Russia's war on Ukraine: Why negotiating with Vladimir Putin is dangerous – Hugo Blewett-Mundy
In 1815, the Congress of Vienna brought stability to the continent following the fall of Napoleon with an agreement by the then great European powers to keep each other in check. A century later, after the calamity of the First World War, the Paris peace conference attempted to restore the post-Napoleonic balance of power. When it came to rebuilding Europe after the defeat of the Third Reich in 1945, the Allied powers agreed on a new set of spheres of influence in Yalta to ensure that no single power could ever be in a position to dominate the continent again.
The return of interstate conflict on European soil in 2022 has revived the possibility of dialogue playing a central role in answering Europe’s problems. Joe Biden, the American president, says that he is “prepared to speak with” his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, about his war against Ukraine so long as Russia’s president shows a willingness to end it. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, states that negotiation with Putin remains “possible”.
Moscow has been a decisive player in European conflicts (the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the defeat of imperial Germany in 1918, and the demise of Nazi Germany in 1945). The problem with keeping channels of communication open between Russia and free and open nations today in regards to Russia’s war against Ukraine is that it formalises the grievances that Putin expressed in his 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference, where he accused the United States of creating a unipolar world order with “one centre of decision-making”. It turns the post-Cold War settlement in the form of the 1990 Paris Charter – which guaranteed the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all European states – into a point of discussion. This falls within Putin’s interests.
The offer of peace talks with the Kremlin to end Russia’s aggression against Ukraine also aligns with the establishment of a Russian sphere of influence that Putin has spent his time in power seeking to reimpose. It displays recognition from free and open nations that the stability of the post-Soviet space requires an assertive Russian state due to the fear in Moscow that the outbreak of secessionist conflicts, following the fall of communism in 1991, could extend to republics within the borders of the Russian Federation itself. Putin secured his authority on assuming the office of prime minister in 1999 partly because of his swift and decisive military intervention in Chechnya.
Indeed, Putin’s legitimacy lies in his perceived ability to have ‘restored’ Russia to the status of a great power after a decade of political and economic instability following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The unemployment and physical insecurity as a result of the fall of communism left many Russians yearning for the Soviet times, and Putin’s rule has brought with it periods of relative stability.
In securing his position and explaining the ostracisation and condemnation of Russia by many liberal-democratic nations today, Putin has latched onto the feeling that the West has taken advantage of Russia, and has spread this sentiment widely through Russia using his rigorous propaganda machine.
Russia’s economic stagnation as a result of corruption has also forced Putin to rely on the feelings of humiliation and insecurity that resulted from the Soviet collapse as a mechanism to sustain his power. The Russian leader once famously described the fall of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century” and has used a variety of means – now including all-out war – to reshape the internal boundaries of Europe in response to what he believes to be an unstable US-led world order that is out to destroy Russia.
So far, Putin has managed to perform this process without facing any consequences from the United Nations. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia has the right to veto its decision-making. Illegal and unprovoked conflicts erupted in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, while North Atlantic Treaty Organisation leaders rejected the idea of Tblisi and Kyiv joining the transatlantic military alliance at the Bucharest Summit. In escalating Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2022, Putin is seeking to sustain his system of power by coercing free and open nations into accepting his false perception of the international order.
Remarkably, Putin has found an unlikely similar outlook on Europe’s security architecture in the French president. After holding talks with his US counterpart in Washington, Macron said that peace talks with Putin on Ukraine should address Russia’s fear of the encroachment of Nato on its borders and the deployment of weapons that could threaten Russia.
Not surprisingly, the Baltic states, which are particularly vulnerable to Russian aggression, have reacted strongly to Macron’s comments. As the Latvian deputy prime minister, Artis Pabriks, said in December, “the idea that the Russian invasion of Ukraine can be ended by the West giving security guarantees to Russia is falling into the trap of Putin’s narrative that the West and Ukraine are responsible for this war and Russia is an innocent victim”.
It is right to be concerned. Macron should be aware that the lack of clearly defined Russian military objectives in Ukraine makes this particular conflict different to the previous geopolitical crises Europe has faced. A negotiated settlement in Ukraine would effectively comply with Putin’s belief that Russia has a legitimate right to rewrite the foundations of the international order according to its interests and perceptions.
The only way that Moscow’s illegal act of unprovoked aggression can end is the complete restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity along with the dismantling of Putin’s authoritarianism. Anything less would not only be a betrayal of Ukraine, but catastrophic for European security.
Hugo Blewett-Mundy is an associate research fellow at the Europeum Institute for European Policy
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