By Peter Dickinson
Why Putin Cannot Risk Peace in Ukraine
Imagine the scene: a patch of overgrown wasteland on the
outskirts of an east Ukrainian rust belt town. Emergency services personnel are
methodically excavating a large plot of earth while a huddle of journalists and
aid workers look on. The date is October 2019. Another mass grave has just been
This grim but all-too-conceivable scenario is perhaps the
most compelling reason why Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent UN
peacekeeper posturing over Ukraine is hard to take seriously. The desire to
keep evidence of war crimes from reaching international audiences is just one
of many reasons why the prospect of peace is not only impractical but also unpalatable
from Putin’s perspective. While the Russian leader may genuinely wish to
extricate himself from the quagmire he has created, it is difficult to see how
he could do so without courting disaster.
First and foremost, any Russian withdrawal from the Donbas
would open up a veritable Pandora’s box of revelations. The Kremlin’s general
involvement in eastern Ukraine has long been the world’s worst kept secret, but
details of Russia’s exact role remain clouded in hearsay and are subject to
furious denial. This would change dramatically if Moscow pulled its troops out.
An intricate picture of Putin’s secret war would soon emerge, leaving him
hopelessly exposed and facing demands to answer for both the loss of life and
the endless lies.
Even the most ancient of battlefields is still capable of
yielding clues, so it is reasonable to assume that evidence of Russian war
crimes litters the towns and cities of the Donbas. Armies of journalists and
civil society activists are already poised to comb the entire region as soon as
they receive access. Alongside them would be families from both sides of the
conflict searching for signs of missing loved ones. We have already had a
foretaste of what to expect thanks to the steady trickle of Malaysia Airlines
Flight 17-related photos and videos that have emerged from eastern Ukraine
since 2014. This information has proved crucial in identifying the Russian army
unit responsible for downing the civilian airliner, but it is merely the tip of
the iceberg. As well as mass graves, a Russian pullback would reveal everything
from torture chambers to looted factories.
Members of the Ukrainian
Emergencies Ministry gather and place bodies at the crash site of Malaysia
Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove, Donetsk region, July 20,
2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev
Russia has managed to prevent any definitive exposure of its
activities in eastern Ukraine by tightly restricting all information flowing in
and out of the region. A blanket ban on Ukrainian media dates back to the early
days of the conflict, while over the past year it has become increasingly
impossible for even the most accommodating international journalists to gain
access. If Russia cedes physical control over the conflict zone, war crimes
accusations and other damaging revelations will come thick and fast.
At that point, international outrage will be a given.
However, the Kremlin is probably more concerned about the potential reaction
from within Russia itself. Even a public as conditioned to everyday
disinformation as modern Russians may object to the news that their leaders
have spent the past four years secretly waging an illegal war against the
country’s closest neighbor. As evidence of atrocities emerges, Moscow risks
sparking a smaller scale repeat of the late Soviet era, when the perestroika
thaw allowed the long-suppressed crimes of the Communist authorities to
resurface and seal the fate of the dying empire. Putin has spent much of the
past seventeen years repairing this damage and rebuilding Russia’s battered
sense of national pride. He is unlikely to invite an encore.
Beyond these immediate concerns looms the broader issue of
war aims. A victor can expect to receive the benefit of the doubt, but any
peace agreement that leaves Ukraine firmly entrenched in the Western camp would
represent a catastrophic setback for Russian interests. In this respect,
Putin’s war has been disastrously self-defeating, serving to alienate an entire
generation of Ukrainians while accelerating Ukraine’s post-Soviet
nation-building process at the expense of Russia’s imperial ambitions. As long
as the war smolders on, Putin can postpone the inevitable domestic debate over
the loss of Ukraine. Once peace is established, it will no longer be possible
to ignore this awkward reality.
Any subsequent recriminations would be particularly dangerous
for Putin, precisely because he has been so successful in exploiting the attack
on Ukraine to mobilize nationalistic sentiment within Russian society. Since
2014, tens of thousands of Russians have flocked to eastern Ukraine. Many
members of the Kremlin’s hybrid forces are mercenaries and “vacationing”
soldiers from the regular Russian army, but a significant portion are fanatics
and true believers inspired by Putin’s talk of defending the “Russian world”
from Western encroachment. Millions more have bought into the revivalist
narrative of a resurgent Russia, accepting material hardships and political
passivity as a price worth paying for the nation’s return to great power
status. They are unlikely to be pleased if the dust settles to reveal an
increasingly European Ukraine in full control of the Russian-speaking Donbas,
while Russia picks up the pieces of its shattered international standing. Putin
has thus far ridden the patriotic tiger with great skill, but it might be an
entirely different matter if he tries to dismount.
These Russian realities cannot but erode the initial optimism
generated by Putin’s sudden willingness to entertain the idea of a UN mission.
Numerous commentators and government ministers responded to Putin’s September
suggestion with enthusiasm, but any sober assessment of the situation must
conclude that a lasting peace settlement along these lines remains unlikely.
Putin’s peacekeeper proposal fails to meet the minimum requirements for a
serious settlement of the conflict and bears all the hallmarks of an
opportunistic gesture. It could be an attempt to discourage America from arming
Ukraine while positioning Moscow in a more favorable light. It may be a ploy to
fully freeze the conflict and solidify de facto Kremlin control over the
Russian-occupied regions of eastern Ukraine. It is almost certainly not the
first step on the road to peace.
This does not mean that all is lost. Ukraine and its
international partners can still work productively to reduce the immediate
threat of large-scale bloodshed by negotiating with Russia over the withdrawal
of heavy weapons from the line of contact. Humanitarian efforts can return a
semblance of normality to frontline communities and support the integration of
displaced persons and combat veterans into wider Ukrainian society. Kyiv can
focus on building up its defensive capabilities, with or without the aid of
lethal weapons from the United States, while also strengthening its soft power
arsenal and pursuing further Euro-Atlantic integration. As Ukraine becomes a
better country for its citizens to live in, it will move closer to a victory
more decisive and sustainable than anything achieved by bayonets alone.
All this will take place against a backdrop of continuing
low-level conflict. The current hybrid war looks set to remain the new normal
for some time, with its daily toll of fatalities, political assassinations, and
cyber-attacks, along with any other acts of unconventional aggression the
Kremlin can conjure up. This is an understandably unappealing prospect for
ordinary Ukrainians, but they will not be the first nation forced to come to
terms with a hostile neighbor. Once the immediate military threat is contained,
there is no reason why the country cannot prosper as long as appropriate
security measures can minimize the Russian hybrid threat. It will be hard for
Ukraine, but Putin’s predicament makes it virtually inevitable. The Russian leader
finds himself hopelessly entangled in his own web of deceit and appears to be
stuck fast in eastern Ukraine, unable to either advance or retreat. He may no
longer be able to win the war, but he dare not risk peace.
Dickinson is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and publisher of
Business Ukraine and Lviv Today magazines. He tweets @Biz_Ukraine_Mag.