Putin Has Yet to Signal a Real Openness to Peace Negotiations

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 29

(Source: Kremlin.ru)

Executive Summary:

  • The first sign that Putin would be truly ready for peace negotiations would be discretely initiating contact through intelligence personnel, diplomats, and “useful idiots.”
  • The West should have several signals in mind when considering Putin’s true intentions, as Kremlin messaging could be a deceptive ploy to convince Western governments of Russia’s peaceful intentions and distract them from the Ukrainian front.
  • Putin continues to use propaganda to convince the Russian people of the correctness and fairness of the military operation. Even if Russia loses the war, Putin will use propaganda to make Russia out to be the victor.

On February 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin was interviewed on the Russian television program “Moscow. Kremlin. Putin.” During the interview, Putin declared, “If not for the position of the West … the war would have ended a year and a half ago. … But those in Kyiv did not want that. I do not know if they will want that today. … We are ready for dialogue” (TASS, February 18; Smotrim.ru, February 18). The Kremlin leader, however, did not elaborate on the concrete actions Russia would take to end the war. When considering whether the Kremlin’s  notions of ending the war and establishing peace are to be believed, the West must first consider the possible scenarios for how the war could end and their implications.

If Ukraine’s defeat appears probable, then Putin would likely expect the losing side to initiate negotiations (see EDM, May 10, 2023). Alternatively, suppose Putin realizes that his resources were insufficient to defeat Ukrainian forces, and a period of reprieve or ceasefire was initiated to recuperate his troops and resources. In that case, it is unlikely that he would use this opportunity to start peace talks (see EDM, February 27, 2023).

If the situation on the front becomes a true stalemate, Moscow will likely be satisfied. The possibility of a “frozen conflict” scenario may increase with the upcoming US presidential election, which may cause further instability in the West (see EDM, January 16). Putin probably expects and hopes that former US President Donald Trump will be reelected and that he will be able to turn the situation in Putin’s favor (see EDM, January 30, 2017).

If the war results in a Russian defeat, the collapse of the front, and a retreat into Russian territory, then Putin is unlikely to prioritize peace talks and will be more likely to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. In this case, he may even go as far as to use them against Ukraine (see EDM, June 28, 2023). Such a development cannot be discounted, and an appropriate response plan must be developed. Such a prospect, however, cannot and should not be perceived as inevitable at this time and should not cause panic and alarmist sentiments.

Signals from Moscow about a true desire to start a dialog to end military operations in Ukraine would be an attempt to reduce the West’s attention to the war (see EDM, February 6). This would presumably lead to reduced military support and arms supplies for Ukraine (see EDM, November 20, 2023). That is, these signals would be a typical Putin ploy.

The question remains of how exactly Putin would try to start negotiations. If, for some reason, he decides to do so, then most likely, his calculations will be as follows. First, initial steps toward peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, or more likely, between Russia and the United States, would start with low-level, informal contacts. These contacts would be designed to explore the possibility of formal talks without committing to specific outcomes. These preliminary discussions could take place on neutral soil and involve a variety of channels, including intelligence contacts and diplomatic backchannels.

Second, intelligence agencies may engage in preliminary, confidential communications to assess the intentions and flexibility of each side. These contacts would be crucial for establishing the trust and understanding necessary for more formal negotiations.

Third, diplomats, possibly those with prior experience in sensitive negotiations or those who have maintained personal relationships across divides, could use informal backchannels to communicate. These discussions would identify mutual interests and potential areas for compromise, away from the public eye and pressure of official positions.

Fourth, initial contacts may include media influencers known to have positive attitudes toward Putin. Moscow may try to use these “useful idiots” to carry its messages, though that increases the risks of premature disclosure of the Kremlin’s plans. This method may already be in use, as seen in Putin’s recent interview with US TV personality Tucker Carlson (see EDM,  February 8, 2022; YouTube.com, February 9;  Novaya gazeta, February 10). Initial contact with these “useful idiots” would likely occur in a country or location perceived as neutral and conducive to discreet, low-pressure discussions. This could be a country without direct involvement in the conflict and good standing with Russia, Ukraine, and Western governments. United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, India, and some African countries are possible locations.

Such contacts are likely to be kept as secret as possible and are unlikely to occur on the margins of multilateral meetings. The involvement of mediators in this initial contact is also unlikely. The fact that Putin initiated such negotiations when the prospects of victory were unclear may signal to the elites that the leader was uncertain about the successful outcome of the war (Ukrainska Pravda, November 24, 2023). Therefore, the intelligence services that Putin is most accustomed to trusting will likely be the ones to conduct initial probing about potential peace negotiations.

Putin and the Kremlin could initiate numerous direct declarations and first steps that would unequivocally signify Russia’s determination for peace. Should Moscow receive a positive response, the following actions would back up such claims. Otherwise, these actions would be misleading.

An explicit, unequivocal public declaration of intent to cease hostilities and engage in negotiations for peace would be the first step. This declaration would include a willingness to discuss critical issues such as sovereignty, territorial integrity, and security guarantees. Such a move would be broadcast through various channels to ensure wide dissemination and signal seriousness to domestic and international audiences.

An immediate and unilateral ceasefire across all conflict zones would be the next step. This action would need to include a clear timeline for the cessation of hostilities and be verifiable by international observers. Additionally, releasing detained military personnel and civilians as a gesture of goodwill would help build trust and create a more conducive negotiation environment. 

Even if Moscow takes such steps, they still may not signify a genuine wish to end the war, especially on terms acceptable to Kyiv. Even these steps could serve to be a deceptive ploy to convince Western governments of Russia’s peaceful intentions (see EDM, February 6). Moscow would then use the time to replenish troops and resources before another “decisive” offensive (Euronews, February 26).

Inside Russia, Kremlin propaganda will portray the initiative to negotiate as a desire for peace and as evidence that Ukraine and the West have finally realized the legitimacy of Putin’s war. This is evident in Putin’s interview with “Moscow. Kremlin. Putin” (TASS, February 18; Smotrim.ru, February 18). With this, the Kremlin leader hopes to convince the population that the war is not lost. According to sociological surveys, however, the majority of the population is generally indifferent to the war and its outcome (Telegram.me/holodmedia, February 25). The Russian people are concerned only about the possible spilling over of hostilities to their territory. Putin also hopes to reassure the elites that the situation is not so bad, that war is under control, and that Russia is winning.

If Putin were serious about peace between Russia and Ukraine, these actions would be the first indications of his genuine intent. Even if these steps begin to be taken, the West should retain a healthy dose of skepticism that any negotiations with the Kremlin would bring results acceptable to Kyiv and other Western capitals.