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The Week In Russia: Truce Talk

Firefighters work at a site where production facilities were damaged during a Russian drone strike in the Kyiv region on January 30.
Firefighters work at a site where production facilities were damaged during a Russian drone strike in the Kyiv region on January 30.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead.

At least for now, Russian President Vladimir Putin is probably not interested in a cease-fire in Ukraine -- but sending signals to the West about such an interest is a different matter.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Mixed Signals

Since late December, at least two major Western media outlets have reported that Putin is sending signals he is open to a cease-fire or talks on halting Russia's war against Ukraine.

The reports, citing anonymous sources, have made waves in the West and provoked ire in Ukraine for a number of good reasons including this: Both in public statements from Putin on down and in its actions on the battlefield, Russia has given no indication that it is willing to let up on its assault or abandon its maximalist goals.

Case in point: Nine days before The New York Times published a story with the headline Putin Quietly Signals He Is Open To A Cease-Fire In Ukraine, Putin said something close to the opposite in a high-profile end-of-year appearance on state TV.

"There will be peace when we achieve our goals," Putin said, adding that those goals have not changed and include the "de-militarization" of Ukraine as well as its "de-Nazification" -- which is widely seen as meaning the ouster of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the installation of a puppet government. In short, the subjugation of Ukraine.

In Ukraine, in the wake of a major Ukrainian counteroffensive that failed to bring a breakthrough, Russian forces are on the offensive along much of the 1,200-kilometer front line from the Kharkiv region in the northeast to Kherson and the Dnieper River in the south. Civilian deaths are mounting as Russia continues to target cities and towns across the country.

Kyiv got good news this week on financial support from the European Union. But tens of billions of dollars in proposed U.S. military aid is stymied in Congress, deepening concerns about Ukraine's ability to hold Russian forces back, let alone drive them out of the country.

On January 31, Putin told official supporters of his sure-thing campaign for reelection in March that Russia would seek to control enough Ukrainian territory to ensure Ukraine cannot target Russian cities with its own weapons or those provided by the West.

This is not a new goal for the Kremlin, but by emphasizing it Putin seemed to be suggesting Russia will continue its efforts to gain more ground in Ukraine -- and may step them up if it has the capacity.

'Let Them Negotiate'

Near the top of its December 23 story on what it called back-channel diplomacy in which Putin has indicated that he is "ready to make a deal," The New York Times noted that Putin had dismissed the idea of talks days earlier, saying, "We won't give up what's ours," adding dismissively, "If they want to negotiate, let them negotiate."

For many, such remarks make it hard to believe Russia is interested in a cease-fire or talks, even if the most ambitious goals Putin has repeatedly described since before the full-scale invasion of February 24, 2022, seem out of reach.

"The idea that a war against Ukraine could result in the installation of a pro-Russian puppet government in Kyiv -- clearly that hasn't happened, and it doesn't look remotely feasible now," Ruth Deyermond, senior lecturer in the Department of War Studies at King's College London, said on an RFE/RL podcast on January 15.

"All of the original Russian aims are unachievable: Russia cannot win on those terms," she said.

But there are plenty of reasons Russia might be interested in putting out word that it is interested, which is something else almost entirely. The overarching reason: In doing so, it has nothing to lose and potentially quite a lot to gain.

'So Secret'

For one thing, the Kremlin might feel the suggestion Russia is open to a cease-fire that would leave the current battle lines in place could weaken the already beleaguered efforts to win the approval of the proposed U.S. aid package for Ukraine. If Putin wants peace, opponents of the support might say, why send Kyiv more weapons?

"Hints of Russian openness to talks -- even if disingenuous -- could help sow division among Ukraine's allies, isolating Kyiv and undermining President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's efforts to win support for his own peace formula, which calls for full Russian withdrawal," Bloomberg News wrote in a January 25 article.

And while the chances such overtures could actually lead to a cease-fire anytime soon are extremely small, a truce could also play into Russia's hands, giving it time to make more weapons and mobilize more men -- though as author and analyst Mark Galeotti has pointed out, that would also buy time for Kyiv.

Meanwhile, the very idea that Russia and the United States are communicating in secret about Ukraine's fate, however distant from the actual leadership of the two countries such conversations may be, could advance Moscow's narrative that Ukraine is a mere pawn and cause jitters in Kyiv.

"It benefits [Russia] for everyone to think that there's a back channel and it's so secret no one can figure it out because it scares the hell out of the Ukrainians," Bloomberg News quoted Fiona Hill, a senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, as saying.

"The Russians want us to create this idea that the channel is there and that everything depends on the U.S. so no one or nothing else plays a role," said Hill, who was senior director for European and Russian affairs on the U.S. National Security Council from 2017 to 2019 under President Donald Trump.

'Testing The Waters'

The Bloomberg News article said that Putin is "testing the waters on whether the [United States] is ready to engage in talks for ending Russia's war in Ukraine."

Citing "two people close to the Kremlin," it said Putin has "put out feelers to the U.S. via indirect channels to signal he's open to discussion, including potentially on future security arrangements for Ukraine."

The New York Times article said "Putin has been signaling through intermediaries since at least September that he is open to a cease-fire that freezes the fighting along the current lines, far short of his ambitions to dominate Ukraine." It cited "two former senior Russian officials close to the Kremlin" as well as U.S. and international officials "who have received the message from…Putin's envoys."

Bloomberg News wrote U.S. officials "say they are not aware of the supposed overtures, which may amount to a trial balloon, and see no indication the Russian president is serious about looking for a way to end the fighting."

Russia may not want a cease-fire now, in part because it may be confident it can take more territory – and may hope that dwindling Western aid and the possibility of a second Trump presidency will improve its position in the coming year.

'Measure Of Control'

But Deyermond said she believes "an agreement like that is something that the Russian government will be seeking in due course, because it's a formula that has worked very well for Russia in this region in the past.

"Since the early 1990s, the Russian government has used so-called frozen conflicts as one of the key instruments of its coercive power over its post-Soviet neighbors: Sign an agreement, freeze the fighting, move Russian troops into contested territory" or retain them there, she said. "That then gives Russia a very large measure of control not only over the territory that it occupies, but also the country affected, the capital affected."

Such a deal "would allow Russia simply to consolidate its position -- potentially with a view in the future to then launching another war, taking more territory," Deyermond said.

"The calls that you hear in some quarters in the West for negotiations, I think, fundamentally misunderstand what that would mean -- and don't understand that this could only ever be a temporary pause in fighting," she said, "and a temporary pause in fighting that would really do nothing more than reinforce Russia's position."

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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