Why Putin Remains Uninterested in Meaningful Negotiations with Ukraine

The following excerpt was originally published as part of the May 24, 2024, Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

Western media continues to report that Russian President Vladimir Putin is interested in a negotiated ceasefire in Ukraine, although Kremlin rhetoric and Russian military actions illustrate that Putin remains uninterested in meaningful negotiations and any settlement that would prevent him from pursuing the destruction of an independent Ukrainian state. Reuters reported on May 24 that four Russian sources who currently work or have worked with Putin stated that Putin is ready to negotiate a ceasefire that recognizes the current frontlines and that Putin is prepared to present the current amount of occupied Ukrainian territory as a Russian military victory to the Russian public.[1] Western media reported similar interest from Putin in a negotiated ceasefire or settlement based on statements from unspecified Russian sources with some level of alleged connection to Putin or the Kremlin in December 2023 and January and February 2024.[2] Western media has cited limited unspecified US and international officials as confirming that Putin has expressed interest in a ceasefire, although other Western media has reported that US sources have denied that there has been any official Russian outreach to the US on the matter.[3]

The Kremlin routinely feigns interest in meaningful negotiations as part of a longstanding information operation that aims to persuade the West to make concessions on Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty, and it is unclear if the unspecified Russian sources talking to Western media are advancing these efforts or accurately portraying Putin's interests and viewpoints.[4] ISW cannot determine the veracity of the Russian sources' claims about Putin's intentions, and these private anonymous statements contrast sharply with Russian official public rhetoric and action. Putin and the Kremlin have notably intensified their expansionist rhetoric about Ukraine since December 2023 and have increasingly indicated that Russia intends to conquer more territory in Ukraine and is committed to destroying Ukrainian statehood and identity completely.[5] Russian forces have conducted offensive operations in recent months that aim to make operationally significant advances and collapse the frontline, have opened a new front in Kharkiv Oblast (which Russia has not claimed through illegal annexation), and have sought to cause long-term damage to Ukrainian warfighting capabilities and economic potential in regular large-scale missile and drone strikes.[6] These military operations suggest that the Kremlin is more interested in achieving its long-term goal of maximalist victory in Ukraine than in any settlement that would immediately freeze the frontline where it is currently located. 

Russian sources that have spoken to Western media have also offered mutually contradictory characterizations of Putin's stance on negotiations. Reuters reported that a Russian source stated that Putin aims to take as much territory as possible in order to compel Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to negotiate, but another Russian source assessed that Putin is unwilling to negotiate with Zelensky.[7] Russian sources also told Reuters that Putin believes that the West will not give Ukraine enough weapons but understands that making any "dramatic" Russian advances would require another Russian nationwide mobilization.[8] Delays in Western security assistance have severely constrained Ukrainian defensive capabilities in recent months, and if Putin believes that there are limits to Western support for Ukraine, then he would logically conclude that such constraints could reemerge in the medium term and allow Russian forces with their current capabilities to make "dramatic" gains without conducting a wider mobilization of manpower or the Russian economy.[9] A Russian source stated that Putin is concerned that a longer war will generate more dissatisfied veterans with poor job prospects and economic situations that could generate domestic tensions, although this assessment is at odds with Russia's ongoing chronic labor shortages and the Kremlin's effort to prepare Russian society for a long war effort.[10] These contradictions cast further doubt on the accuracy with which these Russian sources are reflecting Putin's actual thinking.

These Russian sources notably highlighted territorial concessions as part of Putin's alleged envisioned ceasefire but have sparsely addressed the wider strategic objectives of Putin's war in Ukraine. Reuters reported that its Russian sources stated that Putin views Russia maintaining control over currently occupied Ukrainian territory as a non-negotiable basis for negotiations, and previous Western reporting about Putin's openness to negotiations has similarly highlighted Russian territorial desires.[11] Bloomberg reported in January that two unspecified sources close to the Kremlin stated that Putin signaled to senior US officials that he may be willing to drop demands for Ukraine’s “neutral status” and even may ultimately abandon his opposition to Ukraine’s NATO accession.[12] Russian demands for Ukrainian “neutrality” and a moratorium on NATO expansion have always been and continue to be one of Putin’s central justifications for his invasion of Ukraine and any hypothetical concession on these demands would represent a major strategic and rhetorical retreat on Putin’s behalf that Putin is extremely unlikely to be considering at this time.[13] Putin also launched his invasion of Ukraine to replace the Ukrainian government with one he determined appropriate and to "demilitarize" the Ukrainian military so that Russia could unilaterally impose its will on Ukraine in the future without facing significant Ukrainian resistance.[14] Russian sources that have talked about a ceasefire to Western media have not mentioned these two goals, which Kremlin officials regularly reiterate.[15] The repeated focus on the recognition of occupied Ukrainian territory as Russian territory does not indicate that Russia would drop these wider strategic objectives, however. A ceasefire that cedes currently occupied territory would concretize the idea that Ukrainian territorial integrity is negotiable, a precedent that the Kremlin would most certainly revisit to push for further territorial concessions and contest the idea of Ukrainian statehood altogether.[16]

A ceasefire does not preclude Russia from resuming its offensive campaign to destroy Ukrainian statehood, and Russia would use any ceasefire to prepare for future offensive operations within Ukraine. Russia’s military intervention in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014 violated numerous Russian international commitments to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including Russia’s recognition of Ukraine as an independent state in 1991 and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Russia specifically committed not to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty or territorial integrity.[17] There is no reason to assess that the Kremlin will respect any new agreement obliging Russia to not violate Ukrainian sovereignty or territorial integrity. A ceasefire would provide Russia with the opportunity to reconstitute degraded forces, divert manpower to large-scale expansion and reform efforts instead of ongoing fighting in Ukraine, and allow Russia to further mobilize its defense industrial base (DIB) without the constraints of immediate operational requirements in Ukraine.[18] Russia could use a ceasefire to prepare a force more suitable to pursue a subsequent series of offensive operations in pursuit of regime change, demilitarization, and conquest in Ukraine. A ceasefire would provide Ukraine opportunities of its own to address force generation and defense industrial capacity, to be sure, but the Kremlin may not unreasonably expect that a frozen frontline will make support for Ukraine less urgent and salient for the West and allow Russia to outpace Ukraine in preparing for a resumption of hostilities.

Russia is currently preparing for the possibility of a conventional war with NATO, and the Kremlin will likely view anything short of Ukrainian capitulation as an existential threat to Russia's ability to fight such a war.[19] Russian military leaders planning a war against NATO will have to assume that Ukraine might enter such a war on NATO’s behalf regardless of Ukraine’s membership status.[20] A front with NATO along Russia's entire western border with Europe presents the Russian military with serious challenges, as ISW has previously assessed, whereas a Ukrainian defeat would give Russia the ability to deploy its forces along Europe's entire eastern flank from the Black Sea to Finland.[21] Russian victory in Ukraine would not only remove the threat of Ukraine as a potential adversary during a possible conventional war with NATO but would also provide Russia with further resources and people to commit to a large-scale confrontation with NATO. Regardless of how Russian victory would partition Ukraine between Russian annexation and the Kremlin-controlled puppet state that would follow Putin's desired regime change, Russia would have access to millions more people it could impress into military service and the majority of Ukraine's resources and industrial capacity. Putin and the Kremlin therefore likely view victory in Ukraine as a prerequisite to being able to fight a war with NATO and any ceasefire or negotiated settlement short of full Ukrainian capitulation as a temporary pause in their effort to destroy an independent Ukrainian state.

The Kremlin will continue to feign interest in negotiations at critical moments in the war to influence Western decision-making on support for Ukraine and to continue efforts to extract preemptive concessions from the West. The Kremlin has repeatedly engaged in a large-scale reflexive control campaign that aims to influence Western decision-making.[22] Reflexive control is a key element in Russia's hybrid warfare toolkit and relies on shaping an adversary with targeted rhetoric and information operations in such a way that the adversary voluntarily takes actions that are advantageous to Russia.[23] Kremlin officials claimed that Russia was open to negotiations in December 2022, likely to delay the provision of Western tanks and other equipment essential for the continuation of Ukrainian mechanized counteroffensives.[24] Western reporting on Putin's alleged interest in negotiations in Winter 2023-2024 coincided with prolonged debates in the US about security assistance for Ukraine, and the Kremlin may have feigned interest in a ceasefire at this time to convince Western policymakers to pressure Ukraine to negotiate from a weakened position and agree to what would have very likely been a settlement that heavily favored Russia.[25] The Kremlin may again be feigning interest in negotiations in order to influence the ongoing Western debate about lifting restrictions on Ukraine's use of Western-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia and convince Western policymakers that changes in these restrictions may lead to Russian unwillingness to negotiate in the future. The Kremlin may also be feigning interest in negotiations again to preemptively influence any future Western discussions about the provision of the additional aid that Ukrainian forces will need to contest the initiative and launch their own counteroffensive operations in the medium term. ISW continues to assess that the consistent provision of key Western systems will play a crucial role in Ukraine's ability to contest the theater-wide initiative and conduct future counteroffensive operations.[26] US officials have recently stated that the resumption of US security assistance will help Ukrainian forces withstand Russian assaults throughout the rest of 2024 and that Ukrainian forces will look to conduct counteroffensive operations to recapture territory in 2025.[27]

[1] https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/putin-wants-ukraine-ceasefire-current-frontlines-sources-say-2024-05-24/

[2] https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/putin-wants-ukraine-ceasefire-current-frontlines-sources-say-2024-05-24/ ; https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/23/world/europe/putin-russia-ukraine-war-cease-fire.html ; https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/putins-suggestion-ukraine-ceasefire-rejected-by-united-states-sources-say-2024-02-13/ ; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2024-01-25/russia-ukraine-putin-signals-interest-in-discussing-end-to-war

[3] https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/putin-wants-ukraine-ceasefire-current-frontlines-sources-say-2024-05-24/ ; https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/23/world/europe/putin-russia-ukraine-war-cease-fire.html ; https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/putins-suggestion-ukraine-ceasefire-rejected-by-united-states-sources-say-2024-02-13/ ; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2024-01-25/russia-ukraine-putin-signals-interest-in-discussing-end-to-war 

[4] https://isw.pub/UkrWar040424 ; https://isw.pub/UkrWar021024 ; https://isw.pub/UkrWar020824

[5] https://isw.pub/UkrWar112823  ; https://isw.pub/UkrWar120123  ; https://isw.pub/UkrWar120823  ; https://isw.pub/UkrWar121023 ; https://isw.pub/UkrWar121323  ; https://isw.pub/UkrWar121423  ; https://isw.pub/UkrWar121723 ; https://isw.pub/UkrWar121923 ; https://isw.pub/UkrWar010224 ; https://isw.pub/UkrWar012724

[6] https://understandingwar.org/backgrounder/how-delays-western-aid-gave-russia-initiative-ukrainian-counteroffensive-kharkiv

[7] https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/putin-wants-ukraine-ceasefire-current-frontlines-sources-say-2024-05-24/

[8] https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/putin-wants-ukraine-ceasefire-current-frontlines-sources-say-2024-05-24/

[9] https://understandingwar.org/backgrounder/how-delays-western-aid-gave-russia-initiative-ukrainian-counteroffensive-kharkiv

[10] https://isw.pub/UkrWar041524 ; https://isw.pub/UkrWar012724 ; https://isw.pub/UkrWar011024

[11] https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/putin-wants-ukraine-ceasefire-current-frontlines-sources-say-2024-05-24/ ; https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/23/world/europe/putin-russia-ukraine-war-cease-fire.html ; https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/putins-suggestion-ukraine-ceasefire-rejected-by-united-states-sources-say-2024-02-13/ ; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2024-01-25/russia-ukraine-putin-signals-interest-in-discussing-end-to-war 

[12] https://isw.pub/UkrWar012624 ; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2024-01-25/russia-ukraine-putin-signals-interest-in-discussing-end-to-war  

[13] https://isw.pub/UkrWar012624

[14] https://isw.pub/UkrWar030124 ; https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-14-2024 ; https://isw.pub/UkrWar020824

[15] https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/putin-wants-ukraine-ceasefire-current-frontlines-sources-say-2024-05-24/ ; https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/23/world/europe/putin-russia-ukraine-war-cease-fire.html ; https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/putins-suggestion-ukraine-ceasefire-rejected-by-united-states-sources-say-2024-02-13/ ; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2024-01-25/russia-ukraine-putin-signals-interest-in-discussing-end-to-war  

[16] https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/kremlins-occupation-playbook-coerced-russification-and-ethnic-cleansing-occupied

[17] https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/Volume%203007/Part/volume-3007-I-52241.pdf

[18] https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russia%E2%80%99s-military-restructuring-and-expansion-hindered-ukraine-war ; https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-may-15-2024

[19] https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russia%E2%80%99s-military-restructuring-and-expansion-hindered-ukraine-war ; https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-may-15-2024

[20] https://understandingwar.org/backgrounder/america%E2%80%99s-stark-choice-ukraine-and-cost-letting-russia-win

[21] https://understandingwar.org/backgrounder/america%E2%80%99s-stark-choice-ukraine-and-cost-letting-russia-win

[22] https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/denying-russia%E2%80%99s-only-strategy-success

[23] https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/denying-russia%E2%80%99s-only-strategy-success

[24] https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-february-28-2023; https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-february-12-2023





[25] https://isw.pub/UkrWar122323 ; https://isw.pub/UkrWar121223 ; https://isw.pub/UkrWar010224 ; https://isw.pub/UkrWar010224

[26] https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-april-29-2024

[27] https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-may-5-2024