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Is Putin banking on an endless war?

putin endless war

Let that sink in: 76 years after the combat of World War II ended, talks to finally declare peace between Russia and Japan collapsed late last month.

The two nations never reached a treaty because Russia refused to give up four islands the Soviet Union seized off the north coast of Japan in 1945. The Washington Post reported Thursday that thousands of Japanese people who fled the islands after that long-ago invasion are now seeing their dream of returning home dashed by the new tension over the war in Ukraine. Russia said it would withdraw from peace talks over the disputed territory in response to sanctions imposed by Japan after the invasion of Ukraine.

It’s a classic example of the “frozen conflicts” that have persisted in regions around the world long after the fighting stops.

Last week, missile attacks continued to pound Ukraine’s cities, despite a claim by the Russians that they were refocusing their strategy on warfare in the eastern part of the country. No one knows how the war will unfold and either side could win, but the chances may be good that it too will eventually become a frozen conflict.

Ukraine’s military intelligence chief last week suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to cleave western Ukraine from the Russian-separatist portions of the east and create a divide much like the one between North and South Korea.

That’s another frozen conflict, even though hostilities in the Korean War ended on July 27, 1953.

“For a brief moment this week, it seemed vaguely possible that Russia might ease its brutal onslaught in parts of Ukraine,” wrote Frida Ghitis. “After Russian envoys spoke to a Ukrainian delegation in Istanbul, Turkey, on Tuesday, the Russian deputy defense minister announced that Moscow would draw back its forces and ‘drastically reduce military activity’ around the cities of Kyiv and Chernihiv to boost ‘mutual trust.'”

“But those who have been paying close attention to Russia under its leader Vladimir Putin knew better than to take their word for it.” Can Putin’s word be trusted, Ghitis asked. “How do you negotiate with an interlocutor who lies routinely, repeatedly and without compunction? How do you negotiate with a regime that has a decades-long track record of breaking its international commitments?”

In the Financial Times, Edward Luce argued, “At some point, the west will have to talk to the enemy it has rather than the one it would like. That will mean doing some kind of a deal with Putin. The alternative — aiming for Russia’s unconditional surrender and the ejection of Putin — is a bet western leaders cannot afford to indulge.”

Luce noted that “Few believe Putin is ever likely to drop his ultimate ambition of swallowing Ukraine. Any deal, let alone a ceasefire, should thus be treated as a tactical pause.” His bleak outlook: “Ukraine could be forced to suffer months or even years of bloody stalemate.”

Lawrence Freedman, also writing in the FT, argued that “for now neither side has an incentive to commit to a long-term settlement. They are waiting for military breakthroughs and a clearer view on the likely course of the war. Should the prospect be one of a long stalemate, then both might feel obliged to compromise.”

In a conversation with Peter Bergen, retired US Major General Mike Repass said the Russian invasion “culminated” nearly a week ago, meaning that Putin’s forces “no longer have sufficient combat power to continue to advance in the offense.” But he added that the extent of losses on the Ukrainian side is not clear, which makes predicting the future course of the war extremely difficult.

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