I honestly can’t remember the number of times I’ve written about Russian peace talks. I could try to look it up, but I suspect it would only depress me. Ukraine and Syria; tangentially Georgia and, I guess, Chechnya. None of them really went anywhere. True, the odd one stopped the violence — although it took Grozny being levelled for that to happen. Georgia, meanwhile, can still explode if correctly prodded, which of course is the point. In Ukraine, the various Minsk agreements that followed Russia’s initial 2014 invasion at least slowed the violence. Until now.
Since Russian tanks and men swarmed across the border on 24 February, we’ve been wrenched back in time. What is happening on the battlefields of Ukraine is something we haven’t seen for over half a century anywhere the Western media really cares about. This is not the tit-for-tat killings between psychotic paramilitaries that was Yugoslavia. It’s not the cave battle of Tora Bora, and it’s most certainly not the counterinsurgency of Iraq. It is two armies facing off in the field; lines of tanks chewing up the sodden earth; phalanxes of soldiers marching step by step; bawling air raid sirens and, of course, bombed out cities mottled with dead kids.
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That is to say, it’s World War II redux. Over the weekend, I spoke to a friend in Ukraine who I would accompany to the battlefields of eastern Ukraine when all this kicked off almost eight years ago. She had just got back from Kyiv. “It was hell,” she said. “The east was child’s play compared to this.” Another friend tells me about a local man who has just returned from the front. “They’re animals,” he says of the Russians, adding that he plans to return after a brief rest because he doesn’t want the Russians “to do to his family what he saw they did there”. When I ask what this means, her response is blunt: “Executing people. He said they catch pro-Ukrainian people in Kherson and shoot them. One by one.”
Almost two weeks ago, I wrote that “of all the conflicts I have engaged with or covered in my life, Ukraine is where I most clearly see the unambiguous resurgence of violent, expansionist fascism. Ukrainians are fighting for us all, remember that.” If it was a touch grandiose, it was also, I think, accurate. I believe that what is being hammered out right now on the battlefields of Ukraine is not just its future and Russia’s, but the West’s, too. If the Ukrainians had folded after 72 hours or however long Putin’s lick-spittles told him the “special police operation” would take, then the Spetsnaz and gangs of Kadyrovite scumbags would be halfway to Georgia and Moldova by now. Half the east would now be gone and a new Iron Curtain, though perhaps this time a gold one embossed with the Versace logo, would be descending from Tbilisi to Minsk.
As it happens the Ukrainians — pumped full of Western javelins and stingers — fought like hell. And we finally started sanctioning Putin’s bag men. Poor Roman Abramovich has had Chelsea confiscated. A sad day indeed, but we all have to make sacrifices.
Now, after a month, politicians on each side talk peace. Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said everything will be up for discussion. He had first agreed to talks with Russia at the end of February but not to the location the Russians wanted: Minsk. You can see why, what with Belarus being one of the launch points for the Kremlin’s invasion and now de facto Russian territory. Indeed, why bother with Minsk, why not just meet in the Kremlin? Or perhaps even cut out the middleman and just hold the talks in a Gulag?
It was an unserious suggestion three days into a war the Kremlin thought would be a cakewalk. As things have gone badly for the Russians since, there have been further rounds of talks. The outlines are already clear: Zelenskyy has hinted he is ready to make compromises over the future of the Crimea and Donbas territories that Russia stole in 2014. I know this bothers some — though an increasingly diminishing number — Ukrainians I know. But it’s sensible. They’ve been gone a long time. A five-year-old in 2014 is now a teenager; and he or she hasn’t grown up in Ukraine. Plus, Ukraine is probably better off without the Donbas. Trust me: I’ve been there.
Also on the table is Ukrainian neutrality, which essentially means a commitment not to join Nato. This is also sensible because Nato membership was never realistic anyway. If it were, Kyiv wouldn’t be in the war it’s in now. All this, Zelenskyy has stressed, would have to be put to the Ukrainian people in a referendum.
In essence it’s about accepting the reality on the ground. Crimea and the Donbas are gone; Russia will never countenance Ukraine in Nato. As far as what Russia has to accept, the same principle applies. This means acknowledging that Ukrainians are a sovereign people — not, as Putin seems to think, merely confused Russians. If he still doubts this, he can find the evidence for its veracity in the thousands of body bags now crossing the borders back into Russia. This would mean withdrawing his troops from all Ukrainian territory barring Crimea and the Donbas. He must also accept that Ukraine now has a formalised relationship with the West, based around military equipment and cash. This would hopefully be easier for him to comprehend. After all, he created it.
Do this and there is a way out. What bothers me is that Moscow doesn’t want one. Wherever I look I see talk of Russian overreach, of Russian losses and Ukrainian successes. And it’s not just from online blowhards. I speak to the military experts. Everyone from British officers to this amazing chap on Twitter who works out the progress of the Russian offensive from the state of its army’s wheels is clear. The war is going badly for Moscow.
People now talk of a stalemate. And this worries me because, once again, we need to understand that this is not a 21st-century but a 20th century-conflict. What was World War I if not years of stalemate punctuated by periods of intense, incontinent violence? Stalemates can last a long time and claim the lives of millions.
I think Moscow knows this. Generally, it uses peace talks as an excuse to rearm, regroup and better its chances of more effectively murdering its enemies. I think it’s negotiating in bad faith once again. It can afford to have its conscripts chewed up in Ukraine. It’s not like their families can complain. Putin has turned Mariupol into Aleppo. Now he’s deporting thousands to Russia. From Syria to Siberia, from Assad to Stalin.
Russia’s assault on Ukraine attacks us all. First, it assaults language. It perverts the meaning of human rights and basic decency. “Humanitarian corridors” become “killing fields” and “peace” means only yet more death. And then of course they come for all you have left: your senses. “We have not invaded Ukraine.” “Ukrainians are shelling themselves.” What you saw you did not see.
This is Putin’s Russia, and it is dragging us back to the darkest period in modern history. More war, not peace, will always be his aim.