Peace? Yes. But Not At Any Price: On the Perils of Ceasefires and “Off-Ramps”

By Valentin Deleniv, Weekly Policy Brief Coordinator

As Russian forces retreat from Ukraine’s northern flank, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its next phase. But in spite of Ukraine’s heroic initial victories, the war is unlikely to come to an end any time soon, and already, Europeans have felt the pressure of growing energy prices. Some officials have even begun to speak of “ceasefires” and “off-ramps”. Such propositions are not only premature, but naïve, short-sighted, and dangerous.

My point here is not to argue against peace. Like every Ukrainian, I want peace, but I want a durable one, and not a fig leaf that will fall apart on Russia’s whim. In this vein, the idea that Ukraine and Russia should declare an armistice and negotiate or that the West should help Putin save face is absurd for several reasons.

To begin with, nothing about Russia’s behaviour leading up to or during this latest invasion suggests that it has any intention of reaching a peaceful settlement. Lies, cynicism, and rabid Ukrainophobia are pillars of Kremlin policy. It does not think in terms of what it should do but what it can do. If Russia signs a ceasefire with Ukraine but feels that the balance of power turns in its favour once it regains its strength, it will almost certainly resume offensive operations. This is what it did at the 2014 Battle of Ilovaisk, and again at the 2015 Battle of Debaltseve.

An acceptable peace deal is conceivable only under one of two (and preferably both) conditions. Firstly, a fundamental change in Russia’s domestic political landscape and a decisive rejection of its imperialistic legacy (this might be termed de-Putinisation, de-Stalinisation, de-imperialisation, even de-Nazification; take your pick). This is arguably only possible in case of a popular revolution or a coup by an incredibly thin segment of the political elite. It is therefore extremely unlikely.

Consequently, we must place our hope in the second condition: making Ukraine unconquerable, whether through security guarantees or by arming it to the teeth with the weapons it needs — medium- and long-range air-defence systems, combat jets, anti-ship missiles, ammunition (especially for artillery), tanks, and more anti-tank missiles. The issue of security guarantees requires a brief of its own so I won’t discuss it here.

This has several implications for Western policy. First and foremost, negotiations will have to take place during the fighting — fighting in which Ukraine can win if it is given the support it needs and deserves. Only through military defeat will Russia take negotiations seriously.

Secondly, Western countries need to stop prevaricating regarding air defences and combat jets and finally provide Ukraine with these crucial systems. Russia is currently floundering and has been forced to withdraw from Ukraine’s north; Kyiv’s resources are not limitless, so these arms transfers must happen sooner rather than later so that it can press home its advantage.

Beyond this, the West should do everything it can to help Ukraine militarily short of going to war with Russia. Some Western officials have expressed concern that sending jets would be a step too far, but this line is an artificial one, and to be blunt, the West has already provided lethal aid that has helped Ukraine kill thousands of Russian soldiers. Back in 2019, Dmitri Medvedev said that Russia would consider a SWIFT cut-off as an ”act of war”. So where are Russia’s troops? Have they invaded Estonia yet?

This is not a call for recklessness — I am skeptical of the idea of a no-fly zone, for instance. What I am saying is that Russia will stop where it is stopped, and if Putin will see defeat in Ukraine (regardless of how) as a step too far, then he will escalate no matter what we do. If the West rejects the slow-motion vassalisation of Ukraine — as it seems to have done — then it must follow through. That there is no middle ground left is not its doing, but Putin’s alone.

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