Putin’s peaceful ploy is a ruse to rearm

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With Russia now clearly losing the war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is seeking to return to the negotiating table. For more than a month, Kremlin officials and regime proxies have been calling for talks and positioning Ukrainian reluctance as an obstacle to progress toward peace.

At first glance, these calls may seem attractive. After all, the war launched by the Kremlin in February caused untold human suffering in Ukraine itself and sparked a growing global economic crisis. At the same time, Western policymakers should not overestimate Russia’s willingness to end the invasion. In reality, Putin seeks to secure a break rather than peace.

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Despite the setbacks on the battlefield in recent months, the Russian state remains relatively strong. This leads Putin to believe he can still achieve his military goals if he can overwhelm Ukraine and outlast the West. However, his army badly needs time to regroup and rearm. Hundreds of thousands of mobilized Russians are undergoing training. New weapons are researched and prepared. A ceasefire will give the Russian military the respite it needs before resuming its assault on the Ukrainian nation.

Ukraine has so far rejected the idea of ​​negotiations, with Kyiv officials saying they don’t believe Russia is genuinely interested in peace. Nonetheless, Russia’s apparent eagerness for the talks has garnered considerable international attention and led to heated debate over whether a diplomatic breakthrough is appropriate. Many of those currently advocating a return to the negotiating table seem to be guided by a number of false and dangerous assumptions about modern Russia.

The most obviously wrong assumption is that a ceasefire would bring peace and stability. Moscow has a long tradition of ignoring any deal whenever it suits it and has no credibility as a negotiating partner. Indeed, prominent Russian television experts openly admit that the current push for talks is a ploy to regroup and continue the war on more favorable terms.

Another common misconception is the idea that pragmatism will prevail. Such thinking ignores the imperialist values ​​shared by much of the Russian elite. While the country’s oligarch class apparently suffered massive losses as a result of the war, Russia’s billionaires nonetheless owe their wealth to Putin’s continued patronage. They retain control of their core assets which can still regain their previous value. Moreover, if Russia succeeds in subjugating Ukraine, there will be vast possibilities for further enrichment. It is a serious mistake to assume that Russian policymakers and economic leaders are guided by the same values ​​as their Western counterparts.

Like its Tsarist and Soviet predecessors, Putin’s Russia remains a deeply authoritarian state that rests on a solid base of bureaucrats, law enforcement and military personnel numbering in the millions. As long as this core remains intact, Putin has little to fear. There will be no internal revolts, even if he sends wave after wave of poorly trained recruits to die in Ukraine. Those who oppose the war or refuse to participate in it tend to view protest as futile and prefer to flee the country.

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The war greatly impoverished most Russians, but also did not cause significant social unrest. Instead, growing poverty is likely to bolster regime stability and drive more young Russians into the military. A disproportionate number of soldiers currently fighting in Ukraine come from Russia’s poorest regions. Those who don’t join the military will probably be too preoccupied with day-to-day struggles to have time for politics. Meanwhile, the lucky ones who continue to receive a generous salary from the state will remain loyal to the regime.

It is also important to recognize the depth of Russian public enthusiasm for the war in Ukraine. The overwhelming majority of Russians saw nothing wrong with the 2014 invasion and occupation of Crimea. Likewise, poll after poll indicates clear majority support for the current invasion. Despite widespread knowledge of war crimes committed in Ukraine, there is no anti-war movement to speak of in today’s Russia. Wives and mothers of Russian soldiers readily post videos on social media complaining about the lack of training offered to their conscripted men, but none are protesting the war itself.

Such attitudes reflect the effectiveness of the propaganda machine created by Putin’s regime. Over the past two decades, the Kremlin has slowly but surely reasserted central control over the entire Russian information space. This control has been used to fuel anti-Western paranoia and rehabilitate the authoritarian past. Ukrainians have been demonized and dehumanized to such an extent that many ordinary Russians no longer question the need to destroy the Ukrainian state and extinguish Ukrainian national identity.

Despite a string of embarrassing defeats and setbacks, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is far from over. Putin’s regime remains basically safe at home and the Russian military continues to occupy almost 20% of Ukraine. Moscow can theoretically mobilize several million Russians to support the invasion and can also count on arms deliveries from Iran, Belarus and North Korea. On the home front, the Kremlin is actively putting the entire Russian economy on a war footing as part of efforts to boost military production and prepare for what promises to be a long war.

There is little reason to believe that the Kremlin’s current peace overtures are sincere. Western politicians and commentators must be careful not to assume that Russia is in such bad shape that it is ready to make the kind of deep concessions necessary for a just and lasting peace. The Ukrainians are convinced that a lasting settlement will be possible only after Russia’s decisive defeat. Anything less will be a premature peace leading to more war.

Dennis Soltys is a retired Canadian professor of comparative politics living in Almaty.

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The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values ​​and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and the Central Asia to the East.

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony to unveil a monument to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Moscow. November 22, 2022. (Sputnik/Sergey Guneev/Kremlin via REUTERS)


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