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Would You Buy a Used Car From Vladimir Putin?
The Prigozhin affair offers the most recent example of why the Kremlin can’t be trusted.
Late last month, the plane carrying Wagner Group mercenary band head Yevgeny Prigozhin and several of his top henchmen fell from the skies over Russia in what U.S. intelligence agencies—and virtually every person with a passing knowledge of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin—believe to be a successful assassination attempt. It’s still unclear what, exactly, brought down Prigozhin’s jet; U.S. intelligence agencies maintain it was an on-board bomb or some other form of sabotage, while the Pentagon says it’s ruled out speculation that a surface-to-air missile was responsible. But Prigozhin had been living on borrowed time ever since he struck a deal with Putin to bring his abortive June rebellion against the Kremlin to an end.
It hard to understand why Prigozhin felt Putin would keep up his end of the bargain, especially given Putin’s long and bloody track record of murdering those who opposed or crossed him. The journalist Anna Politkovskaya, ex-spies Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, and opposition politician Alexei Navalny have been just some of Putin’s targets over the years. Since the start of the war in Ukraine alone, moreover, some two dozen Russian oligarchs and officials have fallen to their deaths from open windows under unclear but not-so-mysterious circumstances.
Most importantly, though, the Prigozhin affair dramatically illustrates the fundamental flaw at the heart of incessant calls for negotiations and ceasefires to “end the war” in Ukraine. Put simply, Putin does not feel bound to hold up his side of any deals he makes—and he often does not. Putin cannot be trusted to abide by any agreement he strikes.
No Ukrainian political leader in his or her right mind would agree to any deal that depends in whole or in part on Putin’s word. With his war against Ukraine, Putin has violated Russia’s formal obligations under the United Nations Charter as well as a number of other international agreements like the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 that govern security arrangements in Europe. Moscow also routinely disregards its obligations under treaties the Chemical Weapons Convention (Russia maintains a stockpile of the lethal chemical agent Novichok that it’s used in assassination attempts in recent years) and the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (Putin finally withdrew from the treaty in May after “suspending implementation” since 2007) without ever formally pulling out of these agreements. More the point for Ukraine, the Kremlin has also repeatedly violated commitments made in the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements despite significant Ukrainian concessions.
In other words, no rational person would buy a used car from Vladimir Putin—much less trust his word when it comes to matters of life and death or national survival. Moscow has an enormous credibility problem that makes real diplomacy next to impossible, especially when it’s so untethered from military and strategic realities.
It’s true that Ukraine’s counteroffensive hasn’t gone as fast or as far as many had hoped. But the counteroffensive remains very much in business, with Ukrainian forces recently penetrating the first and most hardened line of Russian defenses in the country’s south. Despite slow going, there’s no reason yet for Ukraine’s military to give up on its current counteroffensive just yet—much less throw in the towel on the entire war for an illusory peace with an untrustworthy autocrat that would leave swathes of Ukraine and countless Ukrainians under the thumb of a murderous Russian occupation.
For his part, Putin has not given up on his core objective of subordinating Ukraine to Russia despite the multiple setbacks he and his military have faced since launching his war against Ukraine in February 2022. On a number of occasions over the past summer, Putin stated he was open to talks with Ukraine—but only if his seizure of Ukrainian territory was not up for negotiation. He also pulled out of the internationally-brokered deal to keep Ukrainian grain flowing to global markets in July and rebuffed requests from African leaders to keep it in place. These are not the actions of a person or a regime interested in serious, good-faith negotiations to bring a conflict to a close.
In sum, there’s zero reason to believe that Putin would stick to any deal that doesn’t simply give him a victory he can’t win through force—and no reason for Ukraine to capitulate given the situation on the battlefield.
So where does that leave the United States and Ukraine’s other international supporters?
First and foremost, neither the United States nor its allies can or should concede or the principle that international borders can be changed through force. It’s been the bedrock of international relations since World War II, and it’s not one the United States and its allies can afford to let another major power like Russia successfully break. Any negotiated settlement to the war, however achieved, cannot end with Russia holding formal legal title to significant chunks of Ukrainian territory.
Indeed, full Russian military withdrawal from Ukraine ought to remain the top goal for U.S. policy and diplomacy. Other supposed solutions—like plebiscites held in Ukrainian territory claimed or occupied by Moscow—require Russian withdrawal as well as well as the return of displaced Ukrainians to their homes. As one Chatham House scholar put it, “Any outcome short of Russia’s expulsion from territories occupied since 24 February 2022 (at the minimum) will be read in Moscow as a victory and undermine confidence elsewhere.”
Second, the United States and its allies cannot and should not trust Putin’s word—especially when it comes to negotiations or deals surrounding Ukraine. He’s repeatedly demonstrated that his word is meaningless and that diplomatic agreements last only so long as they suit him. Statements by international gatherings like the recent G20 summit or the upcoming United Nations General Assembly may be nice, but they’re no substitute for winning the war or enforcing any deal that might be struck to end it. To do that, Moscow must make tangible, material, and significant concessions that don’t simply rely on its own goodwill if there’s to be any durable diplomatic agreement to end or even just pause the war in Ukraine. While Putin may have acknowledged that regime change Kyiv may be unrealistic at this moment, it’s hard to believe that he’s given up on this underlying goal.
That ultimately means the United States and its allies must continue to provide material military support to Ukraine over the long term and give it the sort of security guarantees that only NATO membership can truly provide. No peace deal negotiated with Vladimir Putin will be worth the paper it’s printed on, and it will be up to Kyiv and its international backers to enforce its terms—primarily through deterrence. Ukraine must be provided with the military means to keep Moscow from even thinking about reneging on any possible diplomatic settlement, military capabilities backstopped by membership in NATO.
Much of the groundwork for a long-term policy of deterrence has already been laid, albeit after much tortuous negotiation among the United States and its European allies. Kyiv has already received modern NATO-standard artillery systems (like HIMARS rocket launchers) and tanks (like the M1 Abrams and Leopard 2) and will receive modern F-16 fighters in the months ahead. The full range of U.S. and NATO systems should be made available to Ukraine, including long-range missile systems like the American ATACMS and German Taurus. Ukrainian membership in NATO, moreover, will serve to restrain any hotheads in Kyiv—and ought to reduce anxieties in Washington, Berlin, and other NATO capitals that Ukraine will use these weapons inappropriately.
Contrary to what some critics might claim, such support doesn’t undermine diplomacy—it enables it. Ukraine will be able to better swallow some difficult compromises for peace if it knows it will have a modern military and the world’s most capable alliance available to make sure an untrustworthy autocrat in Moscow abides by the terms of any agreement. Only when Ukraine feels secure enough to withstand Putin’s inevitable to attempt subordinate Kyiv to his own whims will peace be possible.