Not Trusting Russia With a Ceasefire

In recent days, there has been a volley of statements that Ukraine and the West cannot trust that a ceasefire would not be deceptively agreed to by Russia only to use it to fortify itself before violating the ceasefire of convenience.

Perhaps the warnings are a rebuttal to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen and French President Emmanuel Macron who have all recently called for negotiations. Perhaps, more optimistically, they are warnings to Russia because, sensing that the war has reached an "inflection point" at which Ukrainian gains have reached an apex and Russia is gaining strength, the West is actually considering negotiations aimed at exploring the possibility of a ceasefire.

The first came from Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during his November 15 video link address to the G20 summit in Bali. Zelensky rejected a Minsk style ceasefire, insisting that “We will not allow Russia to wait, build up its forces, and then start a new series of terror and global destabilization. There will be no Minsk 3, which Russia will violate immediately after the agreement."

The second came from Europe. Unnamed German officials who said that "Berlin believes that a cease-fire can be reached only by a settlement, the alternative being a protracted and devastating war of attrition," before adding that "they don’t have illusions about Russia sticking to any cease-fire for a longer period, but they say the West would use the lull to arm Ukraine in what one official compared with creating a "ring of steel" around the country that would help deter Moscow from restarting the conflict."

The third came from the US. The State Department seems to be more reluctant than the Pentagon or the National Security Advisor to discuss negotiations. In a December 6 press briefing, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, "We want peace. . . . What we don’t want is a pause. Because if we have a pause instead of peace, we know that President Putin will use that pause to retool, to refit, to regroup, and to – in all likelihood, go back into Ukraine with renewed vengeance."

Ukraine has every reason not to trust the country that illegally invaded them. But a more nuanced look at history suggests that Russia has no more reason to trust Ukraine and the West.

In 2014 and 2015, the best opportunity for peace in an already very troubled Ukraine came from the Minsk agreements. It was Zelensky and Ukraine who, lacking support from the US and pressure from Germany and France, failed to implement the agreement.

But what is worse is that the Ukraine and the West may never have been negotiating the Minsk agreements in good faith. Ukraine and the West may have duplicitously used the Minsk agreements to create the very ceasefire and pause that would allow it to build up its army that it is accusing Russia of intending to do now.

The Minsk accords were negotiated and agreed to by then Ukrainian president Pyotr Poroshenko. In a series of recent interviews, Poroshenko has confessed to just such a deliberate deception. In May 2022 Poroshenko told the Financial Times that Ukraine "didn’t have an armed forces at all" and that the "great diplomatic achievement" of the Minsk agreement was that "we kept Russia away from our borders – not from our borders, but away from a full-sized war." The agreement bought Ukraine time to build its army.

Poroshenko told the Ukrainian media and other news outlets that "We had achieved everything we wanted. Our goal was to, first, stop the threat, or at least to delay the war – to secure eight years to restore economic growth and create powerful armed forces."

Poroshenko’s revelation has recently been seconded by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel who was instrumental in brokering the agreement.

In a December 1 interview with Der Spiegel, Merkel seems to have made the same shocking confession. According to Der Spiegel, Merkel said that she believes that "during the Minsk talks, she was able to buy the time Ukraine needed to better fend off the Russian attack. She says it is now a strong, well-fortified country. Back then, she is certain, it would have been overrun by Putin’s troops."

A week later, Merkel repeated that admission in an interview with Die Zeit. "[T]he 2014 Minsk agreement was an attempt to give Ukraine time," she said. Ukraine "used this time to get stronger, as you can see today. The Ukraine of 2014/15 is not the Ukraine of today."

Merkel’s comments are striking for three reasons. The first is that she didn’t have to make it. Merkel has never been accused of playing such a duplicitous role. She has been accused only of not pressuring Zelensky to implement the Minsk agreement once he had abandoned it.

The second is that it reveals that Ukraine, the US and Europe were simply lying to Russia that there was a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine while they, under the cloak of diplomacy, prepared for a military solution. It suggests that Ukraine and the US intended to take back the autonomy seeking Donbas militarily all along.

The third is that it confirms what Russian hardliners had been telling Putin at the time. They had warned him not to trust the West and to go further than annexing Crimea in 2014. They urged him to protect ethnic Russians by annexing the Donbas as well.

Putin has recently arrived at the conclusion that he had been wrong not to listen. "Today it has become obvious that this reunification [of the Donbas with Russia] should have taken place earlier." But he had "believed that we would manage to come to terms, and Lugansk and Donetsk would be able to reunify with Ukraine somehow under the agreements – the Minsk agreements."

There is an even earlier historical precedent that Russians remember. Before Ukraine, there was another former part of the Soviet Union who sought NATO membership and possessed breakaway ethnic Russian territories that sought autonomy.

At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, it was not just Ukraine that was promised eventual membership in NATO. Under pressure from President Bush, NATO declared that it "welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agree today that these countries will become members of NATO.”

It was not just NATO expansion to Ukraine that was seen by Russia as an existential threat. Putin warned that NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine was “a direct threat” to Russian security, and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned the West that Russia would do "everything possible" to prevent Georgia and Ukraine from becoming NATO members.

Abkhazia and South Odessa were ethnic Russian regions of Georgia that had declared independence in the 1990’s. Putin had long warned the US that "If Georgia causes bloodshed in Ossetia, I will have no alternative to recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia and responding with force."

In August 2008, as was not uncommon, skirmishes broke out between Georgia and South Ossetia. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observers reported Georgian military units and GRAD rocket launchers heading toward the border.

On August 7 at 6:40 in the afternoon, Georgia declared a unilateral ceasefire, allegedly to prevent further escalation. But then, just five hours later, Georgia launched an attack on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. The attack took Russia by surprise. It included rockets and artillery attacks, including attacks on residential areas, followed by an invasion by 1,500 troops.

Georgia claimed that Ossetia had been shelling Georgian villages. OSCE observers on the ground said that was not true. The European Union Independent Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia found that "None of the explanations given by the Georgian authorities in order to provide some form of legal justification of the attack" were legitimate. The report said "there was no Russian military invasion under way, which had to be stopped by Georgian military forces."

Georgia had been receiving political, economic and military support from the US. They had also received at least the suggestion of US support if they invaded.

Contrary to the version still frequently told in the West, the Georgian war was not a Russian invasion. It was a Russian response to a Georgian invasion. A war over ethnic Russian regions of a former Soviet member who had been promised NATO membership had been started by that nation’s violation of a ceasefire.

Ukraine has every reason not to trust Russia to honor a ceasefire. But the history of the conflicts in both Ukraine and Georgia suggests that Russia has no more reason to trust Ukraine and the West.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.