The fog of cease-fire

By Tara Sonenshine, Professor of Practice of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

Russian President Vladimir Putin loves attention. He just got some with a surprise announcement of a 36-hour “cease-fire,” saying his troops won’t engage in their war against Ukraine this weekend out of respect for the Russian Orthodox Christmas.

Why? Good public diplomacy dictates that when a religious leader makes a request, you respect it. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church recently asked Putin for a cease-fire so that troops could have time to worship. Many Orthodox Christians living in Russia and Ukraine observe Christmas on Jan. 6 and 7. With public opinion reportedly opposed to the Ukrainian war, which has taken countless Russian lives, Putin is engaging in propaganda tactics by seeming to be of generous spirit.

Thirty-six hours is not long, but it does give Putin’s military a chance to regroup considering recent losses in attacks on Russian airbases by the resilient Ukrainian forces. Ukraine’s military was recently replenished with American and NATO equipment, including the Patriot missile defense system to counter Russian drones and missile attacks that have devastated the Ukrainian electricity grid. Ukraine is also likely to get Bradley tanks from America to boost capabilities to respond to more Russian aggression.

But far from laying down arms, some observers foresee an escalation in coming days from Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is warning his public of a new mobilization effort by Putin, although U.S. defense officials seem skeptical.

Even without a major winter escalation, expect more drone warfare in the coming months. Ukraine is doing a good job downing Russia’s Iranian-made drones, but it is a costly endeavor to use surface-to-air missiles against cheap unmanned aerial vehicles — some estimate seven times more expensive.

A pause in the action leaves U.S. policymakers guessing right in the middle of a congressional fight over the Speakership. Putin loves games. Indeed, he also just sent a Russian warship into the Atlantic armed with hypersonic missiles, just to keep us on our toes.

American and Ukrainian officials are making it clear that the Russian cease-fire talk is just that — talk.  While diplomats would like nothing more than to find an offramp for this war, it is not likely to come from one side deciding to lay down arms.

But there are scenarios that suggest ending this war soon could leave Ukraine in a good bargaining position given its recent military gains. A recent Pentagon-commissioned study by the RAND Corporation assessed U.S. options for responding to different hypothetical scenarios, including a direct Russian attack on a NATO ally such as Poland or the use of nuclear weapons. Those hair-raising possibilities give support to those who want Ukraine and Russia to come to the negotiating table. 

For now, Zelensky shows no interest in a cease-fire or a diplomatic solution to a war that is entering its one-year mark, despite early predictions that Russia would quickly demolish Ukraine.

War is foggy. Competing narratives are still emerging from parts of Ukraine such as Bakhmut, where Ukrainian forces are trying to push Russian troops from the contested city.

Cease-fires are also foggy. Monitoring the cessation of hostilities is an art in and of itself. And a flawed cease-fire can create even more distrust between warring parties.

Nothing about this latest Russian offer seems genuine or promising. To the contrary, it raises false hope and needless chatter. Real peace requires both sides to find something of value in laying down their swords and turning them into the equivalent of ploughshares. 

One thing we should hope for in the coming days is resolution of the congressional fight here at home. It would be wise to swear in new members and get intelligence committees up and running to monitor all that Russia is doing.

This piece is republished from The Hill.

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