- Moscow’s signaling of a willingness for peace negotiations should be considered as a tactical maneuver aimed at splitting the Western public opinion and undermining its resolve to help Ukraine.
- Putin’s tactical aim is to torpedo Western aid to Ukraine until a potential Trump presidency, because the Kremlin believes former US President Donald Trump may give up on Ukraine and disrupt NATO.
- Signs for peace from Putin cannot be trusted for his words but rather must be backed up by his actions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly sent signals that he is ready to start ceasefire negotiations for long-term peace with Ukraine (Forbes.ru, January 26). These signals have provoked a significant reaction, especially in the West. The latest leaks implied Putin’s alleged intention to agree to Ukraine’s joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and give up its neutrality and non-aligned status in exchange for Russia’s retention of Ukraine’s conquered territories of Donetsk, Lugansk, and parts of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. This agreement would satisfy the Russian president, who could agree to stop military actions and perhaps even abandon further military plans. Putin has mastered the art of saying what the people want to hear and implementing different policies under the cover of these tactical words. When analyzing Putin’s statements, one should proceed from a simple but unpopular criterion: correlate his statements with his actions.
Throughout the history of Putin’s rule since the beginning of the 2000s, he has known how to say the right thing to win the support of the Russian people. He declared that he would establish a strict rule of law and strengthen democratic institutions (Vedomosti, August 8, 2019). In the field of foreign policy, Putin and his diplomats say perceivably correct things, such as touching on the inadmissibility of hegemony of one or a few countries in world affairs and the need to take the interests of all states into account and protect their sovereignty (Meduza, September 30, 2022). In reality, instead of equality before the law, Putin has built a corrupt autocracy where his friends and cronies are given unlimited power. In contrast, the bulk of the Russian population has little to no power. In place of economic growth, which Putin proposed as a goal at the beginning of his rule, government control over the economy has gotten stronger, and the economy has increasingly subordinated to the needs of his political agenda (Kommersant, November 24, 2004). Putin’s promise to never raise the retirement age was widely supported and stated repeatedly, but in 2018, he raised the age without hesitation (TASS, August 29, 2018).
During the war in Ukraine, Putin has repeatedly changed the goals and objectives of his “special military operation.” At first, he designated the denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine as the main reason for the invasion. He then changed his rhetoric to the protection of the population of Donbas and Russia’s southern borders. Then he brought up demilitarization and denazification again. When needed, he comes up with a new goal, task, or slogan that will give him an advantage (Novaya Gazeta Europe, December 14, 2023). This war is an existential dispute between the project of Putin’s Russia and the surrounding regions, where he seeks to be the only one with sovereignty and supreme power. In this sense, for Putin himself, this war is a worldview conflict that can hardly be resolved without a full-fledged victory for one side (RIA, April 5, 2022).
Russia’s economy is in a perilous position despite positive declarations from the Kremlin. Although the more dire predictions for the Russian economy and its collapse under the oppression of Western sanctions have not come true, claims from Putin’s economists’ victory speeches are not to be trusted. They say that the Russian economy is coping perfectly well under sanctions, withstanding all the hardships of wartime, and multiplying the production of military equipment, weapons, and ammunition. Putin realizes that everything is not well in the economy, and his statements that the war of attrition suits him fine may be a bravado designed to hide the true state of affairs (Riddle.Io, January 8). The Russian economy is much more centralized than Western economies, which allows Russia’s military efforts to be maintained at a more or less acceptable level. If Western leaders do not start increasing the production of arms and ammunition sent to Ukraine, then Western economies will not be able to outstrip the capabilities of Russian industry, and Putin is likely to realize this (TASS, February 1).
Putin’s plan appears to be to hold out on the possibility that the United States reelects Donald Trump. Moscow seemingly expects that Trump will give up on Ukraine and that US global status will generally weaken. The Kremlin must now figure out how Russia could achieve a reduction in Western military support for Ukraine before Trump takes office. One way is to reinforce and expand a split in Western public opinion. Hints of Putin’s willingness for peace have put him in the position of a “peacemaker.” This leads the Ukrainian leadership and Western countries, especially the United States, to appear to be the ones who wish for continued war.
Those who believe that the war with Ukraine is a regional dispute over land and borders claim that Putin needs new territories and will be content with those he has “claimed.” Many Western Putin-ites immediately began demanding that the program of support for Ukraine be curtailed because Russia is ready for peace. They claim that there is no need to continue spending huge sums of money to help Kyiv at the expense of its population (Twitter.com/EvaVlaar, February 1).
Any claims of willingness to negotiate must be backed up by concrete actions, such as ceasefire proposals or initiatives to de-escalate the conflict. The absence of such steps makes any claims of a desire for peace nothing more than a tactical maneuver, a decoy aimed at achieving short-term goals such as dividing the international community, changing public opinion in the West, and weakening Ukraine’s military capabilities.
The seriousness of Putin’s intentions cannot simply be judged by personnel changes or other signals. It should be said that Putin does not need any personnel changes in order to move to a real search for peace if he suddenly decides that he has had enough of this war. His actions will be the real indicators of his stance on peace.