Four Myths That Are Preventing Peace in Ukraine

If diplomacy is to have a chance at settling this bloody conflict, then four persistent myths about the war in Ukraine need to be exposed and refuted.

Myth #1: If Putin is Not Defeated in Ukraine, He Will Roll into Europe

Both Ukrainian and American officials have repeatedly warned that Ukraine is not just a nation to be defended from an illegal Russian invasion, but the dam holding Vladimir Putin back from invading Europe. According to this narrative, the United States and its NATO allies must support the war in Ukraine because it is the front line of the war for Europe.

“If Putin takes Ukraine,” U.S. President Joe Biden told Congress on December 6, 2023, “he won’t stop there… He’s going to keep going. He’s made that pretty clear.”

But Putin has not made that “pretty clear.” In fact, Putin has consistently said that “The Ukraine crisis is not a territorial conflict… The issue is much broader and more fundamental and is about the principles underlying the new international order.”

Biden has also claimed from the beginning of the war that Putin “has much larger ambitions than Ukraine. He wants to, in fact, reestablish the former Soviet Union. That’s what this is about.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken, too, has said that Putin has “made clear that he’d like to reconstitute the Soviet empire.”

Yet, these goals ascribed to Putin differ sharply from his stated goals, which include: a guarantee that Ukraine will remain neutral and not join NATO, a guarantee that NATO won’t turn Ukraine into an armed anti-Russian bridgehead on its border, and assurances that the civil rights of Russophile Ukrainians will be protected.

How are we to make sense of this contrast?

The current narrative stems from a commonly misquoted part of Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly on April 25, 2005. Referring to the country’s difficult transition to democracy, Putin said: “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.”

Many in the West argued that by referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union as a disaster he was hinting at a secret desire to recreate it. It is quite clear, however, when you read the entire speech, that he was drawing attention to the disastrous impact that the country’s political and economic collapse had had on the people’s personal lives, not to the Soviet Union per se. He goes on to point out that “individual savings were deprecated,” oligarchs “served exclusively their own corporate interests,” and “mass poverty began to be seen as the norm.”

Two weeks later, Putin made the same point during a state visit to Germany, adding: “People in Russia say that those who do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union have no heart, and those that do regret it have no brain. We do not regret this, we simply state the fact and know that we need to look ahead, not backwards.”

Hardly a rallying call for the restoration of the Soviet Union.

Biden argues that, after Ukraine, Putin will “keep going,” and then “we’ll have something that we don’t seek and that we don’t have today: American troops fighting Russian troops.” Yet, it is worth noting that on every occasion that Putin has actually deployed the Russian Armed Forces abroad, their use has always been narrowly tailored to a specific task, be it in Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, Syria in 2015, Kazakhstan in 2021, or in Ukraine in 2022.

Therefore, in the absence of any tangible evidence, blithe assertions that Russia intends to attack NATO ought to be taken with a grain of salt.

Myth #2: Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine was Never about NATO

Western officials insist that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was “unprovoked,” and that Russia’s decision to illegally invade Ukraine was never about NATO expansion and crossing Russia’s red lines, but rather a “senseless war against a sovereign, freedom-loving nation.”

But NATO’s insistence that Putin was not motivated by its eastward expansion is challenged by NATO itself.

On September 7, 2023, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made the stunning admission that Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was indeed provoked by NATO encroachment on Ukraine.

Prior to making the decision to invade Ukraine, Stoltenberg said that Putin had “sent a draft treaty that they wanted NATO to sign, to promise no more NATO enlargement. That was what he sent us. And was a pre-condition for not invade Ukraine. Of course we didn’t sign that.”

Stoltenberg then went on: “He wanted us to sign that promise, never to enlarge NATO… We rejected that. So he went to war to prevent NATO, more NATO, close to his borders.” The Secretary General of NATO then reiterated his conclusion that “President Putin invaded a European country to prevent more NATO.”

Several Ukrainian officials have confirmed Stoltenberg’s admission. David Arakhamia, the head of Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party, who led the Ukrainian negotiating team in both the Belarus and Istanbul talks, confirmed that an assurance that Ukraine would not join NATO was the “key point” for Russia: “Everything else was simply rhetoric and political ‘seasoning.’” According to Arakhamia, “They were prepared to end the war if we agreed to, as Finland once did, neutrality, and committed that we would not join NATO.”

Arakhamia’s testimony is also seconded by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. On March 27, 2022, Zelensky told an interviewer that the promise not to join NATO “was the first fundamental point for the Russian Federation,” adding that “as far as I remember, they started a war because of this.”

The suggestion that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had nothing at all to do with its security concerns about NATO expansion, is thus contradicted by NATO and Ukrainian officials themselves, and should not be used as a pretext to reject negotiations to end the war.

Myth #3: The War in Ukraine is a War of Democracy Versus Autocracy

According to this narrative, Russia cannot be allowed to win because this war is not just about Ukraine. It is the first battlefield in a larger war for democracy against autocracy.

But Russia abandoned the goal of exporting an ideology when the Soviet Union collapsed. In fact, its constitution (Article 13) explicitly prohibits the imposition of a single state ideology.

Russia is fighting, not against democracy, but for its security concerns. Nor can the United States plausibly claim to be fighting on behalf of democracy, when it is actively trying to enlist autocracies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and China to join its side.

At the same time that the United States tells the world that Ukraine is a democracy, it tells Ukrainian leaders that “Ukraine isn’t ready for NATO membership” because, as President Biden puts it, there are “qualifications that need to be met, including democratization.”

There is increasing recognition of the fact that Ukraine is not fighting for democracy, as much as for the right to establish a monocultural Ukraine, purged of its Russian cultural heritage, language, religion, and history. Indeed, it can be argued that, since the war began, Ukraine has taken steps backward on democracy. For example, in March 2022, Ukraine banned eleven opposition political parties, including the Opposition Platform for Life Party which was once the second largest party in the Ukrainian parliament.

That same month, a presidential decree implemented “a unified information policy… unifying all national TV channels… on a single information platform” called Telemarathon United News. Last year, a new media law extended the state’s censorship powers to print and online media, and granted the state the authority to review the content of all Ukrainian media, prohibit content it deems a threat to the nation, and issue mandatory directives to media outlets.

Finally, despite there being an explicit constitutional guarantee to freedom of personal philosophy and religion (Article 35), the Ukrainian parliament is moving toward banning the country’s traditional Ukrainian Orthodox Church through a bill that bans religious groups “affiliated with centers of influence… located outside Ukraine, in the state conducting military aggression against Ukraine.” The Lord Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd. Nick Baines, who oversees the Church of England’s policies on foreign policy, recently condemned this proposal as “a retrograde measure that will harm Ukraine’s interests in the longer term.”

There have also been rollbacks in cultural freedoms, denying legal protections to Ukrainians that are explicitly enumerated in Article 10 of the Ukrainian constitution, which guarantees “the free development, use and protection of Russian, and other languages of national minorities of Ukraine.”

To empower diplomacy, this utterly manichean narrative of democracy versus autocracy should be discarded. Only then will the parties be able to listen to each other’s legitimate concerns.

Myth #4: Putin is Not Interested in Negotiating

The West insists that Putin is not interested in negotiating an end to this war. Despite multiple news reports that he “has been signaling through intermediaries” that “he is open to a cease-fire” and that “[h]e is ready to make a deal,” the White House continues to insist that Putin has “shown absolutely zero indication that he’s willing to negotiate.”

But the historical record shows that Putin has sought a negotiated settlement since the opening days of the war. By all accounts, Russia and Ukraine had even reached a tentative agreement in Istanbul in April 2022. This has been confirmed by American reporting; by then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett; by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder; and by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu; and Numan Kurtulmus, the deputy chairman of Erdogan’s party.

Even more importantly, Putin’s sincerity about negotiating has been confirmed by numerous Ukrainian delegates at these talks.

Oleksiy Arestovych, a former Advisor to the Office of the President of Ukraine, was asked recently if he thought that “bilateral negotiations between Ukraine and Russia could have worked earlier in the process.” He responded, “Yes, completely.” At the end of the Istanbul talks, he says, the Ukrainian delegation “opened the champagne bottle.”

David Arakhamia, who led the Ukrainian negotiating team in Istanbul, said in a November 24, 2023 interview that Russia was “prepared to end the war if we… committed that we would not join NATO.”

Oleksandr Chalyi, the former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, and also a member of Ukraine’s negotiating team in Istanbul, agrees that Putin “demonstrated a genuine effort to find a realistic compromise and achieve peace.” And even President Zelensky once acknowledged publicly, in March 2022, that the discussions had been “deeply worked out.”

This does not mean that the Istanbul Accords can be resuscitated. Too much may have happened since to allow for this. Still, it is interesting to note that neither Russia or Ukraine has released any details about the alleged agreement, perhaps so as to prevent what was agreed upon to be torpedoed in the press. It does, however, suggest that harping on Putin’s ostensible unwillingness to negotiate is really nothing but a red herring aimed at preventing a negotiated settlement of this conflict.

Together, these four myths form the foundation of the Western arguments that privilege military over diplomatic solutions to the current crisis. Exposing them, therefore, will be key to reversing course, and bringing this devastating war to an end.

Nicolai N. Petro is a Senior Washington Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island, and the author of The Tragedy of Ukraine: What Classical Greek Tragedy Can Teach Us About Conflict Resolution (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2023).

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.  To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at