By Max Fisher
Jan 9, 2023
The New York Times
A cease-fire proposal seemingly aimed at splintering Western unity has instead been met with Western escalation, underscoring Moscow’s diplomatic struggles.
For not the first time, Russian leaders dangled the possibility of a de-escalation of fighting in Ukraine, this time in the form of a 36-hour cease-fire that would have taken place this past weekend.
But, in a pattern that is now familiar nearly a year into the war, Western and Ukrainian leaders broadly rejected the proposal, calling it a cynical effort to create space for resupplying Russian forces.
Analysts typically share this view, saying that such proposals tend to come when a pause would most benefit Russia’s battlefield position, not when they might further peace talks or aid civilians.
Sure enough, even as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia promised a unilateral pause in some areas, there was little indication of such on the ground, where fighting continued as normal.
This offer was also probably intended as an act of propaganda, aimed at the Russian public and particularly at the Orthodox Church leaders whose support the Kremlin relies on. Moscow, which has presented itself as the protector of Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians, had said the cease-fire was intended to spare civilians during Orthodox Christmas, which fell this past weekend.
Mr. Putin hardly invented the practice of using cease-fires or peace negotiations as propaganda or as covers for short-term tactical advantage. For as long as nations have gone to war, leaders have timed diplomatic efforts to complement those on the battlefield, much as they have ordered military advances to bolster their positions at the negotiation table.
Nor does this mean that Moscow never intends to engage seriously in diplomatic talks. Most wars end in political settlement, as Russian leaders surely know, having done this themselves, including with Ukraine itself several years ago over a prior round of Russian assaults.
Still, Mr. Putin’s repeated, if rarely borne-out, lip service toward conciliation reflects a dimension particular to this war: his hopes to break the Western support for Ukraine, which has played a major role in stymying his ambitions there.
Ukraine’s leaders have treated the effort to deepen Western financial and military support as a front virtually as important as any on the battlefield.
That support has staved off Ukrainian economic collapse, kept Ukrainian forces supplied long after they would have otherwise run out of ammunition and even helped those forces, equipped with increasingly sophisticated Western weaponry, push back once-rapid Russian advances.
At the same time, Western economic sanctions on Russia are curbing its ability to wage the war and weakening Mr. Putin’s position at home.
Western support has, in other words, helped to turn what Mr. Putin expected to be a rapid Russian victory into a costly and uncertain slog.
So he is looking for any opportunity to break that support. This includes gestures toward diplomacy that are seemingly aimed, at least in part, at opening divisions among Western capitals, and within the domestic politics of those countries, over the war.
“Calls for a cease-fire, audible across Europe and America, are badly misplaced,” Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, wrote in a New York Times guest essay in July. “This is not the time to accept unfavorable cease-fire proposals or peace deals.”
Moscow has sought to portray Ukrainian leaders as obstacles to peace, hoping that some European leaders or opposition parties would eventually agree.
Ukrainian leaders fear, and Russian leaders hope, that this might lead some Western governments to diminish their support for Ukraine’s war efforts. Or lead them to pressure Kyiv to accept a cease-fire that Moscow could use to redouble its assault. Or even to push for peace talks that, coming as Russian forces still hold large stretches of Ukraine, would probably favor Moscow’s terms more so than if Ukrainian forces continued to push back the invaders.
This was not an unreasonable expectation, particularly in the war’s early days. In the years before the invasion last February, Western capitals had often differed over matters related to Russia.
And any unified Western military policy is generally organized through NATO, and any economic policy partly through the European Union, two heavily bureaucratic organizations that seek to operate through consensus among their 30 or so member states.
But so far, Western states have been seen as generally unified in backing Ukraine in the war and have even taken this support further than many analysts expected.
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, had in the weeks before Russia’s invasion presented himself as the intermediary between Moscow and other Western capitals. But now he has emerged as one of Ukraine’s most assertive military backers.
Last week Mr. Macron announced that France would deliver armored fighting vehicles to Ukraine’s military. It was yet another escalation in Western military support to Ukraine and another instance of Western leaders’ ignoring Russian warnings against such direct involvement.
As if to underscore how little success Mr. Putin has found in opening cleavages within the West, on the same day that he announced this past weekend’s cease-fire, Washington and Berlin announced that they, too, would supply Ukraine with armored fighting vehicles.
“The president’s diplomatic team has managed to convince the allies: The time of weapons taboo has passed,” Mr. Kuleba wrote in a Facebook post, referring to Ukraine’s leader, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Germany’s participation is telling. Since World War II, its leaders have emphasized diplomacy toward Moscow, positioning themselves as counterweights to a more hawkish Washington. As Europe’s largest economy and a major force within the European Union, it has often set the tempo on such matters. And German voters are considered particularly averse to the economic burdens associated with isolating Russia, which supplies much of Europe’s energy.
Mr. Putin has long sought to put pressure on those sensitivities, seemingly hoping that German leaders would modulate Western support for Ukraine, perhaps even splintering that coalition over, say, Russian proposals for peace talks.
It is a mark of how little success Mr. Putin has found that German leaders have instead escalated their military involvement in ways that would have once been unthinkable, and not for the first time since Russia’s invasion.
“If Putin wanted peace,” Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, wrote last week on Twitter in response to Russia’s cease-fire proposal, “he would take his soldiers home and the war would be over.”
Max Fisher is a New York-based international reporter and columnist. He has reported from five continents on conflict, diplomacy, social change and other topics. He writes The Interpreter, a column exploring the ideas and context behind major world events. @Max_Fisher • Facebook