December 23, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Putin signals interest in Ukraine cease-fire, but is he serious?

Institute for the Study of War

The New York Times (NYT) – citing former and current senior Russian, US, and international officials – reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using back channels and intermediaries to signal his interest in a ceasefire, despite Putin’s recent public statements to the contrary. NYT reported that Western officials have been picking up renewed signals through backchannels since September 2023 that Putin is interested in a ceasefire that freezes the current frontlines, but noted that Western officials warned the backchannels could be “Kremlin misdirection” and may not reflect a “genuine willingness” to negotiate. NYT suggested several possible motivations Putin may have for his reported interest in a ceasefire: the upcoming March 2024 Russian presidential election, a desire to “keep his options open” regarding the war’s resolution and take advantage of perceived waning Western support for Ukraine, and the “distraction” of the Israel-Hamas war. All these motivations reflect temporary reasons why Putin might pursue a temporary ceasefire that would benefit Russia by allowing Russia the time to prepare for renewed aggression against Ukraine, as ISW has routinely assessed. The NYT noted that Putin’s public rhetoric, which has recently reasserted Russia’s maximalist objectives that are tantamount to full Ukrainian and Western surrender, is at odds with Putin’s reported private desire to “declare victory and move on.” Neither the NYT nor its sources offered any reason to believe Putin’s backchannel communications would be more reflective of his goals than his public speeches addressing domestic, Ukrainian, and international audiences. The NYT report also failed to make clear whether Putin’s alleged interest in a ceasefire is for a temporary pause or a permanent end to the war.

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told the NYT that “Russia continues to be ready [for negotiations], but exclusively for the achievement of its own goals” in response to a question about Russia’s willingness to negotiate a ceasefire on the current lines. Putin has recently reiterated that his maximalist objectives in Ukraine – “denazification,” “demilitarization,” and the imposition of a “neutral status” on Ukraine – remain unchanged, and Putin and senior Kremlin officials have increasingly expressed expansionist rhetoric indicating that Putin’s objectives do not preclude further Russian territorial conquests in Ukraine.

The timing of Putin’s reported interest in a ceasefire is more consistent with Russia’s ongoing efforts to delay and discourage further Western military assistance to Ukraine, than with a serious interest in ending the war other than with a full Russian victory. ISW observed similar Kremlin efforts to mislead Western policymakers into pressuring Ukraine to negotiate with Russia in winter 2022-2023, and effectively redirecting Western focus onto hypothetical negotiations rather than ensuring that Ukraine has sufficient materiel before its spring-summer counteroffensive. The Kremlin is likely using backchannels to achieve a similar effect amidst Western debates for further military aid to Ukraine.

Key Takeaways:

  • The New York Times (NYT) – citing former and current senior Russian, US, and international officials – reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using back channels and intermediaries to signal his interest in a ceasefire, despite Putin’s recent public statements to the contrary.
  • The timing of Putin’s reported interest in a ceasefire is more consistent with Russia’s ongoing efforts to delay and discourage further Western military assistance to Ukraine, than with a serious interest in ending the war other than with a full Russian victory.
  • Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky obliquely indicated that VDV forces are under significant pressure to conduct rapid offensive operations near Bakhmut and repel Ukrainian attacks on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast.
  • Teplinsky also implied that the Russian military command is deploying new VDV officers and troops promptly to the frontlines without having them complete pre-combat training. 
  • Russia’s Black Sea Fleet’s 810th Naval Infantry Brigade confirmed that it is deliberately using chemical weapons against Ukrainian forces in an apparent violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Russia is a party. 
  • Recent analysis by OSINT analyst MT Anderson confirms that while Russian forces have moved the bulk of Black Sea Fleet (BSF) assets away from occupied Sevastopol, the BSF maintains a limited naval presence in Sevastopol.
  • The Russian information space exploited news of a Ukrainian journalist’s decision not to return to Ukraine after an assignment abroad to amplify ongoing Russian information operations about resistance to full mobilization efforts in Ukraine that purposefully ignore the much more substantial Russian resistance to Russia’s partial mobilization of reservists in September 2022.
  • Russian milbloggers used the granting of Russian citizenship to Palestinian refugees on December 23 to promote the idea of Russia’s “compatriots abroad” – an oft-used Kremlin justification for its war in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces made recent confirmed advances near Kupyansk and Kreminna, northeast of Bakhmut, southwest of Donetsk City, and in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast and continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact.
  • Russian state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec subsidiary United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) Head Yuri Slyusar stated during a television interview on December 19 that UAC will increase its production of combat aircraft in 2024 and 2025, including its production of new types of aircraft.
  • Russian occupation authorities are building out electoral infrastructure in occupied Ukraine to set conditions for the upcoming presidential election.

For full report:  https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-december-23-2023 

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