Despite the cessation of peace talks, a solution to the brutal war in Ukraine seems far-fetched.
Ukraine’s major cities are faltering. Critics, including children, were killed by shrapnel and glass wounds, nakedness and thirst.
At the same time, Ukraine’s resilience and coordinated global response mean that the war will not end as many expected before it began – a quick victory for Russia.
As a scholar who has studied Soviet and post-Soviet politics over the past three decades, I see three major obstacles to any decision-making movement.
Obstacles to peace
First, Putin seems to believe that the net benefits of his war in Ukraine will outweigh the costs. He recently moderated his goals when it became clear that his military was fighting to capture Kharkiv, Kyiv and other regional capitals, but he was still fighting – meaning he still thought he had something to win.
Second, given intelligence reports that he may have received erroneous information, he may hesitate to negotiate until he is sure he actually knows what is going on.
Finally, he seems to believe deeply that the potential acceptance of Ukraine and the European Union as a member poses an existential threat to his tenure and his legacy.
In other words, as the rest of the world insists that Putin’s war in Ukraine is an act of aggression under international law, Putin continues to view his “special military operation” as a legitimate defensive war – as a great power policy against growing influence. West and the protection of the rights of Russians and Russian-speakers in the Ukrainian Donbass.
Putin and company feel affected in this conflict and thus present it to the Russian population.
Moreover, Putin seems to have domestic support on his side. A recent Levada poll shows that its rating rose from 71% in February to 83% after the invasion of Ukraine. This means that Putin can have time on his side as long as he can control the news and the story of the war.
Are sanctions biting?
The West is hoping for sanctions to force Putin to sit down at the negotiating table.
But sanctions take time to hurt. Given the fact that civilians are dying every day from thirst, exposure and malnutrition, time is a luxury that is not in Ukraine.
Sanctions are also indispensable. They affect leaders but also innocent civilians. And the damage remains even after the target gives way, reinforcing the narrative that Russia is a victim here, targeted by the West.
Moreover, Russia has powerful incentives to dig in and keep fighting.
First, the information war that is currently being waged in Ukraine, Russia, and around the world is as important to an acceptable long-term solution as physical warfare. War is a lot of things, including a play that is appreciated by spectators around the world. If the Russians learn the truth, Putin’s leadership may be questioned, as will Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989.
Putin’s actions show that he is aware of the importance of his control over information to win the war. He therefore shut down independent media, scared away foreign journalists and restricted what Russians could read and see. His government has long prepared ordinary Russians for foreign outrage and harmful sanctions. Thus, even in the absence of complete control over the narrative, this is likely to make Russians skeptical of leaks that suggest that Russia is waging an illegal war in an illegal way.
True, Putin’s efforts to control the narrative will be difficult to sustain indefinitely. Images of burned-out homes, civilian casualties and refugees fleeing their homes are now seen around the world every day. Moreover, as the Russian military continues to see an increasing number of its members dead, mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, daughters and sons of fallen soldiers will demand to know whether their loved ones serving in Ukraine are safe.
The critical question now is whether Putin will be able to complete his 20-year project to return Russia to a totalitarian past with him as leader, or whether the war will lead to his political demise.
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At the heart of all this is not how Putin interacts with the West, but his relationship with the Russians. Bystanders tend to judge Putin and his motives by how his actions affect us. For him, the domestic audience is more important. In other words, as long as he can win the information war in Russia, his power and immense wealth will remain safe. How the West sees it is not a key issue.
The power of authoritarian power
Putin has been in power longer than any of his current rivals in the United States and NATO. He is likely to stay in power by rigging the election and suppressing his opposition.
But in democracies, leaders are changing. With a change of leadership, there may be policy changes that are more beneficial to Putin. In two years, for example, a new president may appear in the United States. Putin can only hold out until January 2025 in the hope of a more favorable attitude.
During his two decades as head of state, Putin linked his personal leadership to Russia’s fate. I believe that this means that he is unlikely to accept a peace that does not guarantee Russia’s right to interfere in Ukraine’s sovereign affairs. Agreeing to anything less than restoring Soviet “spheres of influence” would mean that he would lose his status in the international arena and probably lose considerable popularity at home, especially in light of the costs that Russian citizens have already paid and probably , will pay in the future.
But is this the price the West is willing to pay to avoid escalating the war in Europe?
This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing the ideas of scientific experts. Author: Monica Duffy Toft, Tufts University.
Monica Duffy Toft does not work, advise, own shares or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and does not disclose any relevant affiliations other than their academic purpose.