by John Sawers
Former chief of Britain’s secret service, MI6
The west has two goals in the war in Ukraine: to uphold Ukrainian sovereignty and to deter Russia from any similar assaults on European countries in the future.
However, the fighting in the Donbas region is ugly and it is tempting to support any move that would bring it to an end. Unsurprisingly, there have been calls for an early peace initiative, while French president Emmanuel Macron has said that it is important not to “humiliate” Russia over its invasion — a remark that drew a frosty response from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff.
The problem is that a ceasefire now would lock in Russia’s military gains on the ground. There is no reason to think that Vladimir Putin would agree to pull back; indeed, the occupiers are busy “Russifying” the occupied zones, imposing Russian as the language in schools, taking control of the media and putting stooges in nominal charge of local administration.
Putin has played this game before. In 2008, then French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s diplomacy brought about a ceasefire in Georgia, but at the expense of leaving Russian forces occupying two regions of the country. Georgia has never regained that territory or full sovereignty.
The same happened in 2014 in Ukraine. After the pro-Russian government in Kyiv collapsed in the face of popular protests, Russian forces seized Crimea and parts of the Donbas. Sarkozy’s successor François Hollande and Angela Merkel, then German chancellor, reached an agreement with Putin which created a Russia-friendly political process on the Donbas and left its control of Crimea untouched. This was imposed on a reluctant Ukrainian president and, again, left Russia sitting on its military gains.
Today, Ukraine’s leaders want to fight on, and they certainly do not want a ceasefire now, at what could well be the high-water mark of Russia’s military advance.
It is not clear what, in practice, Macron means when he says we must not humiliate Putin. Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state, recently suggested that a peace process should be prepared in the coming months. Ukraine’s leaders worry that such comments are a prelude to another round of diplomacy designed to achieve a premature ceasefire that would save Putin’s face at the cost of undermining Ukraine.
What about Putin’s position? It was clear from the first week of the war that he has made a monumental mistake in launching the invasion. His security chiefs prostrate themselves in their support for it and many will share Putin’s wish to subjugate Ukraine. But they will also see that he has damaged Russia’s long-term interests. The economy will be under sanctions as long as Putin is in power, Europe will gradually end its dependence on Russian energy and never go back and the ill-gotten wealth of those around Putin can no longer be enjoyed.
Putin’s position will be weaker as a result. Launching a failed war doesn’t enhance a ruler’s power. At some point, he might be removed, though I doubt it will happen soon. A Russian leader requires the active support of his security chiefs but the setbacks in Ukraine have left the two pillars of his regime, the Federal Security Bureau (successor to the KGB) and the army in a vicious blame game. Some leaders may be purged, in time-honoured Russian fashion. There will be widespread unhappiness and private criticism.
Ukraine calls for Russia’s defeat. Again, it is not clear what that means in practice, but it is at odds with Macron’s call for Putin not to be humiliated. France has given valuable military support to Ukraine and backed EU sanctions on Russia. But it is striking that Macron has not bothered to visit Kyiv in the more than 100 days since the war began, while he has kept in frequent telephone contact with Putin. French companies have been the most reluctant to leave Russia, in the hope, perhaps, that staying on will reap rewards in the future. We shouldn’t be surprised that Ukraine’s leaders are wary of Macron’s intentions.
If another round of European diplomacy leaves Russia once again sitting on its military gains in Ukraine, then Putin will regain political strength at home and feel empowered to launch new military adventures in the future. The Ukrainians want to fight on and they need our continued support — advanced weapons and ever tougher sanctions on Russia. That means several more months of ugly fighting. But a premature ceasefire will help Putin snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. No western leader should be his enabler.