Kyiv-based Paul Niland explores why recent calls for Ukraine to come to a 'peaceful compromise' with Russia – despite its unprovoked invasion of the country continuing – cannot be adhered to
I am in a café in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city. Around me people sit on laptops and smartphones. There’s music playing in the background and the more musically-inclined tap their feet with the tunes. On the surface, this could be any other European city. However, for all of us, the war is ever present. And I can tell you this for certain: no group of people want a return to peace more than the people of Ukraine.
Calls for peace are good, if they are based on the moral and ethical desire to put an end to violence. That is self-evidently a good thing and, at the same time, also the thinking of a simpleton.
Wars are terrible events. The destruction that has been wrought on Ukraine in this phase of Vladimir Putin’s war has been devastating. Entire cities, including Mariupol and Sieverodonetsk, have been obliterated. A swathe of territory on Ukraine’s south coast has been occupied by the Russian Army. The people who live there have naturally resisted occupation and mounted partisan saboteur operations. Putin has sent in the FSB to root out the partisans, while the partisans are attacking local collaborators who now can only move around under armed guard and wearing bullet-proof vests.
While the FSB – a successor to the Soviet KGB, but different in name only – goes from house to house looking for people who may be part of the resistance, or simply patriotic in any way at all, they do so with impunity under the lawlessness that results from Russia’s occupation of Ukraine. They take people from their homes to interrogate them. Interrogation often involves torture.
The Ukrainians' defence of their country has been nothing short of heroic. As military analysts marvel at how well Ukraine has done in standing up to Russian aggression, more than 1,000 settlements have been liberated since they were captured by Putin’s forces.
In each of those places – in the Chernihiv, Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson regions – locals have consistently reported the same treatment at the hands of the Russians. Barbaric crimes have been committed everywhere – not just in places that have become infamous, like Bucha. The barbarism includes executions, torture and a pattern of brutal sexual assaults against many many thousands of people, including children.
On top of that catalogue of war crimes, there is also the forced deportation of Ukrainian citizens from the recently occupied areas to Russia itself. This effort to depopulate Ukraine is an element of genocide. As many as 2,000,000 Ukrainians have been deported in this way, through what are called 'filtration' camps. Among that number are as many as 400,000 children. The fate of people who do not 'pass' this 'filtration' process is unknown, but can be guessed – they are dead.
Talk of Concessions
Sitting at the opposite side of this café is someone who is translating and editing English language posts for a Twitter feed aiming to inform the wider world about the atrocities being committed by the Russians. That is her contribution to the defence of Ukraine. Me typing these words is mine. Everyone, in one way or another, is committed to helping our country and countryfolk.
Believe me, we want peace more than anyone. Our friends are in uniform and under fire. But it cannot be peace at any cost.
Some of the calls for peace, or peace talks, have centred on a discussion about the status of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where Russia began waging war in the spring of 2014 – a self-declared imperial and territorial conquest. Before this year's phase of the war, 7.2% of Ukraine was occupied – now it is 20%. Russia's war is no longer limited to the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. It now extends from the Kharkiv and Sumy regions that border Russia in Ukraine’s north-east to missile strikes on the Odesa region on the Black Sea.
It is difficult to see how the status of Donbas is key to resolving this war.
Other calls to bring an end to the current stage of fighting suggest Ukraine should making territorial concessions in the south of Ukraine. This approach doesn’t just reflect an ignorance of the military situation on the ground, but amounts to appeasement – an approach that would reward Vladimir Putin for waging an unprovoked war of aggression. This idea also seals the fate of the millions of people who reside on these lands.
Wars are unpredictable but when we look at the relentless Russian missile and artillery attacks on a couple of southern cities not occupied by Russia – Mykolaiv and Odesa – it seems clear that Putin’s goal for this phase of his war, a goal he has not given up on despite his land forces being depleted, is to control not only the land bridge to occupied Crimea but all of the south coast of Ukraine. That can be the only rationale for his constant bombardment of these cities – to destroy and depopulate them in advance of occupation.
No Need for Negotiations
The evidence suggests that Putin's appetite for taking more Ukrainian land is not yet satisfied. His aim appears to be to leave Ukraine landlocked and economically crippled, set against his bigger objective of the complete collapse of the Ukrainian state.
Yet, still there are calls for Ukraine to 'negotiate' a way out of the war. How do you negotiate with a party that refuses to end their aggression? And how can you trust that any agreement reached with the Russian President would be respected by him when that has never happened in the past?
Putin’s aggression can only be extinguished through military means. Only Ukraine, with material help from its partners, is fighting this war in a far more sophisticated and intelligent way.
The growing calls to reach an accommodation coincide with the fact that the tide of this war has very decisively turned. Conditions no longer favour Putin, as they had in the early days when he blitzkrieged his way to dominating positions along Ukraine’s Azov Sea coastline.
Putin lost the battle for Kyiv. He failed to take Kharkiv. His forces have been depleted to such an extent in Ukraine’s east that they’ve barely managed to advance in a month. And in the south of Ukraine, Russia have not fortified the territories it is sitting on. The occupation here is, in every possible way, untenable.
On 23 February, Ukraine’s standing army numbered around 350,000. On that same day, on the eve of Russia's invasion, the military reserve were recalled to barracks, which consisted of 400,000 or so veterans of the war ongoing in the east of Ukraine since 2014. They are experienced and battle-hardened fighters, and Ukraine's military doubled overnight. On top of this, many volunteers have rushed to take up arms since.
This is all complemented by the weaponry given to Ukraine’s military. These weapons are often called 'game-changers' and they are – but only because they are in the hands of men and women who are ready to defend their country at all costs.
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The tactics of the last several weeks have reflected Ukraine’s new military capabilities and its ability to hit Russian targets deep into enemy or occupied territory with long range missiles. Its precision weapons have been working diligently to dismantle Russia’s military capacity totally. Russian command and control centres have been destroyed. Barracks housing Russian soldiers have been targeted. Fuel dumps have been taken out, resulting in fantastic explosions. Most importantly, they have wiped out one ammunition dump, after another, after another.
Russia’s land war, fought with foot soldiers, has been either defeated, pushed back or brought to a standstill. Russia’s artillery war, where it had an advantage in terms of sheer numbers of both rocket launch systems and the ammunition, has been almost eliminated.
What lies ahead is Putin’s defeat in Kherson, which will be symbolic on several levels. Located to the north of the occupied Crimean peninsula, it is the only regional capital that Russia had managed to seize since the invasion began. Losing it will be a significant blow – not only to Putin’s war aims, but also to his already rock-bottom military morale, and also to his propaganda narratives too.
Those calling to freeze this conflict are either blind to the situation on the battlefield, too ignorant to realise that their appeasement calls would lead to millions of people being subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment, or they are indifferent to this.
Ukraine will not give up. Ukraine will win. That is the only way that this ends. Then discussions will turn to how war criminals are held to account.
Paul Niland is an Irish journalist based in Ukraine. He is the founder of the country’s national suicide prevention hotline, Lifeline Ukraine
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