he invaded parts of the Donbas and forced the Ukrainian leadership to sign the so-called Minsk agreements in early 2015. Their purpose was to implant Moscow-controlled Donbas into the body of Ukraine, which would destroy Ukrainian sovereignty from the inside. When that also failed, he invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

During all these years, Putin has used every means at his disposal – financial aid, graft, political blackmail, military force – but crucially, starting from 2004 there does not seem to be a single moment when he would agree to anything less than the surrender of Ukraine.

The Istanbul talks in March 2022 – the only attempt at an agreement after the invasion – fall into this category as well: though there was a glimmer of hope after progress was reported on March 29, it is fair to say that Putin never backed down on his demands.
Led by Putin’s aide Vladimir Medinsky, hardly an influential figure, Russia’s delegation lacked credibility from the beginning, and the reported progress on crucial issues could not be taken seriously.
Dmitri Kozak, a loyal aide to Vladimir Putin for many years, worked on a diplomatic solution to the Russia-Ukraine crisis, but fell out of favor after Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022.
Source: Wiki Commons
The Financial Times wrote, citing a Ukrainian official, that “Russia was shifting its position almost day by day” on the crucial issue of Ukraine’s demilitarization. According to some reports, Russia demanded that Ukraine maintain no more than 50,000 troops, which would be synonymous with capitulation: stripped of military power, Ukraine would be defenseless against Russia in the future.

Attempted agreement and the demise of Dmitri Kozak

At best, Putin intended to use the Istanbul talks to lure Kyiv into yet another variation of the Minsk agreements. As Reuters reported later, days after the start of the war Putin rejected a deal ensuring Ukraine’s neutral status that his aide Dmitry Kozak had struck with Kyiv, as it did not reflect Putin’s appetite for annexing Ukrainian territories. Putin subsequently removed Kozak from the Ukrainian policy team.

The agreement that was drafted in Moscow and handed to Ukraine in mid-April 2022, two weeks after the Istanbul talks, demanded not only “demilitarization and denazification,” but also “acknowledgement of the reality on the ground, including Russian jurisdiction of Crimea and independence of the Donbas republics.” To this day, these demands remain Russia’s only approach to negotiations with Ukraine.

Putin is not interested in bringing the war to an end also for domestic reasons, as that would shift public attention to the enormous cost that Russia has paid for the invasion, and, more importantly, because the war with Ukraine – as much as the struggle against the West – has long defined his rule and appears to be its primary purpose, as he sees it.

With the military balance at this stage of the war now tipping to his side, Putin will hardly compromise on his goal. He has no reason to negotiate. On the contrary, it is increasingly likely that after his reelection in March 2024 Putin will double down on his military efforts and try to conquer more Ukrainian territory.

As the two decades of his rule have shown, in foreign policy Putin is unwilling to stick to the status quo. As a shark will drown if it stops moving forward, Putin considers quiescence an existential threat. He simply cannot stop. In this regard, his ambitions go beyond Ukraine, and the argument that the Ukrainians are fighting not only for themselves but also “for Europe” no longer sounds like an exaggeration.
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