The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Don’t let Putin fool you — an aggressor can’t be a peacemaker

Firefighters work after a drone attack on buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday. (Roman Hrytsyna/AP)
6 min

Andriy Yermak is head of the presidential office of Ukraine.

This month, human rights campaigners from Ukraine won the Nobel Peace Prize for the first time in our country’s history. The symbolism of the award was strengthened by the fact it came on Vladimir Putin’s 70th birthday.

But for Ukraine, this event was significant for other reasons. Many of our people were upset that the prize was divided into three, with the other winners hailing from Russia and Belarus.

The other two groups are undoubtedly worthy winners; both have fought against tyranny and in support of human rights in their own lands. But they also come from the two aggressor states waging war against Ukraine. Such a combination evokes the idea, often touted by Russian imperialists, that Ukraine, Russia and Belarus are “brotherly nations” that naturally belong together and must be constantly encouraged to reconcile.

You might believe that resistance to this idea is ill-tempered. But Ukrainians have reasons to feel this way, for the story of the “brothers” has been repeated for years.

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Opinion writers on the war in Ukraine
Post Opinions provides commentary on the war in Ukraine from columnists with expertise in foreign policy, voices on the ground in Ukraine and more.
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Iuliia Mendel, a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, writes guest opinions from inside Ukraine. She has written about trauma, Ukraine’s “women warriors” and what it’s like for her fiance to go off to war.
Columnist Fareed Zakaria covers foreign affairs. His columns have reviewed the West’s strategy in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Josh Rogin covers foreign policy and national security. His columns have explored the geopolitical ramifications of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Max Boot covers national security. His columns have encouraged the West to continue its support for Ukraine’s resistance. Sign up to follow him.


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Since 2014, when Russia seized Crimea, we have heard calls for peaceful reconciliation. We have heard calls for diplomacy, as if we started this war. We are told that it is time to stop the bloodshed, as if we were the ones who want to fight. We are advised to prioritize the interests of humanity, as if we are threatening the world with a nuclear apocalypse.

After staging sham “referendums” in the occupied Ukrainian territories, Russia announced it was ready to “resume” negotiations with Ukraine and congratulated itself for these peacemaking efforts. Nearly all Russian high-ranking officials suddenly started talking of readiness for negotiations with Ukraine. What they are not talking about is the return of captured territories, the release of people deported from Ukraine against their will, the payment of compensation for damage caused by the war, and an agreement to extradite war criminals. Russia does not address these issues for one simple reason: Moscow wants to end the war as a winner.

Russian troops are retreating. Russia’s industry is short on resources, its economy is collapsing, and an urgent cessation of hostilities is the only way for Russia to save face. To this end, the Kremlin is ready to resort to nuclear blackmail while its useful idiots in the West mount louder and louder calls for peace.

Unfortunately, some seem to have heard its voice. Former and current politicians and influential business executives call for negotiations with the Kremlin. For the sake of peace. For the sake of the world. For the sake of humanity. But not for the sake of Ukraine. Nor for the sake of justice.

This is not the first time. Since the war began in February, the narrative has morphed from “Ukraine must disappear so that Russia can calm down” to “Ukraine must surrender so that Europe can stay warm.” Now the narrative has become “Ukraine must stop liberating its territories to prevent a new world war.”

Russia’s enablers should ask voters whether they can appease a regime that has perpetrated the most grievous act of state terrorism since the Second World War. Russia has launched thousands of cruise and ballistic missiles at peaceful cities (and 100 in just one of the recent daily attacks) — just as the Nazis did. Can civil societies in the West accept a regime that considers apartment buildings, museums and playgrounds legitimate targets?

Russia is flattening Ukrainian cities and destroying critical infrastructure, including dams and power plants. Against this background, the Kremlin is calling on the West to broker a deal to establish a new normal.

Cynically, Russia and its Western supporters are holding out an olive branch. Please do not be fooled: An aggressor cannot be a peacemaker.

Ukraine seeks peace. Ukraine longs for peace. But our conditions are known. We have voiced them many times. President Volodymyr Zelensky put it simply: punishment for the crime of aggression; protection of the “right to life, liberty and … security” as outlined by Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; restoration of Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity; security guarantees; and the global community’s determination to implement this program.

Ukraine will not succumb to peace by coercion. Ukraine needs clear guarantees that when Russia leaves the illegally occupied territories, it will never return. We believe any deal should start with respect for our right to self-determination, the inviolability of our sovereignty and the integrity of our borders. Without it, European security will always depend on the whims of whoever happens to reside in the Kremlin. And a significant number of Russian elites will always be obsessed with securing their own zone of exclusive interests, including Ukraine.

To give Russia what it wants would show that the West has not learned the lessons from this war. But the West has another option.

Ukraine’s security can never be subjected to geopolitical bargaining. We therefore call for the creation of the Kyiv Security Compact — a strategic partnership that will unite Ukraine and its guarantor states in the West. It will be based on the principle that Ukraine’s security depends primarily on its ability to defend itself.

This will require a multidecade effort of sustained investment in Ukraine’s defense and industrial base, scalable weapons transfers, and intelligence support from allies.

In the meantime, Ukraine wishes to join NATO as soon as possible. Our application is clear evidence of that. However, we will need guarantees of protection until we succeed.

Security guarantees should come from a core group of allied states with significant military capabilities. Both political and legal commitments are required. Along with military support, a broader set of nonmilitary, sanctions-based safeguards should be maintained by a wider group of international partners. We must ensure that the price of aggression will be too high for Russia. This should become the starting point for a new “great deal” on the part of the West.

Any other stance would mean an inevitable return to the world of illusions conjured up by the Kremlin.