What Happens When Moscow Doesn't Get Its Way? War
Was Putin Only Pretending To Negotiate With Zelenskyy?
The other day I posed the question “What happens if Moscow doesn't get its way?”
Apparently, we now have the answer: war.
Putin Was Never Serious About Negotiating
Putin threw in the towel on a diplomatic solution on Tuesday by declaring talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at “a dead end".
Talks with Ukraine have reached "a dead end," Russian President Vladimir Putin said in fresh Tuesday remarks. "We will not stop military operations in Ukraine until they succeed." He explained that Ukraine has "deviated" from agreements and any possible prior progress reached during the Istanbul meetings, according to state-run RIA.
As negotiations go, Putin is giving up on diplomacy rather quickly. The Paris peace talks to end the Vietnam War lasted more than four years. Negotiations to end the US involvement in Afghanistan took over year and a half. The final round of negotiations to end the Korean War lasted from late April until July of 1953.
Negotiations are rarely fast paced, and can be expected to last longer than Putin's
invasion “special military operations” itself to date. For Putin to declare negotiations at a “dead end” so soon suggests Putin has never been serious about the negotiations and arguably has not been negotiating in good faith.
Negotiated Peace At Odds With Home Front Propaganda
One major reason to doubt the sincerity of the Russian negotiation team is the difficulty Putin would have had explaining a negotiated peace to his Russian subjects, given the extreme rhetoric that has appeared in the state run news media within Russia.
In a recent interview with RIA Novosti, Georgy Muradov, permanent representative of the Crimea under the President of Russia, spoke of an extended period of “denazification” of Ukraine, with the invasion and its stated goal of regime change is only the first stage.
"The denazification of Ukraine, in my opinion, is divided into two main stages. The first stage, which is one of the goals of the special military operation, is the denazification of the authorities in Ukraine, which was created and used by the West as a tool for instilling Nazi ideology in the Ukrainian society. Without this, it is impossible to speak on further denazification of the country," Muradov said.
Muradov goes on to speak of the denazification of education and cultural media in Ukraine, essentially re-educating Ukrainian attitudes towards a pro-Russian disposition.
None of this is remotely possible without a Russian conquest of Ukraine. Removing “Nazis” from power is by definition regime change, requiring the occupation and Russian administration of Ukraine, and Kyiv in particular.
Moreover, if “denazification” and regime change are an explicit objective of Putin's invasion, negotiations with the Ukrainian leadership would be pointless, other than to arrange the departure of said leadership.
For government officials to be speaking thus on state run news media is setting expectations within Russia for a successful conquest of Ukraine and potentially a reabsorption into the Russian Empire. A negotiated peace with Zelenskyy comes in rather far short of that outcome, and could look like a political defeat for Putin.
Not is it merely Russian government officials who are making highly bellicose statements. Putin himself recently took to the Russian airwaves to blame Ukraine for the collapse of negotiations and to commit to seeing the invasion through to its stated objectives.
“We will not stop military operations in Ukraine until they succeed,” Putin said, adding that Ukraine has “deviated” from agreements that were made during previous rounds of talks, according to state-run RIA Novosti.
According to state-run news agency TASS, Putin also asserted that NATO sanctions had failed utterly while speaking in a joint appearance with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
“That Blitzkrieg on which our foes were counting on did not work,” Putin claimed of the West’s crippling sanctions imposed after Putin’s Feb. 24 order to invade the country, according to state-run media outlet TASS. Putin made those comments alongside Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, an ally, at Vostochny cosmodrome in the Amur region.
Whether these assertions are true or false is ultimately irrelevant. What is relevant is that such rhetoric by its very nature downplays and minimizes the role of diplomacy and negotiations in building a lasting peace.
By blaming Ukraine for the failure of negotiations thus far to yield desired results, Putin is discrediting the diplomatic process as well as asserting their futility, given Ukraine’s alleged duplicity during negotiations.
By reaffirming Russian commitment to Putin's military objectives, Putin is removing a potential avenue for the eventual peace treaty
By using such rhetoric, Putin is committing Russia to war.
A key point about Putin’s rhetoric to date that deserves especial emphasis: repeatedly, Putin has cast a wide net of culpability, implying and even stating outright that Russia's “real” adversary is NATO and Western Europe.
The Russian media has picked up on this theme and is running with it, as an op-ed piece in RIA Novosti yesterday illustrates:
European irritation with Russia today has reached such an extent that the only way out that seems right in Brussels is to annihilate the Russian state.
Consider the implications of this sentence. Putin and the Russian media are portraying the war in Ukraine as an existential struggle for the preservation of Russia, and that the European Union has manipulated events and their media presentation as part of a long campaign designed to topple Putin's regime. As with the rest of the Russian rhetoric cited here, the relevant factor is that this is how Putin is presenting the Ukrainian War to the Russian people—as a fight for survival by Russia against Ukraine (serving as a proxy puppet for NATO). Whether this is actually the case or not is irrelevant.
Also in keeping with the rest of the rhetoric cited here, such a rhetorical stance on the home front makes diplomacy and a negotiated peace more difficult. For any nation, including both Russia and Ukraine, existence is fundamentally non-negotiable.
Words Have Consequences
Given the warlike pose Putin has adopted, it is unsurprising that Sweden is preparing its application for NATO membership
Sweden's prime minister Magdalena Andersson is understood to be eager for the country to join the trans-Atlantic alliance by June, to the fury of Vladimir Putin who invaded Ukraine in part for its desire to join to the pact.
Neighboring Finland—which shares an 800-mile border with Russia—is likely to begin its application process shortly.
Similarly, Finland is hoping to start its application process 'within weeks, not within months', its prime minister Sanna Marin said today. This comes despite Moscow lawmaker Vladimir Dzhabarov having recently warned it would mean 'the destruction of the country'.
A Finnish government report released today that examines the 'fundamentally changed' security environment will now make its way through parliament, followed by a debate next week, and is expected to form the basis of their decision.
Given the unavoidable reality that, regardless of rationale, Putin chose to invade Ukraine, just as Putin chose to declare peace negotiations a “dead end”, surely it is unsurprising that both nations, which have historically remained neutral in large part to avoid poking the Russian bear, now are seeking the defensive embrace of a military alliance with the rest of Western Europe. If Putin's default means for adjudicating international disputes is war, preparing for war immediately becomes the prudent thing for Russia’s neighbors in Europe to do. Disputes are inevitable, and Putin appears to be doing an excellent job of persuading Europe that disputes with Russia will mean war.
It matters not whether this is Putin's intention. These are the consequences not just of Putin's actions, but also of Putin's words.
Grievances Are Not Carte Blanche
An important point must be emphasized here: Putin does have legitimate grievances and concerns regarding Ukraine. Ukrainian membership in NATO would mean Russia would be facing an anti-Russia alliance along the entirety of its European border (and regardless of the pretensions of politicians, NATO was and is a military alliance against Russia). The ongoing violence in the Donbass is claiming ethnic Russian lives, and it is not at all difficult to fathom why any Russian leader would have a problem with it.
Putin has real grievances and real concerns, many of which will still exist even after Russia’s “special military operation” is over. Yet if Putin has no taste for negotiations, how can he hope to resolve them? Even if war could resolve these issues, Russia is not so flush with either troops or material to resolve every dispute by a contest of arms—no nation has ever been sufficiently equipped to make war the preferred approach to foreign policy.
Merely having grievances against other nations, however, can never be a sufficient casus belli. Grievances have never been carte blanche for war. They certainly are not carte blanche for Putin.
Eventually, Putin and Zelenskyy will wind up across the negotiating table from each other. Regardless of how the war unfolds, at some point war must end. At some point there must be peace. At that point, there will be negotiations.
Far from being a “dead end”, negotiations are the inevitable end point even for Putin's “special military operation”.