Geoffrey Roberts – Ten Reasons Why Putin Might Prefer the Risks of a Compromise Peace to the Costs of a Forever War with Ukraine and the West

As the tide of the war in Ukraine changes, what will be the criteria for peace for Russia?

Geoffrey Roberts is Emeritus Professor of History at University College Cork and a member of the Royal Irish Academy


  1. Russian Casualties: the BBC-Mediazona research indicates that Russia has lost 60,000-70,000 soldiers – four times as many as during 10 years of war in Afghanistan and more than the Americans lost in Vietnam. Russia’s force-conservation tactics and strategy are designed to minimise casualties but completing conquest of the Donbass may cost thousands more Russian lives. Capturing Kharkov and Odessa would be even more costly. Over-running and occupying Western Ukraine would require mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of additional troops. Ukraine’s casualties are far higher than Russia’s – a minimum of 200,00-250,000 and perhaps as many as 500,000 military dead. A Ukrainian military collapse is increasingly possible but Kiev just might, with Western support, be able to fight on for some time.
  2. The Nuclear Danger: atomic war threatens the very existence of Russia as well as the rest of the world. The war’s escalation into an all-out NATO-Russia conflict remains a real possibility. Never so high has been the danger of nuclear hostilities, or of a catastrophic incident involving Ukrainian (or Russian) nuclear power stations.
  3. Regime-Change in Kiev: the current Ukrainian regime will last as long as the war. Peace negotiations will be its downfall. Its replacement by an even more ultra-nationalist government is possible but would further weaken Western support – without which Ukraine cannot survive as a state. The odds favour a successor regime that will swallow the bitter pill of a peace settlement that suits Russia – an outcome that Ukrainian public opinion will hate but accept as the least bad alternative.
  4. Russian Public Opinion: Polling data indicates that the majority of Russia’s citizens will support the war for as long as it takes but would also like to see a ceasefire and peace negotiations as soon as possible. The dwindling, westernising section of the Russian elite is quiescent but it, too, will push in the same direction if and when a possible peace settlement appears on the horizon. A small, but vociferous and not insubstantial, minority of Russians favour total war and complete victory over Ukraine and the West. But Putin’s landslide re-election as Russian President shows he has power and popularity to over-ride these so-called turbo-patriots, though their agitation could hamper peace negotiations.
  5. Pressure from the Global South. Russia’s friends, allies, partners and well-wishers in the Global South oppose a long war and want a ceasefire as soon as possible. It is by no means certain that Ukraine and the West will ever court peace, but if and when they do, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and other independent actors will be a formidable lobby urging Putin to pick up the peace ball and run with it.
  6. Reconstruction of Incorporated Territories: the retention of Crimea and the four other incorporated provinces are the minimum Russian war aim. While its achievement is virtually guaranteed, it will be a pyrrhic victory if Moscow is unable to rapidly reconstruct and re-populate the devasted lands of southern and eastern Ukraine. The longer the war, the more mammoth that task. Putin went to war to destroy the growing Ukraine-NATO military bridgehead on Russia’s borders but also to protect pro-Russia Ukrainians. Ending the war may be the best way to guarantee their lives and livelihoods
  1. Slavic Solidarity: Putin’s July 2021 claim that Russians and Ukrainians are essentially the same people continues to provoke outrage in some quarters, even though it was a statement that at the time was supported by 40% of Ukraine’s citizens. Russia has fought the war under the banner of multi-nationalism not mono-ethnic nationalism. It has, for the most part, treated its Ukrainian opponents with respect. The identified enemies are Ukrainian neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists, corrupt officialdom, exploitative oligarchs and sell-outs to Western interests. Ideologically, Russia is committed to healing the wounds of war it has inflicted on what it still considers a brother nation. At best, such healing will take a very long time; a prolonged war could make the gulf between Russia and Ukraine unbridgeable for generations.
  1. Restoration of Russo-Western Commerce: Russia has weathered the Western sanctions war very well. Russia’s war-economy is booming and significantly out-performing Western arms manufacturers. New relationships and markets have been forged with China, India, Iran and other Global South countries. Russia has more economic and technological sovereignty than it did before the war. China, Russia and the non-Western world are challenging US global financial hegemony. But Western sanctions do hurt – ordinary Russians most of all – and the pain will likely intensify in the medium to long-term. Detached from and in conflict with the West, Russia can survive and even thrive, but greater prosperity and opportunity lies in ending Western sanctions and restoring commercial and trade ties.
  1. Global Co-operation. Russia and the West need each other to resolve a multitude of mutually pressing problems – nuclear proliferation, cross-border crime and international terrorism, dire environmental challenges, world health threats, global poverty and inequity.
  1. Birthing a New World Order: Putin aspires to an international system based on sovereignty, multipolarity, multilateralism, mutual security, international law and the re-balancing and re-invigoration of global and regional institutions. Immanent in his vision of the future is an implicit preference for benign spheres of influence in which great powers provide stability and order and help secure justice for all states. A new global order is within Russia’s grasp – provided it avoids the nightmare of a forever war that begets the Orwellian dystopia of a permanently divided world of warring blocs.

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1 Comment

  1. The Russians, thanks to the Ukrainian strikes on Russian territory, will need to widen the depth of the cordon sanitaire. For that reason, they will need to expand beyond Kharkov and they will need to take Odessa to stop the strikes on Crimea and the assets in the Black Sea.

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