A Russia-Ukraine ceasefire might seem a good way to stop the horrific killing caused by the Russian invasion of February 2022. Unfortunately, it would not help at present.
Any sane person wants to stop a war
Many voices have spoken out in favour of negotiating a ceasefire with Russia to stop the daily deaths and atrocities caused by the Russian invasion. In Germany, prominent intellectuals argued in an open letter on 29 April that providing weapons to Ukraine could encourage an escalation to nuclear war. They called on Chancellor Scholz to find ‘a compromise that both [sides] can accept’. Philosopher Jürgen Habermas described Russian President Putin as a “war criminal” but said that given Russia’s ability to threaten nuclear war, ‘an end of the war, or at least a cease-fire, must be negotiated with him‘.
Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a friend of Putin’s and supporter of Russian gas exports to Europe, has also argued for a settlement, saying ‘the good news is that the Kremlin wants a negotiated solution’. He urged Germany and France to try to end the war. Jeremy Corbyn, former leader of the Labour Party in the UK, argued in an interview that ‘pouring in arms isn’t going to bring about a solution, it’s only going to prolong and exaggerate this war.’ Mario Draghi, the Italian Prime Minister, called in May for a ceasefire. French President Emmanuel Macron in June said the west should not “humiliate” Putin.
Others have made similar arguments. On 2 August the Financial Times reported on a letter published by the wife of the Irish president, Sabina Higgins. ‘Concerned people of the world anxious to live together in peace… must demand that this war be brought to an end so that lives are saved, and there is a lessening of the suffering,’ she wrote. The Russian ambassador to Ireland agreed: ‘It makes sense. She’s against war. We’re all against war,’ he said.
Would a Russia-Ukraine ceasefire stop escalation?
People also, sensibly, fear escalation. Simon Jenkins, a columnist with the Guardian newspaper, argued in August 2022 that ‘the fates of Ukraine and Taiwan merit every diplomatic support but they cannot be allowed to lurch downhill towards global war or nuclear catastrophe’ He compared western military support for Ukraine to ‘the uncertainties that overwhelmed European diplomacy in 1914… In Taiwan, as in Ukraine,’ he wrote, ‘the west is flirting with disaster.’
A terrifying situation
Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine, launched on 24 February 2022, has put the world in a precarious and alarming situation. Russia has threatened to escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in April accused NATO of engaging in a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine and said that the threat of a nuclear war ‘should not be underestimated’. The risk of a nuclear war, he said, was ‘considerable’.
Those words are intended to be frightening. We should be frightened. A nuclear attack – no matter whether using tactic or strategic nuclear weapons – would be a horrific escalation causing unimaginable suffering. The thought of a country using such weapons, for the first time since the US attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945, is terrifying. Moscow would be delighted if the response of western countries was to push for a Russia-Ukraine ceasefire.
How are things on the ground?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – the largest and bloodiest conflict in Europe since 1945 – remains finely balanced. The conclusions of my 12 June post, Russia’s war on Ukraine: what’s happening?, still look largely right:
“Militarily, the situation could still go either way. A loss of morale or some kind of breakthrough could lead to a rapid collapse on either side. Up to now, Ukrainian forces have been better led and much more motivated than Russian forces. But we cannot take this for granted. Better weapons for Ukraine could change the picture, or could simply make it harder for Russia to advance. Ukraine is handicapped by not wanting to attack Russia itself, lest this give Moscow an excuse for even more barbaric measures in prosecuting the war – eg the use of nuclear weapons. The likeliest outcome at present looks like a continued hard-fought war of attrition.
We should continue to watch the situation inside Russia. Putin has spent twenty three years building a system where he is difficult to overthrow. He has crushed the opposition and controlled the media. This lack of checks, balances or debate is one reason why he keeps making such bad decisions. The longer the war goes on, the greater the likelihood that Russian families suffering personal tragedies from the loss of loved ones will demand a change, as they did during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan 1979-89. But we cannot count on this. Putin has painted himself into a corner with his reckless mistakes. He will do whatever it takes to remain in power.”
The military situation seems to have shifted somewhat in Ukraine’s favour since June. But Ukrainian forces remain under immense pressure.
How should we respond?
I disagree with those who argue that providing weapons to Ukraine simply prolongs the war, or that a Russia-Ukraine ceasefire is the answer, for the following reasons:
(i) if countries supporting Ukraine cut weapon deliveries, this will increase the likelihood that Russia wins the war. Remember: President Putin’s goal is the annihilation of an entire country, in order to prevent a democratic Ukraine exporting democracy to Russia and threatening his grip on power;
(ii) if Moscow wins, it will, first, seize Kyiv and install a puppet government. Then it will seek to integrate Ukrainian territory into Russia. It is already doing this in those areas it has occupied. We are witnessing a brutal invasion of a country to seize its territory of a kind we have not seen since Adolf Hitler launched his quest for Lebensraum. Do we really want that to succeed?
(iii) the behaviour of Russian forces in those areas it has occupied appears to include atrocities and war crimes. Legal proceedings will, if they can be completed, eventually uncover the full facts, and bring to justice those responsible. Letting Russia win would lead to many more such atrocities happening across the whole territory of Ukraine;
(iv) a Russia-Ukraine ceasefire would freeze the lines of conflict, with Russia holding large swathes of occupied territory. The chances of Ukraine ever regaining the areas Russia now controls by negotiation after a ceasefire would be nil. Such a freeze would risk repeating the ceasefire after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, which left Russia controlling Crimea and parts of the Donbas in the east. It never left them. Russia has since annexed Crimea. A ceasefire would also allow Russia to reinforce its position militarily;
(v) the 2014 example shows that a Russia-Ukraine ceasefire would not bring long-term stability. Any outcome of the war that leaves Russia in possession of more of Ukraine than it held in February 2022 would simply create a new, unstable situation. Moscow would hold onto the territory it controls already, integrate them into Russia, bide its time, build its strength, and launch a new offensive later, following the 2014 pattern;
(vi) if Russia is able to seize and integrate into its territory a chunk of, or all of, its sovereign next-door neighbour, the message this sends to other countries around the world who fancy re-drawing borders would be catastrophic.
Suppose well-meaning outsiders had proposed a ceasefire in 1942, with Germany in control of France, Norway, the Low Countries, the whole of eastern Europe as far as Moscow and St Petersburg, the Balkans and swathes of North Africa, to “stop the killing”? Who in the Soviet Union, the US or the UK would have supported pausing the fighting to hold negotiations?
Against this background, as I wrote in June, ‘the top priority in responding to Russia’s war on Ukraine must be to maintain unity amongst countries opposing the war. Only that will make it possible to keep providing Ukraine with the weapons and material it needs to defend itself against the biggest war launched on European soil since 1945, and slowly to weaken Russia. It is a grim prospect. But the alternatives are grimmer still.’
What about nuclear weapons?
Might President Putin authorise the use of nuclear weapons, if the war goes badly for him? It is unlikely, because there is no possible justification for using them, either in logic or under Russia’s nuclear doctrine; it would cause untold suffering; and it would make Russia an international pariah. But we cannot rule it out. If it happened, it would be a grim day for the world – including Russia. It would:
(i) break a taboo that has stood since 1945;
(ii) encourage many more countries to acquire nuclear weapons; and
(iii) lower the threshold for the future use of such weapons – including against Russia – in future conflicts. This would include countries which are not at present nuclear-armed.
Unfortunately, the fact that such a move would be massively against Russia’s own interests does not make it impossible. That is true of much of what Putin has done since he invaded Ukraine in 2014 – including turning formerly friendly Ukrainians against Russia; persuading Finland and Sweden to join NATO; destroying Russia’s economy; and killing not only countless Ukrainians but also huge numbers of his own soldiers.
Nor, however, can the risk that Russia might use nuclear weapons mean that Ukraine should not be allowed to fight back against an invasion of its territory. The argument that “you have to let a nuclear-armed country win any war it embarks on” makes no sense.
How to reduce the risk of nuclear escalation
The best other countries can do to reduce the risk of Putin authorising the use of nuclear weapons is to avoid providing him with easy pretexts to do so. That includes direct involvement in the conflict. Supporting Ukraine sufficiently to resist and, ideally, push back Russian forces inside Ukraine without intervening so decisively as to signal a quantum shift that could provide a pretext for the use of nuclear weapons by Russia is a delicate task.
It may be an impossible one. Putin has a history of using the flimsiest of excuses, such as the non-existent “genocide” of Russian speakers in Ukraine, to justify brutal actions. Others have argued that the best way to stop Putin using nukes is to deter him with a credible threat of response.
Leaders should also avoid comments that are unnecessarily provocative – however incendiary statements by Russian leaders and their representatives may be. They should avoid sanctimoniousness, hubris and triumphalism, lest this make it easy for Russian leaders to argue that “the west” wants somehow to attack, destroy or weaken Russia. They should also bear in mind that most Russians, whatever they are telling pollsters, do not want this war. Many of the brightest and best have already voted with their feet and left the country.
Sanctimoniousness and hubris
I discussed Russia’s war in Ukraine with a top ambassador from a country in the southern hemisphere recently. She said governments in the “global south” were fed up with the US and UK preaching about Ukraine. ‘What about Iraq?‘ she asked. ‘What about Kosovo? What about Libya? If you invade countries without a UN Security Council mandate, you can’t get on your high horse later when someone else does the same thing. Why do the US and UK not get upset about the slaughter of Yemenis, but when it’s Ukrainians, you’re suddenly outraged?’
She cited a senior western diplomat who, speaking to London-based ambassadors recently, had said words to the effect that this is not some far-flung corner of the world, this is right here in Europe.
‘Since when,’ she said, ‘does the world have corners? The world is a sphere, where every part is equally far-flung from everywhere else. Words and attitudes like this seem to suggest that white lives matter more than black or brown lives further away from Europe.’
These are arguments of which politicians in the UK, US and others wishing to oppose Russia’s war should take note. The alacrity with which European governments have accepted refugees from Ukraine contrasts with the reluctance of most of them to accept so many from wars and crises elsewhere. Many people in Africa or Asia do not see Russia as so tainted by colonialism as, say, the UK or France – even if Poles, Yakuts, Chinese, Japanese, Uzbeks, Ukrainians and many others might take a different view.
One may argue that Russia’s war against Ukraine is particularly brutal. Russia’s statements that Ukraine, or Ukrainians, do not really exist reek of genocide. Numerous aspects of Russia’s conduct of the war are notably horrifying. But one might argue that about other invaders, and conflicts. Leaders presenting arguments in favour of action to support Ukraine should always ask themselves: ‘how will what I am about to say stand up to arguments about double standards?’
Russia-Ukraine ceasefire: other resources
Other resources on this site:
Russia-Ukraine war explainer: written in February 2022, about why the war is happening.
Reverse conspiracy theories: why we should recognise that Russia’s war on Ukraine is overwhelmingly the responsibility of Vladimir Putin.
Three things to bear in mind about Russian official statements: Kim Philby, maskirovka and MH17.
My books, including “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy”, coming 2023, which will look at these issues in more detail.
I also recommend this thoughtful piece by Ian Bond of the CER, First help Ukraine win the war, then help it win the peace.