Leonid Gozman: Why Peace with Putin Is Impossible – Russia’s Three Wars

2023-12-20 | Political initiatives, Geopolitical analysis

Hopes for Ukraine’s relatively quick victory have not materialized and the war between Russia and Ukraine has dragged on (though this is certainly not the fault of the Ukrainians). The war is becoming polarizing and demands for negotiations and compromise are increasingly frequent.

Those hoping for a compromise with Putin do not fully understand the nature of his regime or him as a person. Compromise with Putin is impossible, and any peace agreement will not lead to peace, but rather to a temporary ceasefire that Putin will use to build up his forces for a new attack.

Putin started this war not to resolve a specific issue – there were no unsolvable contradictions between Russia and Ukraine – but to destroy Ukraine as a subject of politics, language, and culture. He repeatedly stated that there was never Ukraine to begin with, that it was “invented” by Lenin, that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, and that the Ukrainian language does not exist. He believes it. In Putin’s mind, destroying Ukraine is not at all aggression, but a return to a normal order. That is why Ukrainians can’t agree with Putin – as Golda Meir said, “You cannot negotiate peace with someone who has come to kill you.”

Since it would be politically inviable to openly declare the destruction of Ukraine as the goal of the invasion, the Russian authorities constantly changed their war aims. They first aimed to ensure the right to speak Russian in Donbas – which no one encroached on, then destroy biological laboratories designed to make Russian women infertile, allegedly created in Ukraine with the help of the United States. After came “denazification” and finally, in Medvedev’s words, the fight against Satan. It is true, today, Russian propaganda does not talk about the goals of the war at all. For Russia, war is no longer the means, but a natural state.

The war with Ukraine is only one of three that Putin’s regime wages. The second one, no less important, is the war for the revival of the Empire. While the Kremlin has been preparing for it for a long time, it entered the active phase in 2008, when Russia captured twenty percent of Georgia’s territory. Putin, of course, does not seek to occupy all the countries formerly part of the Russian Empire, but he does demand special rights and control over their foreign policy. Russia takes every opportunity to destabilize its neighbors, from utilizing the Russian diaspora to bribing politicians and organizing coups. Putin will never give up his “rights” to the Empire. He believes that any territory where Russian soldiers shed blood should be part of Russia or its sphere of influence, and people living there should be eternally grateful to Russia. The lack of gratitude angers and makes Putin even more aggressive.

However, the main war for Putin is the one with the West, where Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and threats to Poland are just episodes. According to the Russian leadership, the West (“Anglo-Saxons”) has always humiliated Russia, seeking to conquer or slow down Russia’s development. The motive of humiliation or lack of respect is fundamentally important to Putin. And, even when Russia did not yet exist, this was not so much of an inter-country struggle but a spiritual confrontation between the world’s good, embodied by Russia and the Russians, and evil, that is the West. Now, just as before, so the story goes, the West hates Russia, seeking to undermine its unity and destroy the country as a whole, and is ready to risk a global war for this.

The idea of a global confrontation with European civilization did not emerge immediately after Putin became president. Putin began as a Westernizer and perceived integration of Russia into the “First World” as his mission. That did not work out, but Putin also did not strive to join the modern West, but rather the West of the Yalta Conference times, when the great powers could divide the planet among themselves. And since returning to the past turned out to be unattainable, Putin, while remaining in G-8, began to pursue an anti-Western policy, hoping to lead the world’s anti-American sentiment. But that did not work out either: neither China, Turkey, nor Iran accepted him as the leader. That was the time when the wars began: Putin decided to gain global respect and recognition with military force.

Putin needs this war for both domestic and psychological reasons. His reign has been plagued by failures: the demographic situation is worsening, the technological gap is increasing, the quality of life is falling, and it is not possible to solve any of Russia’s most pressing problems. Contrary to popular belief, there is no support for his policies or him personally. People are indifferent; they have come to terms with Putin and his actions and do not feel any enthusiasm about it. The defeats at the front or what is declared as victories do not provoke a public reaction, and neither did Putin’s ICC arrest warrant or the drone attack on the Kremlin. The war with no end allows Putin to suppress discontent – we were attacked, the enemy is on the doorstep – and not think about the failures, instead plunging into the world of illusions completely, where he has been in recent years.

For Putin, peace is impossible. The task of maintaining control over Russia and preserving self-respect is solved only in conditions of war. Peace will make the population realize the meaninglessness of their sacrifices and, most importantly, give elites an opportunity to express, in one form or another, their dissatisfaction with Putin’s policies, catastrophic both for them and the country but beneficial to Putin and his entourage. The dissatisfaction of the elites has been accumulating for years.

Therefore, no matter what the costs are, Putin will continue the war, using any negotiations as a respite. This is exactly what Hitler would have done if, at the end of the war, the anti-Hitler coalition had agreed to a peace agreement with him. He could no longer help but fight; a stable peace meant the end of his power. It is the same for Putin. He does not need peace, but only a truce. And peace on earth, as in 1945, can only be achieved if the regime of Vladimir Putin is destroyed.

Therefore, the supply of Western weapons and financial assistance to Ukraine is not charity, but self-defense. The Putin system is an existential threat to European civilization. If Russia wins in Ukraine, it will not stop, just as Hitler did not stop when he captured the Sudetenland. Putin will go further and won’t rest until he destroys the Western world.