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Freeze the war, make peace or wait for surrender: what does Russia want?

Published on Apr 3, 2024

Ukrainian article of the week published in the 25th edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on April 4th, 2024. The article was written by Lesia Bidochko and Oleksii Siedin for Detector Media and was translated for n-ost by Tetiana Evloeva.

Read the original article here. Check out the complete edition of this week's newsletter

Yalta 2.0, Finlandisation, or the Korean scenario: is Putin eager to settle for anything less than Ukraine’s capitulation. Detector examines the Russian propaganda surrounding scenarios for potential peace deals between Russia and Ukraine.

On the two-year anniversary of the latest round of direct peace talks between Ukraine and Russia, let’s scrutinise the Russian propaganda bombarding the world with so-called “peace” initiatives, while its military continues its offensive into Ukrainian territory.

Over 200 rounds of negotiations were held between Ukraine and Russia during the 2014–2022 period, including over 20 ceasefire agreements — yet Ukraine still ended up having to deal with Russia’s full-scale invasion. This statement was made by Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba in his interview for El Pais. After the full-scale invasion, Ukraine held a series of negotiations with Russia, with the last round taking place on 29 March 2022 in Istanbul — the one branded by the media at the time as “the most productive”. According to one of the Ukrainian delegates, Mykhailo Podoliak, Kyiv offered to “resolve the matters related to Crimea and Sevastopol over the next 15 years through bilateral negotiations between Ukraine and Russia.”

As per Ukraine’s offer, the Russian army was supposed to retreat to the demarcation lines as of 23 February 2022. Another Ukrainian delegate Davyd Arakhamia claimed that Ukraine proposed to bring in international guarantees for security similar to Article 5 of the NATO Charter: in the event of a repeated attack by Russia, the guarantors of the security treaty would send troops to Ukraine, provide weapons and shield the skies over Ukraine (these provisions would not apply to the occupied eastern regions of Ukraine and Crimea).

Back then, Russia’s Ministry of Defence announced a “goodwill gesture”, which was its intention to reduce military activity in the Kyiv region and Chernihiv region, as a means of facilitating negotiations. Ukraine issued a statement that declared that the real reason for this withdrawal of troops was their lack of advance in their respective regions.

BBC Ukraine wrote, citing a source affiliated with the Russian delegation, that despite both delegations managing to bring the main draft agreement on security guarantees for Ukraine to almost 100% readiness, “it was clear to everyone that even 200% readiness would by no means bring peace closer.” As noted by Mykhailo Podoliak, it was impossible to be impartial in negotiations with Russia after the massacres in Bucha, Kramatorsk and Mariupol. It was implied that any negotiations with Russia could only be held from a position of power.

“Russia doesn’t understand the words of peace, but they do understand force on the battlefield very well,” said President Zelensky. In September 2022 he stated that Ukraine was ready to negotiate, but with someone other than Putin. In October of the same year, he activated the ruling of his National Security Council on the impracticability of any negotiations with Russia’s current government.

The Russian party went on to accuse the then British prime minister Boris Johnson of allegedly “disrupting” the Istanbul negotiations. According to the Russian ambassador in London, Johnson came to Kyiv at the behest of the United States in the spring of 2022 and persuaded President Zelensky to forsake the possibility of peace: “He arrived, and the document previously initiated by the head of the Ukrainian delegation [Davyd] Arakhamia was tossed to trash, and Ukraine started fighting” (quoted from ria.ru). Boris Johnson himself dismissed the allegations as “total nonsense”. To prove their case, the Russian spin doctors cited a televised interview between Arakhamia and the journalist Natalia Moseichuk, where he stated that Johnson said Ukraine should “just fight the war, and that’d be it”, instead of accepting Russia’s terms. Further reading on Arakhamia’s statement, Boris Johnson’s reply, and the reaction of Russia’s propaganda apparatus can be found here.

In March 2024, The Wall Street Journal (USA) published a draft peace agreement drawn up by Russian and Ukrainian negotiators, dated 15 April 2022. According to the document, Ukraine was allowed to seek EU membership, however the country was to maintain its neutrality and could never join military alliances like NATO. Kyiv was barred from accepting any foreign military aid. The Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) were to be reduced to 85,000 personnel, 342 tanks, and 519 artillery systems, and the range of Ukrainian missiles was not to exceed 40 km. Comparing those figures to 2022 data from Military Balance, that draft agreement would have reduced the quantity and quality of the Ukrainian army to one-third of its capacity at that time, and this would have weakened the AFU further, due to technological obsolescence of its arsenal, and a lack of access to Western aid to modernise or renew its instruments of war.

The draft stipulated that Crimea was to stay Russian and that the Western sanctions against Russia were to be lifted. It also stipulated a waiver of investigations into Russia’s war crimes. It went on to say that the Russian language was to be used in the country’s official affairs on an equal footing with Ukrainian. The guarantors of the treaty were to be Great Britain, China, France and the United States. There were also talks of including Russia on this list. At the same time, the draft agreement failed to produce agreeable mechanisms for the implementation of specific guarantees. If Russia had been included as one of the guarantors, it also lacked a feasible action plan in the case of Moscow launching another military offensive against Ukraine.

Thus the draft published by The Wall Street Journal is more reminiscent of the terms of Ukraine’s surrender rather than a peace agreement. The document enables Russia (enforced by the lifting of sanctions) to wage another aggressive war against a significantly weakened Ukraine in the future, and to do that with total impunity. In another piece by The Wall Street Journal, Ukrainian minister of foreign affairs Dmytro Kuleba is quoted saying that Ukraine never bound itself to the ‘Istanbul obligations’.

In May 2023, we published a piece on how Russian propaganda undermines Ukraine’s peace efforts. In this text, we evaluate Moscow’s manipulations regarding a variety of peace scenarios, showcasing how Putin has no intention of accepting anything less than Ukraine’s capitulation.

Korea 2.0: Moscow’s plan?

As early as March 2022 Kyrylo Budanov, head of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of Ukraine, argued that Russia would try to force the ‘Korean Scenario’ on Ukraine and unite all the seized territories into a single quasi-state:

“After their failed campaign in the Kyiv region, seeing their chances of overthrowing the Ukrainian Government were non-existent, Putin reorients his troops, concentrating their efforts on the south and the east of Ukraine. We have reasons to believe that he is considering a ‘Korean Scenario’ for Ukraine. That is, he will try to wedge a split between the free and the occupied regions of our country, which is an attempt to create ‘North vs. South Korea’ in Ukraine, now that he has proven unable to swallow the whole country.”

However, as early as September 2022, Moscow resorted to annexing the seized territories, rather than opting for merging the regions under their military occupation into a single quasi-state, under Russian control.

The Korean peninsula was divided into North and South Korea along the 38th parallel between 1945 to 1950, and along the military demarcation line since 1953. Both parties were exhausted by the three years of war (the large number of casualties and the vast destruction of infrastructure didn’t justify further hostilities), so they agreed upon a ceasefire and a demarcation line. When it comes to Ukraine, any analogies with the Koreas are not entirely appropriate, because this is not a fight between two halves of a country, but an aggressor (Russia) trying hard to seize more Ukrainian land.

Yet in the make-believe world of the Russian spin doctors (specifically in the English-language article of the propaganda medium TASS) the ‘Korean Scenario’ is portrayed as the only option for Ukraine. They dismiss the alternative of a post-WWII German scenario. They claim that the Ukrainian territories controlled by the Ukrainian government are incapable of ‘attracting’ the regions stolen by Russia the same way as East Germany sought reunification with West Germany in 1989, therefore Ukraine has no other option but to use the ‘Korean Scenario’. They claim that the frontline is deadlocked, so the separation of the southern and eastern regions is presented as inevitable. To further support their narrative, the spin doctors refer to the writings of Andreas Kluth, a Bloomberg columnist often quoted in the Russian media; in his column, he offers an analysis of the Koreas and highlights some takeaways for Ukraine.

However this columnist argues that Russia is the guilty party:

“If Korea is the right model, the lesson is that combatants take far too long to begin talking even after it’s obvious that neither side can win militarily, and then far too long to silence the guns once it’s clear that the outcome won’t change, and that the only parameter left is how many people will unnecessarily die until that’s acknowledged. None of this is about who’s right; history will record that one man, Vladimir Putin, is guilty of the disaster unfolding in Ukraine. But the wisdom of the past suggests that the time has come to fight and talk at the same time — not in the hope of scoring any sort of victory, but in the resignation that, somehow, this horror must end.”

And yet, the Russian propaganda only highlights the messages that best fit their narrative, his thinking on the ‘Korean Scenario’, thus bypassing Kluth’s reasoning.

The ‘Korean Scenario’ was also highly covered by spin doctors from Russian state propaganda outlets Sputnik Africa and RT, referring to the column by James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2009 to 2013). So what does Stravidis actually say, and does he imply the same things as the Russian propaganda?

The retired Navy admiral singles out the three lessons of Korea pertaining to Ukraine: “find the funds for reconstruction as rapidly as possible; construct real and enduring security guarantees; and be willing to negotiate a land-for-peace conclusion to combat. That is a realistic scenario that will set Ukraine up for success over time, although obviously, the final decisions are for the Ukrainians themselves to make.” Modelling a likely scenario, Stravidis places his bet on Moscow’s readiness being ready to rein in the aggression in exchange for some sort of acquiescing from Kyiv, at least for a time, to the occupation by Moscow of the seized Ukrainian territories.

However, as one can see from the dynamics of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Putin would not stop there, as he strives to seize more land and kill more Ukrainians. We clearly see how the Russian propaganda repeats their cherished term ‘Korean Scenario’ out of context, all the while ignoring the rest of the conditions of that formula, which stipulates the cessation of escalation on the part of the Kremlin.

Finlandisation = neutrality

The term ‘Finlandisation’ refers to the situation whereby a country is induced to favour (often by way of yielding, concessions of sovereignty and decision-making independence), or refrain from opposing the interests of a more powerful country to avoid an escalation into war with this country, despite the two not being political allies.

Historically, the term ‘Finlandisation’ is a reference to several treaties between the USSR and neighbouring Finland (in particular, the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance of 1948, also known as the YYA Treaty), which forced Helsinki to declare neutrality, and limited its foreign policy. Tensions between the Soviet Union and the West were at their height, so Finland promised to never join NATO and was forced to allow the USSR to interfere in its foreign policy, in return for its independence.

Russian propaganda, however, interprets the term ‘Finlandisation’ as merely “Finland’s neutral stance towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War” (specifically, in the piece by Sputnik). “Keep in mind that never throughout its entire history did Finland enjoy such peace, prosperity and budding democracy as during the period of Finlandisation,” asserts the propaganda source, prompting the reader to believe that the best possible strategy in response to aggression is neutrality.

Before the full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s Western partners, including (as reported by The New York Times) French president Emmanuel Macron, were considering ‘the Finnish scenario’ as one of the possibilities for de-escalation. However, that strategy obviously failed to pacify the aggressor. Nowadays, nobody can say with a straight face that Ukraine’s ‘neutrality’ and renunciation of ever pursuing Euro-Atlantic integration could stop the aggression. In addition, in 2019, amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution were made, setting the course for the country’s full membership of NATO, thus outlawing any possibility of settling for ‘Finlandisation’, which would mean going against the Constitution and the expressed will of the majority of Ukrainians (a survey conducted by a research group Rating revealed that 77 percent of responders expressed approval for Ukraine joining the Alliance).

In Stalin’s footsteps: Yalta 2.0

The Russian invaders have a soft spot for claiming specific historical feats are exclusively theirs. We’re talking about the outcomes of World War II, nailed down at the Yalta Conference of 4–11 February 1945, in Crimea. Against the backdrop of Hitler’s defeat looking inevitable, heads of the British, US and USSR governments met at the conference to come to an agreement on the distribution of the areas of influence in the world, given the future victory over Germany and other Axis powers.

Russia has created a myth that it will be party to a new Yalta Conference, in the same location, where it could again “establish a new world order”. As of now, however, the Kremlin is putting those words into the mouths of its satellites in the occupied Crimea. In 2023, the Crimean bureaucrats started spreading allegations on how Crimea was allegedly ‘soon to become the centre of world politics again’, while the local media were trying to outdo each other in writing articles like ‘Yalta v.2.0.: Does Crimea have a chance to stop the bloodshed once again?’.

In 2020, Putin authored an article for The National Interest magazine (USA) addressing the 75th anniversary of Victory in WWII, where he called on the Western leaders to sit down to talk and reassign the areas of influence in the world, as during the Yalta Conference in 1945.

Putin wrote: “The major historic achievement of Yalta and other decisions of that time is the agreement to create a mechanism that would allow the leading powers to remain within the framework of diplomacy in resolving their differences.” Two years later, in 2022, Putin gave us all an object lesson in “diplomacy in resolving their differences” by means of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Nostalgia for the past and constant references to important dates and major historical events are yet another hallmark of the invaders: to secure the status quo in the war (under the guise of an imaginary quest for peace), so they can later claim even more territories.

The Kremlin’s goal is Ukraine’s surrender

Upon close examination of the various ‘agreement scenarios’ promoted by the Kremlin, one can ascertain that Russia’s ultimate goal isn’t negotiating peace, but using smoke and mirrors to allow further escalation. Ukraine figured this out after it signed the unfavourable ‘peace agreements’ Minsk–1 and Minsk–2, in 2014 and 2015. Eight years after signing, Vladislav Surkov, one of the architects behind Minsk–2 and a Russian presidential aide, admitted that Moscow never intended to abide by the agreement, and that there was a purpose behind it being worded in a way that made it impossible to implement. Even if Ukraine were to agree to ‘Finlandisation’, ‘the Korean Scenario’ or a hypothetical Yalta 2.0, there’s no guarantee that Russia would keep its side of the bargain. On the contrary, active hostilities indicate that the only scenario that Putin is willing to negotiate is Ukraine’s surrender.

This was indirectly confirmed by Putin, when discussing peace initiatives. “You know, I’ve been saying this time and again, and I’ll reiterate once more that we are all for negotiating peace — unless the enemy is soon to run out of ammo, that is,” said Putin on 18 March [2024] in his statement for TASS, commenting on French leader Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for a ceasefire in Ukraine for the duration of the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Putin also added, “We are willing to consider any matters, however, always keeping at heart Russia’s best interest and the current situation in the combat zone, of course.”

Those words make it clear that Ukraine’s weakness on the battlefield would further encourage Moscow to escalate aggression, and the only reason Moscow can consider freezing the conflict even temporarily is Russia’s setbacks on the battlefield. Putin’s words on the impossibility of any negotiations when Ukraine lacks arms highlight how some Western elites act like ‘useful idiots’ when viewing limitations on military aid to Ukraine as a means of bringing peace.

However, key Western governing and cultural elites have time and again shown a firm grasp of Putin’s true objectives. For instance, even one of the most rhetorically cautious leaders of the West, German chancellor Olaf Scholz, responded to the domestic opposition's calls to limit military aid to Ukraine for the sake of peace: “One can’t negotiate with a gun held to their temple unless they are negotiating their surrender.”

On 27 March [2024], academia and cultural figures alike (including 39 Nobel prize winners) penned an open letter warning against attempts to appease the aggressor. In their appeal, they state that “The Putin regime has shown that it poses a direct and clear threat to all of humanity”. The Nobel laureates are urging to intensify support of Ukraine, so the country can “win, not just ‘not lose’,” and that’s the policy that will “reduce the loss of human lives”.

The letter continues: “We call on world leaders and all people of goodwill to abandon any illusions about Mr. Putin and his criminal regime. History teaches us that appeasing the aggressor leads to further crimes against humanity. No temporary benefits can justify this. We strongly oppose a repeat of Munich 1938!”

Therefore, while Putin is seeking another Yalta 1945, a substantial proportion of the Western elites are wary of another Munich 1938, and its horrid historical aftermath.