Voices: Zelensky shouldn’t trust Putin – or quit while he’s ahead

Zelensky, like his spy chief Budanov, is smart enough and shrewd enough to avoid any crude Russian traps  (Ukrainian presidential press-ser)
Zelensky, like his spy chief Budanov, is smart enough and shrewd enough to avoid any crude Russian traps (Ukrainian presidential press-ser)

General Kyrylo Budanov is someone worth listening to. The head of Ukraine’s Defence Intelligence Service has the great distinction of not only predicting with confidence the Russian invasion weeks before it happened, but he also knows more about what is going on in this war than Vladimir Putin does. This is for the simple reason that the Russian junior commanders fear to tell their bosses the truth, and the colonels dare not tell Putin the truth.

Budanov now says that Putin would like to divide Ukraine, like the nation Korea was divided after the end of the war there in 1953. What was intended as a temporary ceasefire line between Russian-backed communists in the north and American-backed forces in the south is still there now, 70 years on, as a permanently unstable international border between North and South Korea. Such partitions often bring ethnic cleansing, refugees and misery without end.

The territory the Russians already occupy in the south and east of the country would be reconstituted as a puppet regime, presumably a People’s Republic of Ukraine. Russia isn’t able to conquer the whole country and Ukraine alone isn’t strong enough to drive the Russians back to the border and regain Crimea, despite some successful Ukrainian counter attacks.

So the current line of military control would congeal into a contact line and then a de facto established international border, as in Korea, as between the two halves of Cyprus, and as across Kashmir, between India and Pakistan.

Budanov thinks the Ukrainian breakaway state would end up unviable and, as a result, a “total Ukrainian guerrilla safari" would get underway. That, though, would hardly be good for the people, and would continue to destabilise Ukraine. This is why Volodymyr Zelensky, the Churchillian president of Ukraine, must be wary of any offer by Russia of a ceasefire and talks based on acceptance of Russian domination (just as Winston Churchill was in 1940, when Hitler put his feelers out).

Zelensky is right to seek peace, but with honour. He is offering “neutrality”, though this does not, presumably, rule out EU membership, with the application to Brussels already in. He is even prepared to talk about territory, but subject to a national referendum. These are brave concessions that no free, independent nation should have to accept through invasion and occupation. But whatever is agreed must be acceptable to the people – before any ceasefire is announced. Zelensky should not quit while he’s winning.

The Russians have a habit of hanging around when they’ve promised to leave, as anyone in Eastern Europe will attest. As with so much in this conflict, there is a playbook. Look at the way the war in Georgia ended in 2008 – a lesson that Boris Johnson said had not been learned by the west. There, the continued Russian occupation of territory after ceasefires has turned into de facto annexation, and the peace agreement brokered by the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was ignored when it suited Putin.

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Much the same would happen now if Emmanuel Macron or Erdogan used their good offices to bring an end to the fighting, and it would merely reward the aggressor. Putin would not get all he wants from his use of force, but he would get enough to allow his propagandists to make it look like victory. That is the wrong precedent for the west to accept.

Zelensky, like his spy chief Budanov, is smart enough and shrewd enough to avoid any crude Russian traps. They know, as democrats, that they should not and can not conclude any agreement with Russia without the consent of parliament and people – and Ukrainians won’t accept any sort of humiliating unequal treaty that makes another invasion more likely. Their valour would be in vain.

Putin’s biggest mistake was to underestimate the Ukrainians, and believe his own propaganda that they would love to be united with Russia again. He ignored one of the lessons of wars such as America’s in Vietnam and Russia’s own unhappy time in Afghanistan, where vast advantages of firepower on paper were useless on the ground. “Asymmetric warfare”, they call it, where the militarily weaker side has superior tactics and morale. This is why Russia cannot win, and wants to partition Ukraine and hoard what it’s managed to occupy.

Putin and his circle badly underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate people to fight and die for their beliefs and values. The more the Russians try to crush the spirit of the Ukrainian people, the more determined they are to fight back.

That is why Russia cannot win this war, why it wants instead to sit with its current gains behind a line of ceasefire and why Zelensky shouldn’t quit while he’s ahead. Ukrainians want their country back.