Can Putin be trusted to respect a ceasefire? Unless Russian troops withdraw, Ukrainians are skeptical

A destroyed Russian armored fighting vehicle is shown in the town of Trostyanets in the Sumy region of eastern Ukraine on Monday as the Russian invasion continues. So many Ukrainians oppose agreeing a ceasefire with Russia as long as its troops continue to occupy Ukrainian territory. (Oleg Pereverzev/Reuters)

In the 22 years that Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia, his ability to start wars with his neighbors has always exceeded his interest or ability to end them.

Russia’s borders are cluttered with unresolved or frozen conflicts – from the Crimea and Donbas regions in Ukraine to the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.

All are examples of the Kremlin invading or sending in its troops and never leaving.

Ceasefires aimed at suspending Russian military advances have simply become permanent fixtures, heavily weighted in favor of Russia.

That’s why now, as civilian casualties and deaths riseso many Ukrainians are adamantly opposed to a ceasefire agreement with Russia as long as its troops continue to occupy Ukrainian territory.

Dima, a three-year-old boy who was injured in the Mariupol shelling, lies on a bed in the children’s ward of a hospital in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine on Tuesday. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

“Ukraine doesn’t want this scenario, and that’s why the majority thinks there shouldn’t be a ceasefire unless there’s a Russian withdrawal,” Orysia said. Lutsevych, head of the Ukrainian Forum at Chatham House, a British foreign policy think tank. in London.

“If there’s a tactical pause or a ceasefire or a conflict that freezes because Russia decides it doesn’t want to fight anymore, then Russia will regroup and fight back in a year or two,” said Lutsevych, originally from Lviv, Ukraine. told CBC News in an interview.

Some observers wary of Russia at talks

On Tuesday, Russian and Ukrainian negotiators left the latest round of so-called peace talks in Turkey on what appeared to be an optimistic note, with both sides suggesting there had been progress.

Russia would start withdrawing its military forces around the capital kyiv, as well as the northern city of Chernihiv, to “increase mutual trust” and “create conditions for new negotiations”, according to a senior Russian official.

For its part, Ukraine has said it will leave the contentious issue of the status of the Crimean peninsula – seized by Russia in 2014 – for another round of talks that could take up to 15 years, effectively putting the question aside.

Ukrainians living in Turkey stage an anti-war protest as Ukrainian and Russian negotiators meet in Istanbul on Tuesday. Both sides suggested there had been progress. (Dilara Senkaya/Reuters)

President Volodymyr Zelensky’s negotiators have sketched out a scenario in which Ukraine would remain neutral, would not welcome foreign armies on its soil and would not join NATO, a Western military alliance.

Instead, Ukraine would see its security guaranteed by a series of bilateral treaties with Western countries, including perhaps Canada.

The Ukrainian proposal calls on Russia not to block its aspirations to join the European Union.

Russia’s chief negotiator in Turkey, Vladimir Medinsky, met with reporters afterwards, read Ukraine’s proposal in the minutes, then said it would be passed to Putin for discussion.

Russia’s stated war aims have been the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine, although what this actually means has never been fully explained.

US defense officials said they believed in Russia’s aim was in fact to “decapitate” the Ukrainian leadership by pressuring the Ukrainian capital at the start of the invasion and capturing key members of the government, including Zelensky.

President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the Ukrainian people in Kyiv on Tuesday. He said in an interview this week that Ukrainian troops discovered that Russian soldiers had brought ceremonial uniforms with them in their tanks, presumably to wear them in a victory parade after capturing kyiv. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service)

Zelensky said interviewers this week that Ukrainian troops discovered that Russian soldiers had even brought uniforms with them in their tanks, presumably to wear in a victory parade after capturing kyiv.

Instead, the Russian push on the city has faltered, and more than a month after the February 24 invasion, the Russian army has achieved few of its objectives – and at terrible human cost.

NATO estimated last week that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian troops have been killed since the start of the invasion and that 30,000 to 40,000 Russian soldiers are believed to have been killed or injured.

After Tuesday’s meeting in Istanbul, international stock markets surged and the Russian ruble strengthened on the possibility that the outlines of a peace agreement were taking shape.

WATCH | The United Nations calls for a humanitarian ceasefire in Ukraine:

UN calls for humanitarian ceasefire in Ukraine

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said now is the right time for the UN to take the lead in pushing for a humanitarian ceasefire in Ukraine. 1:28

But Lutsevych and many other longtime Russia watchers fear Putin is setting a trap for war-weary Ukrainians and their supporters abroad.

“My interpretation is that they are always ready to pursue a military scenario to obtain political concessions,” she said.

Lutsevych says she thinks the most likely scenario is for the Russian generals to reorganize and reposition their troops to either try once again to capture the capital or refocus their attack on the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, which together form the Donbas.

Ukraine has established a “new military reality”

Chris Alexander, a former Canadian diplomat who served in Moscow and later became a federal Conservative cabinet minister, says the best explanation is that the Russians have to hit the pause button on the parts of their military operation that went wrong unrolled.

“It’s a gesture of negotiation, but it’s also a withdrawal which is a military necessity for the Russians – and it’s not unlike them to make it look generous when it’s really necessary”, a- he declared.

“I think it’s a diplomatic expression of the new military reality that Ukraine has established.”

Opinion polls throughout the war have consistently shown that Ukrainians expect their army to eventually prevail over Russia – and even that the regions of Donbass and Crimea, which were held by Russia before the invasion, be returned to them after the departure of the Russian forces.

Thick smoke rises over Lviv in western Ukraine on Saturday. The city became a hub for internal refugees fleeing Russian attacks in the east. (Nariman El-Mofty/Associated Press)

The western city of Lviv has become a hub for internal refugees fleeing Russian attacks in the east – and among those who have fled it is hard to find much support for Ukraine to strike a deal with Russia to end the fighting.

“The territory of Ukraine is one, you cannot divide it,” said Danilo Blizniuk, a chemical engineer who lived in a Ukrainian-held area of ​​Luhansk before Russian forces bombed and destroyed his home. family.

“I think a compromise is impossible,” he told CBC News, adding that he believed the Russian military “had no strength” and was “not capable.”

But while Ukraine’s military has proven to be a more formidable adversary than Russia – and even some Western countries – expected, it’s unclear whether it can go from defense to attack and recover. territory held by Russia.

The Kremlin accepted the “military limitations”

Prior to Russia’s announcement that it would withdraw its forces from kyiv, the Ukrainian military had launched successful counterattacks against entrenched Russian positions near the capital, which bodes well, said researcher Rob Lee. principal at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in New York. York.

“They’re having some success. They’re taking over some towns.”

Lee had been following the Russian troop buildup before his invasion of Ukraine for nearly a year and had accurately predicted how it might unfold.

WATCH | The Russian potential for a major offensive in Ukraine is “exhausted”, according to one analyst:

Russian potential for major offensives in Ukraine ‘exhausted’, analyst says

Russian forces have been “badly beaten” by Ukrainian forces and do not have enough manpower to replace soldiers at the front, said Konrad Muzyka, an independent defense analyst in Gdańsk, Poland. 7:40 a.m.

He says that with superior air power, Russia should be able to prevent Ukrainian ground forces from assembling and organizing for counterattacks – and yet its air force does not. was unable to do so, reflecting the poor performance of other aspects of the Russian military in Ukraine.

“I don’t think they [Ukraine] can completely expel the Russian forces. But they can grow back in places,” Lee said.

If Russian forces pull out of kyiv, they will most likely be redeployed to the eastern Donbass region with the aim of surrounding Ukrainian troops there, he said.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian soldiers marched on the front line near kyiv. If Russian forces withdraw from the capital, they will most likely be redeployed to the eastern region of Donbass with the aim of surrounding Ukrainian troops there, according to an analyst. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

The risk of doing so is that the encirclement tactic does not work and thus frees the Ukrainian army to retake other territories to the north and south. But Lee says it’s unclear how severe Ukraine’s combat losses were and also how quickly it was able to mobilize and equip new divisions.

“You can train untrained soldiers to defend. It’s harder to train them to attack.”

Nonetheless, Lee says he believes that with his statements on Tuesday, the Kremlin reluctantly accepted that there are “military limitations” on what Russia can achieve in Ukraine – and therefore a negotiated settlement is the only option left to Russian leaders.

But before that happens, he expects the Kremlin to try to seize and retain as much Ukrainian territory as possible to bolster its negotiating position.