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As we once again enter a period when there are calls on Ukraine to come to the negotiating table and find some kind of compromise with Russia, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered an unpresidential but absolutely correct riposte in a north American TV interview recently: “We are not ready to give our freedoms to this f**king terrorist Putin” he said, succinctly capturing what is at stake.
President Zelensky is right, both about what is at stake – freedom – and in his depiction of his Russian counterpart. Putin is a f**king terrorist. But there are many more reasons why Ukraine will not negotiate with Russia to bring an end to twenty bloody months of fighting.
The most important one is probably that Ukraine has not been at war for only twenty months, a war between Russia and Ukraine has been ongoing for close to ten years now, and prior agreements to bring the bloodshed in the Donbas to an end, and return Ukrainian sovereignty to those regions, have been demonstrably broken by Russia. Consequently, Ukraine has no faith that Russia would keep its end of the bargain in any new “peace” deal.
What would happen instead, as we saw with the failure of the Minsk agreements to check Russian aggression in Ukraine, is that Russia would take any pause in fighting as breathing space in which to re-arm, re-group, and come back to attack again.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine was launched from the territories it had occupied since 2014, the Donbas and Crimea, as well as from the Russian Federation itself. If Russia is left holding the land that it now occupies in Ukraine, with its expanded control now also including parts of the southern regions of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, then it would have an even bigger springboard for its intended future war to destroy more of Ukraine.
A History of Treaty Violation and Annexation
Before getting back to the essence of President Zelensky’s remarks, let’s list some of the other inter-state treaties that Russia is also in violation of: The Belovezha Accords, which were the outcome of the discussion that formally ended the existence of the Soviet Union, contained mutual assurances of the recognition of states within the borders that constituted their then existence as Soviet Republics.
There is also the Budapest Memorandum, under which Ukraine gave up the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world for further promises not to commit acts of aggression against the country. Russia is also in violation of the Helsinki Final Act, and the UN Charter. This list is not exhaustive, and yet in 2023 some people naively believe that Russia might now abide by their word. Ukraine, for good reason, does not.
Getting back to the Zelensky quote, the most important word there was not the expletive, it was “freedom”. That is what is at stake, on two levels.
First, Russia’s overarching desire, made plain by their own propagandists and their consistent genocidal rhetoric, is the demise of the Ukrainian state, along with things that identify Ukrainians, like their language and culture. It is unsurprising that Ukrainians are fighting so valiantly, given that the stakes are existential.
Second, there is the freedom of any person left under Russian occupation at stake. And this touches the lives of literally millions of people. In Russian-occupied Ukraine, as in Russia itself, there is no freedom. Russia is a tyrannical mafia kleptocracy. In Crimea, under Russian control since 2014, any objection to occupation leads to harsh punishment not only up to and including a spell in a Siberian Gulag, but up to and including death. If anyone thinks that the residents of Crimea are satisfied with the present state of affairs there, they should ask themselves how anybody could be.
In the areas of Ukraine that have been occupied since 2022, we have seen evidence of mass abductions, interrogations, widespread torture, rapes, and summary executions. Resigning those people to that continued fate is anything but “peace”. No Ukrainian leader could abandon their citizens knowing that this is what their life would entail. So Ukraine will fight on, and not “compromise” with those who hold their citizens as prisoners in their own homes, on their native land.
Here’s another point to make to those who believe that they are calling for lines of control to be fixed as they currently stand: Would they have called for the same thing in October 2022? At that time Russia still occupied the city of Kherson, population (pre-war) of 290,000, and we never would have witnessed the scenes of pure joy and jubilation as the city was liberated by Ukraine’s Armed Forces on 11 November 2022.
Equally, freezing the lines of contact at an earlier stage, as “compromise” seekers were calling for then too, would have left 12,000 Km2 of Kharkiv Oblast under Russian occupation. The September 2022 operation to remove Russian forces from that area liberated not just land, but the residents of 500 population centres. If anyone can find evidence of those Kharkiv residents asking for the Russians to come back they might be able to try to justify this invasion in the first place, but they won’t, so they can’t.
And with that, let’s look at one of the most important pseudo-justifications people often make for this war.
Vladimir Putin perpetuates the myth, echoing Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, that these are historically Russian lands, and that the people there are automatically his subjects because of a common language. The, “ah, but they’re Russian speakers” notion is not only massively misguided, it sadly perpetuates even at the highest level of thinking. In an interview on CNN with Christiane Amanpour, former US President Barack Obama even said those very words when challenged as to whether his response to the invasion of Crimea had been adequate.
Beyond the fact that many people in Ukraine do indeed speak Russian, a choice that they have always been free to make despite insistence from Russian propagandists to the contrary, is there any evidence that being a Russian speaker, or an ethnic Russian living in Ukraine, leads to a desire to be ruled by Russia? No. There is none. No evidence exists to back up this narrative of Russian speakers wanting to be Russian subjects.
Decisive Victories around Crimea
A final point, Ukraine doesn’t need to compromise. This war, like all wars, is brutal and bloody, dirty and costly. But before the aforementioned victories in Kherson and Kharkiv, the first major turning point in this phase of the war was the victory in the battle for Kyiv, and the most recent event of strategic significance in Ukraine’s favour has been striking Russia’s ability to control the Black Sea.
The endpoint in this war is undoing what began in 2014, and gaining the upper hand in the Black Sea, which virtually surrounds Crimea, is a vital element to doing just that.
Though this has not been widely understood, as people have tended to focus on the land battles, Ukraine methodically devised and carried out a series of attacks that have changed the balance of power in and around the decisive terrain of this war, Crimea.
The first phase of the plan to end Russian dominance in the Black Sea (and with it, attempts to starve African nations who are dependent on Ukrainian agricultural produce to feed their populations) came with an audacious landing on the peninsula on 24 August, which seemed at the time to be a nice Independence Day morale boost. In fact, that raid was to blind Russian defences by destroying radar surveillance capabilities. That, in turn, led to a Ukrainian special forces operation that took back control of several oil and gas platforms in the western Black Sea, which had also been used for military purposes. With this, Russia had lost their ability to impose their will on that part of the region and Ukraine had removed the threat of famine in other regions by being able to recommence a form of grain export without involving a deal with Russia.
Since then, Ukraine has continued to take on Russian military assets on the occupied peninsula, like the back to back strikes on both the harbour and the Black Sea Fleet Headquarters in the city of Sevastopol, as well as the more recent strike in another Crimean port, this time on the eastern edges of the peninsula in Kerch.
Russia is not dead yet, but it is hobbled. With sufficient military aid to Ukraine, in terms of both range of fire capability and quantity of ammunition provided, Ukraine can continue to target key Russian military installations in Crimea, as well as the lines of supply in the south of mainland Ukraine that enable their war machine.
Given the right tools, throughout this winter Ukraine can continue to degrade Russia’s war machine to a fraction of what it is now, just as F-16s will arrive in the service of the Ukrainian Air Force in the spring.