Khodorkovsky: Trying to persuade Ukraine to negotiate with Putin would be an error

September 21, 2023
Three months into their counteroffensive, while Ukrainian forces have made modest gains, they are yet to deliver a decisive blow | Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

Not only would a ceasefire politically weaken the Ukrainian leadership while simultaneously strengthening Putin, it would also weaken its forces when hostilities almost inevitably resume.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pointless brutality against Ukraine continues, so too does Ukraine’s valiant resistance.

However, three months into their counteroffensive, while Ukrainian forces have made modest gains, they are yet to deliver a decisive blow. As winter approaches and the war grinds on, siren voices urging Ukraine’s leaders to negotiate a ceasefire will get louder — and Putin will be hoping these voices will be further amplified as the United States presidential campaign looms.

Based on everything I know about Putin and the nature of his regime, my own view is that such attempts to persuade Ukraine to negotiate with him would be an error — and no ceasefire agreed under the current circumstances would bring peace in the long-term.

Instead, it would provide Putin’s regime with an opportunity to strengthen its ability to wage war, which sooner or later it will do.

But let’s examine the possibilities and likely pitfalls.

I’m not sufficiently expert in Ukraine’s domestic politics to confidently say whether President Volodymyr Zelenskyy could secure a viable public mandate to negotiate a ceasefire, but it seems unlikely. And such considerations are further complicated by the fact that unlike the way it is in Russia, the next time Ukraine holds elections, its leader can’t know the result in advance. But for argument’s sake, let’s imagine Zelenskyy was politically willing and able to come to the table.

That leaves Putin who, despite Russia’s dismal military performance, heavy losses, international isolation and economic damage from the war, doesn’t regard the current situation as catastrophic. However ludicrous, Russian society at large seems to accept his narrative of a “defensive war” and is prepared for significant hardships. Though economic sanctions are having a strategic impact, they are porous enough that, in the short term, the most important shipments get through, and the regime’s coffers can still cover the increased wage demands needed to contract soldiers. Putin is also banking on the West growing weary of the war, hoping and waiting for an American government more willing to abandon some of its European interests.

Nevertheless, war fatigue is building up in Russian society, and reconfiguring an economy for a war footing takes time. Soviet era weapons stockpiles are running low, and domestic production is insufficient to replenish them — hence the recent visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Meanwhile, the population in the captured territories in Ukraine isn’t sufficiently integrated enough to be used as a resource — they may never be, given the level of resistance to Russia’s occupation. And with elections coming up, however predetermined the outcome, Putin will want voters to feel something has been gained.

In short, right now, Putin would likely agree to an arrangement that allowed him to retain some of his illegal gains. So, why not do it? A swift Ukrainian military victory is unlikely, people are dying every day and people matter more than land, some voices will say.

But let’s imagine the next steps, should such a ceasefire be agreed under the current circumstances.

Having stopped the war, Putin won’t actually be able to substantially improve the lives of the Russian people. While the process of switching the economy to a war footing might be complex, it has already been set in motion and can only be reversed at great cost. And Putin won’t be able to lift international sanctions either. In the meantime, the families of hundreds of thousands of dead and permanently maimed soldiers will remain, and the captured territories will still be in ruins.

The global standoff will only end with the end of the regime. And the current explanation for the state of affairs — “it’s the war” – will no longer be available.

There are also the hundreds of thousands of “ultra-patriots” who are now accustomed to their special status and better wartime earnings. Putin already had a taste of that potential threat when Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin mutinied.

In short, Putin has several reasons to use a ceasefire to merely take a breather, build up his weapons stockpiles and acquire new human resource, before resuming the war in a strengthened state and at a time of his choosing. At least half the Ukrainian citizens in captured territories will oppose their occupation, and constant clashes along the line of conflict will be almost inevitable, giving Putin plenty of ready-made excuses to restart the war.

A ceasefire would therefore strengthen Russia militarily — but what would it do for Ukraine?

Very shortly after the cessation of active combat, the supply of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine would dry up. Ukraine doesn’t have the capacity to produce the range of weapons it needs in a short period of time, and as long as the background threat of renewed attack persists, the investment the country requires to rebuild its economy will also be hard to attract.

One possible solution could be fast-tracking Ukraine’s application to join NATO, or deploying NATO forces on the line of conflict. As of now, however, NATO and the countries with which Putin would fear conflict have expressed no readiness to do any such thing.

Thus, not only would a ceasefire politically weaken the Ukrainian leadership while simultaneously strengthening Putin — it would also, in relative terms, weaken Ukraine’s forces when hostilities almost inevitably resume.

The West needs to remember that any successful negotiation with Putin has to take place from a position of military strength. Encouraging Ukraine to the table now would constitute an abandonment of democratic values, Western interests and the sovereignty of an ally that’s under attack from a tyrant — and from whom the worst may still be yet to come.

The impulse to save lives is a good one, and it is understandable to see negotiations as a means of achieving that. However, we must beware courses of action undertaken with good intentions that will end up costing more lives, suffering and oppression in the longer run.

The article was first published in the Politico Europe