Ukraine is widely expected to soon launch a counter-offensive to reclaim territory captured by Russia. And if Ukraine is successful on the battlefield, Russia may float a ceasefire proposal that more likely than not would be disingenuous and merely an attempt to stall for time.
These are some of the conclusions of a recent Red Team exercise conducted by the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG) which gathered a number of experts to predict Russia’s approach to a potential ceasefire negotiation. Joining me to discuss their findings and how a Russian ceasefire proposal might upend international support for Ukraine is Dr. Paul Williams, founder of Public International Law & Policy Group which is a pro bono law firm supporting states and governments involved in, among other things peace and ceasefire.
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Transcript lightly edited for clarity
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:03:23] So we are speaking ahead of a much anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive. Meanwhile, Russia is escalating the conflict by routinely targeting civilian infrastructure in major cities. Yet you argue this is nonetheless an important time to be thinking carefully about what a ceasefire agreement might entail. Why is that? Why does it make sense to think through a ceasefire now?
Paul Williams [00:04:30] Well, Mark, I think the reason why it’s important to get our heads around the consequences of any proposal for a ceasefire from Russia is that when it happens, it’s going to catch us off guard. All of the focus is on the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the length of this war. But if Russia starts to lose significant amounts of the territory that it’s occupied in Ukraine, they could put a ceasefire on the table in a heartbeat and that will unsettle the political and the military support for Ukraine.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:10] So essentially, if Ukraine is on the stronger footing — if it’s recapturing territory that was previously captured and controlled by Russia — Rrussia might then press for a ceasefire and then the international politics around the Ukraine conflict would sort of shift on a dime.
[00:05:30] Presumably the kind of unified Western support — more or less —- that we’re seeing for Ukraine may fissure if Russia puts a ceasefire agreement on the table. Is that what you’re suggesting?
Paul Williams [00:05:42] Yes, this is what we’ve seen happen in the past in the situation in Bosnia. We’ve also seen this happen in Syria, where the Russians were, and continue to be, heavily engaged in. We tend to think of a ceasefire as a beginning of a peace process, as the beginning of peace. The Russians historically think of ceasefires as a rest and rearm or as a political ploy to accomplish in the diplomatic arena what they’ve been unable to accomplish in the short term on the battlefield.
[00:06:16] So when the Russians approach the situation in Ukraine, they’re approaching it from the military perspective. And quite frankly, as we all know, they haven’t done so well and they know that they’re going to give it one or two last tries.
[00:06:31] But if they start to lose in a more dramatic fashion than they anticipate, they’ll just put a ceasefire on the table. And then you’ll have a situation where the Russians will say, “Well, hey, look, we’re not the aggressors. We shouldn’t be under sanctions. We’re proposing a ceasefire. We should sit down, we should talk.”.
[00:06:49] It’s going to be very difficult for Ukraine’s allies to continue to keep the sanctions, provide weapons, provide other type of intelligence support if the Russians are claiming that they want to sit down and talk peace.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:05] Are there specific countries or governments that count themselves as Ukraine allies that you think might perhaps go wobbly in the event of a sudden Russian ceasefire proposal?
Paul Williams [00:07:22] I have been very surprised, Marc — pleasantly surprised — at the degree to which the NATO’s allies have held it together. We have not seen this type of homogeneous support in a very, very long time. But this support might, in fact, be quite thin. But I think we should be concerned about France, Germany, and definitely Hungary. And with the Chinese trying to enter the peace negotiation arena, you even had Brazil a couple of days ago wanting to enter the arena as a mediator.
[00:07:56] You might find a very thin level of domestic support for a ceasefire in Hungary, France, Germany, and maybe even in the United States. I think the United States is full-on committed and the Americans understand that this is a war of aggression, involving stealing children and genocide. But you never know how something can be distorted in the political arena.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:16] And, of course, we’re entering an election season as well, in which it’s not unreasonable to assume that the Republican nominee may be perhaps softer on Ukraine than the Biden administration has been. So that’s worth noting as well.
Paul Williams [00:08:36] I completely agree. And I think it’s even a little worse than that. the fear or the projection that the Republican nominee might be softer. I think Biden is fully committed to this, and I think his security team is fully committed to this, but you could even see some waffling in the Democrats if they think they’re going to be outflanked by the Republicans.
[00:08:55] Now the good news is, to date, the Republicans that matter when it comes to national security understand what’s happening with the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and are fully on board with this.
[00:09:07] If the Russians all of a sudden pivot and declare that they’re the partners in peace, I think it’s going to be difficult to keep some of our European friends focused on the necessity of defeating what Russia is trying to accomplish in Ukraine.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:22] It’s just fascinating to think that one of Putin’s goals all along, vis-a-vis the West and NATO, was to find fissures and split the West and upend that unified NATO support for Ukraine. He’s been unable to do so thus far, but a sudden ceasefire proposal might just inject that fissure that he’s been looking for all along.
Paul Williams [00:09:50] Mark, I don’t want to be the Winnie the Pooh Eeyore at the party and say it’s not going as well as we think it is, but I’m a little worried because we have been so pleasantly surprised at the response of NATO and of America’s allies that we may fall into the trap of underestimating how fragile the cohesion among the NATO allies really is.
[00:10:15] I think the Ukrainians have done a phenomenal job militarily and politically. America and its NATO allies are doing an okay job politically. They haven’t brought the global South along like they could have. And the sanctions are effective, but they’re not really universal. And so I worry that the political acumen of America and its allies has not really been that effective. And Russia repositioning itself as a peacemaker could erode that.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:10:46] So you suggested earlier — and I think it’s probably the general and obvious consensus — that the circumstances in which Russia would press for a ceasefire is one in which they are starting to lose this counteroffensive, if they’re losing territory that they had once gained in eastern Ukraine. In terms of the contents or elements of that ceasefire, what did your Red Team exercise suggest about what Russia might want to include in a ceasefire agreement?
Paul Williams [00:11:18] The Red Team that we pulled together comprised a number of former diplomats and generals who’ve negotiated with the Russians, either in US-Russia negotiations on nuclear weapons or who have negotiated with and around the Russians in the Syria conflict and other areas. They were very sanguine about how clever the Russians are going to be with the ceasefire negotiations.
[00:11:43] When you think of a ceasefire negotiation, everyone thinks of a civil war. You stop, you freeze in place, and then you negotiate power sharing. That is the model that the Russians are going to put on the table. They’re going to skip over the fact that it’s a territorial war where the Russians have occupied Crimea, plus parts of four other provinces, or oblasts, in Ukraine.
[00:12:07] The Russians will roll it and say, “Let’s freeze in place.” They’re not going to talk about pulling their forces back. They’re simply going to say, “Let’s do a traditional ceasefire. Let’s freeze in place. Let’s begin a process of discussing how we will sort this out.” And then they’ll use that to rest, rearm, refresh their troops, try to loosen themselves from the sanctions.
[00:12:29] So the first step would be freeze in place. The second step would be saying “Okay, if we’re going to negotiate in good faith you have to take us out from under your thumb, NATO.” You have to relieve the economic sanctions. And then they would try to establish parity. “The Ukrainians can have this many in their armed forces and then our troops in Ukraine can have an equal number of personnel and equipment because it’s a ceasefire, it’s both sides. Everything should be equal. Equity is an important principle in ceasefires and they’ll sound very reasonable for the moment.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:04] Yet it seems that all of the elements you just described, claiming Ukrainian territory as their own by framing this as a more of a civil conflict by making demands on NATO and Ukrainian security, are likely to be nonstarters for Ukraine. Is that like the point?
Paul Williams [00:13:27] I think that is the point. And I think this is where the Ukrainians have been very clear. This is not a civil war. This is an occupation. For instance, at the moment, they’re requiring the upwards of 8 million Ukrainians in the occupied territories to take on Russian citizenship or be treated as foreigners and deported. They’re basically committing genocide by transitioning away the Ukrainian identity.
[00:13:54] And the Ukrainians see this in a very clear-eyed fashion and would realize that any cessation of hostilities — any ceasefire — would just allow the Russians more time and space to lock in that transformation of the culture and the population in those territories. And so the Ukrainians very clearly and very appropriately would say, “Well, let’s do a ceasefire after the summer offensive, after we’ve reclaimed the four provinces and then even Crimea.” We have to realize Crimea is still on the table.
[00:14:28] And that puts them in the unfortunate position of appearing to be an aggressor. Because, Mark, you’ve got your head into the Ukrainian conflict. Most of the listeners to this podcast will have their head around the complexities of the Ukrainian conflict.
[00:14:43] But if you’re the leader of one of the countries in the global south or and one of the countries that likes to perceive itself as neutral, you’re all of a sudden you’re going to say, “Well, wait a second, the Ukrainians want to continue the war and the Russians want to stop it. Are we supporting the wrong side here?”
[00:14:59] And that’s why it will be very important for the United States and its allies to continue to be clear that this is Ukrainian territory and the Ukrainians have a right to recapture that territory and to rescue their 8 million citizens that are under occupation.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:15:14] In your Red Team exercise, did you find there to be any elements of a ceasefire that Ukraine might want to pursue that would be acceptable to Russia?
Paul Williams [00:15:28] If push comes to shove, if the Ukrainians are forced into a situation where they have to negotiate a ceasefire with before they’ve reclaimed all of their territory — in particular, Crimea —the Ukrainians have indicated a willingness to enter into a long-term process for the return of Crimea. They will essentially hope for and wait for some type of, dare I say, democratic transition in Russia or simply a transition in Russia that would allow for a return of Crimea to Ukraine.
[00:16:07] So I want to be very careful not to say, “Oh, the Ukrainians should make these compromises.” They themselves have signaled that they see the two newly occupied territories, part of these two territories, as something that definitley must be returned to Ukraine. They’ve believe the two Donbass territories must definitely be returned to Ukraine, but with some type of devolution of power to the two Donbass territories, which they agreed to in the Minsk I and the Minsk II agreements, which were after 2014.
[00:16:37] Crimea is more difficult to crack both militarily and politically. Something which puts Crimea on a separate path to a restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty is something that the Russians would agree to because they’re simply going to wait it out as well. The Ukrainians, I think, might put that on the table.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:16:57] The idea is that Crimea is something that Ukraine is willing at least to kick down the road if it means a more immediate cessation of hostilities on terms that are more favorable to Ukraine in the near future.
Paul Williams [00:17:11] I think you’re right, Mark. Crimea is a difficult subject to talk about because it is Ukrainian territory, but it has been russified to a certain extent. The Ukrainians are quite keen on returning it territorially and politically to Ukraine. But it’s not essential in the short-term for their economic and political survival.
[00:17:35] Ukraine since 2014 has been quite keen for the return of Crimea, but it was still able to politically and economically progress. They’re going to need back these other four territories in order for Ukraine not to become a perpetually failed state or stuck in a perpetual frozen conflict. And that’s the other worry.
[00:17:56] We saw this in Georgia, where the Russians have occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which are territories that are part of Georgia. Georgia has never been able to fully develop economically or politically because Russia has two hands on its territory.
[00:18:13] Same with the concerns with Moldova and Transnistria, where the Russians occupy a part of that country. You could see this having devastating consequences for Ukraine’s future economic and political development unless you can pry those Russian hands from the fore occupied territories.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:31] So earlier, you noted that Russia’s key objective with a ceasefire agreement would be to lock in place whatever battlefield gains they have, but more importantly, use the ceasefire negotiations to rearm and rest. And presumably they would then resume nefarious activities, potentially even like a reconquest of parts of Ukraine. Is there anything that Ukraine and its allies can do in those negotiations to prevent or stop Russia from using ceasefire negotiations just to regroup so they can fight again?
Paul Williams [00:19:21] I think it’ll be very important for the Ukrainians. The words matter. I teach law school and I always like to tell my students, “Words matter,” especially in peace agreements and ceasefire agreements.
[00:19:33] Being very clear about the need for the Russians to remove their troops and their personnel from the Ukrainian territory is imperative. Then obviously have them replaced by monitors, by the United Nations monitors or OSCE — the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe —, so that they’re moved out of Ukraine. You could say even further back. I don’t think you could dictate to the Russians where they can put their troops inside of Russia, but at least moving their troops further out so that it would require a substantial effort to return to the battlefield.
[00:20:11] Most successful ceasefires have a DDR: demilitarization, demobilization, and reintegration of troops from the paramilitary or the rebel forces. You’re not going to get the Russians to reintegrate anywhere but you need to get them to move out of the territories that they’re currently occupying. Then you have to couple that with express acknowledgment that Ukraine as a sovereign state has a right to seek security guarantees with other countries.
[00:20:39] Now, I don’t want to go down the path of Ukraine NATO membership because that’s going to be a tricky conversation, along with EU membership. But you can still do certain security guarantees with the Ukrainians outside of NATO membership, which I believe should happen.
[00:20:55] But in a ceasefire, you want to make it clear that the ceasefire doesn’t limit Ukraine’s ability to pursue its self-defense by — in fact — resting and rearming, because Ukraine as a sovereign country has that right. Russia as an aggressor, would need to pull its troops back. Again, it depends how effective the summer offensive is in terms of how much the Ukrainians can pressure the Russians into accepting.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:21:19] I guess that also comes down to that central question that you keep mentioning, which is Russia’s credibility. Are they just pressing for a ceasefire just as a diplomatic stalling tactic or are they actually seriously interested in negotiating a ceasefire? And it sounds like more the former than the latter is is more likely to be true.
Paul Williams [00:21:43] So it’s definitely more likely to be the former, that they’ll use it for rest and rearm. I think the Ukrainians get this, it’s imperative that America and its allies think of it that way and start having that conversation. I can anticipate within days of the Ukrainian counteroffensive there will be calls from China, Brazil, other countries, political parties in Europe and the United States for a ceasefire.
[00:22:08] Though we should also be prepared for a stroke of luck that the Wagner Group decides this is actually a bad idea to be in this war in Ukraine, “There are more profitable places we could be engaged as a mercenary group.” The Wagner Group is, to a large degree, propping up what Russia’s been able to accomplish in Ukraine.
[00:22:28] Maybe the population of Russia finally comes around and says, “This is a actually bad idea,” or the oligarchs decide the same. The West has started repurposing the frozen assets of the oligarchs to provide for reconstruction for Ukraine. They can’t do it yet with the Russian central assets, although the United States and others are trying to figure out how to do that.
[00:22:48] But the oligarchs continue to lose their money, you may find a surprise change. Think back a year ago when the Russians were marching on Kyiv. We all thought they were going to take Kyiv. The Ukrainians put up an effective defense. We’ve all been surprised at the fact that the international community has called out Putin as a war criminal. The International Criminal Court has even indicted him as a war criminal.
[00:23:14] So I don’t want to be rainbows and unicorns, but sometimes good things happen. It may be that Russia gets pushed back on its back foot, it actually stumbles. And then you would have a serious ceasefire. Prepare for them to be nefarious, but also prepare a plan B in case Russia does stumble and needs to get out of this conflict.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:37] So I know you’ve studied the legal aspects of a potential ceasefire, but I want to ask you maybe a question about like the moral implications of a potentially disingenuous Russian ceasefire proposal. On the one hand, it’s disingenuous. And Russia will use that time to rest and rearm, as you say. But on the other hand, potentially, they are offering a cessation of hostilities.
[00:24:05] The stopping of these missiles raining down on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, killing civilians, and also the ending of killing of Russian soldiers who are conscripts and sent to the front line or, in the case of Wagner group, recruited from prisons as basic cannon fodder.
[00:24:23] There is almost a lot of good that could come from a sudden halt in the killing. And how do you weigh that against the potential negative outcomes that might come if Russia just uses the time to rest and rearm?
Paul Williams [00:24:41] No, you’re right, Mark. This is the moral conundrum that the Ukrainians and their allies are going to be facing because the narrative will be, “Well, wait a second, a ceasefire saves lives.” What you’re proposing is to continue the conflict. People will die. And we see this moral conundrum quite frequently with the question of international accountability — which I know you’ve addressed on a number of your podcasts already, in particular with respect to Ukraine.
[00:25:13] An issue there is, well, you’ve indicted so-and-so, and so it makes it more difficult to negotiate: think Bashir in Sudan, Milosevic in Yugoslavia, the resistance forces in Sierra Leone, and now Putin’s indicted. But the reality is, when you look back at cases such as Yemen where there was an amnesty, you had a second war.
[00:25:33] The war in Yemen, at the moment, it’s in large part because President Saleh was granted amnesty. You had a second war in Sierra Leone because the head of the revolutionary forces was granted amnesty. I think there’s parallels here. You can definitely make the moral argument that if you have a ceasefire, you save lives.
[00:25:54] But it will probably cost you more lives tomorrow. The 8 million Ukrainians under Russian occupation are likely to be again deported from their homes or “transitioned” into Russians through the Citizenship Act. So it’s a short-term gain for probably a more violent, more destructive long-term outcome.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:26:20] So I’m glad you referenced past conflicts and past ceasefire opportunities, because I did want to ask you if there are other recent historic examples of ceasefire agreements or elements of ceasefire agreements that might be useful for negotiators in the context of Russia and Ukraine. What have we learned from past ceasefire agreements that might be applied to a potential agreement between Russia and Ukraine?
Paul Williams [00:26:55] Well, Mark, I think we’ve learned from successful ceasefires and failed ceasefires. One of the most successful ceasefire agreements is in Colombia between the Colombian government and the FARC. They fought a decades long civil war and they reached a position of imbalance where the government had a persistent upper hand. Then, they made offers of demobilization, economic reintegration, political participation to the FARC.
[00:27:29] So they combined tilting the balance on the battlefield with inducements to coming out of the jungle — literally — and coming into government. But they also coupled it with a fairly robust accountability dimension. So you would be separating out those responsible for atrocities from those who were just essentially conscripted into the paramilitary.
[00:27:53] I think the successes from there could apply to Ukraine. Again, that was a civil war, Ukraine is territorial aggression. But as you move into a ceasefire, thinking about how you separate those that were conscripted, were forced into the military, or were trying to be professional military from those who were basically stealing children and moving them to Russia or engaged in indiscriminate attacks or bombing.
[00:28:22] So having some robust accountability mechanisms that basically separate the war criminals from those that were professional soldiers and finding ways to induce the Russians and others living in these occupied territories with a, let’s say, Russian perspective to stay and to remain integrated into Ukraine once those territories are returned.
[00:28:49] Now, on the flip side, in Sudan at the moment you have as many ceasefires as there are days of the month. None of them are sticking. One of the reason is they’re just negotiating among the guys with guns: the Sudan Armed Forces and the Rapid Response Forces. And these ceasefires don’t hold because there is no genuine holistic approach which takes into consideration the resistance committees or the local political officials — basically the civilian component.
[00:29:19] And so if you’re just doing a narrow ceasefire negotiation, you have to have the guys with guns committed to it. But you really need to have a holistic perspective of, “Does this meet the interests of the 45 million Ukrainians and does it also tie up Russia for some type of hopefully democratic tilt or democratic transition?” You can’t just cut a deal with the guys with guns.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:29:45] In the coming weeks and months as this anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive comes underway, what will suggest to you whether or not Russia and Putin in particular might indeed make that ceasefire push or do you expect it just to happen suddenly and without warning?
Paul Williams [00:30:08] We will be able to predict or foresee a pivot to a ceasefire based upon how effectively the Ukrainians utilize the American and European hardware that they’ve been accumulating these last few months: the Leopard Tanks, the American Abrams Tanks, the training that they’ve received in terms of integrating the Bradley fighting vehicles with their infantry.
[00:30:34] If they have remarkable and stunning success, that’s when the team at the U.S. government and NATO should be rapidly preparing an approach to ceasefire negotiations. The Russians, I think, anticipate that Ukraine will make slow and steady progress until they get to the end of the fall or the beginning of the winter.
[00:30:59] If they can still keep a substantial portion of the territory that they have and Crimea, then we’re looking at November for a proposal for a ceasefire talks. If the Ukrainians instead are highly effective — and if the Russians are maybe fairly demoralized or not tactically effective — and they start to push through Russian lines and recapture substantial amounts of territory, the Russians will pivot in a 24 hour window.
[00:31:28] The Russians are quite capable of that. So it really depends on how effective the Ukrainians are in those first two to three weeks of the counteroffensive.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:31:36] So essentially, as you started, it really all depends on the success of the Ukrainian counter offensive. But it could be a sudden pivot. If that sudden pivot happens, how do you recommend the U.S. government and NATO’s respond to a Russian ceasefire proposal?
Paul Williams [00:31:55] United States and its NATO’s allies need to be prepared with their talking points for success. They have to prepare for the moral dilemma which you outlined how to deal with the desires of the Global South, China — those there are slightly less committed to the territorial integrity of Ukraine. In Europe, forces less committed to backing Ukraine will raise those points instantaneously.
[00:32:23] So you’re going to find a situation where the leadership of Ukraine’s allies are going to need to be making the case for war. It’s pretty awkward to be making that case. Now, the good news is Ukrainians have been impressive in their commitment to international humanitarian law, basically the laws of war.
[00:32:45] Oftentimes, people will succumb to the cliche all sides are responsible, it’s very complicated. They’ll slip into accommodation and from accommodation they’ll slip into appeasement. One of the things that the allies of Ukraine should do every day is get up and remind the world that President Putin has been indicted by an international criminal court for war crimes related to the deportation, the stealing of Ukrainian children. That helps to focus people’s minds.
[00:33:23] This may be complicated, this may be a moral conundrum, but the head of one of the states has been indicted for these atrocity crimes. And the Ukrainians — again, to their credit — have really complied with NATO and Western standards for how one conducts a defensive operation.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:33:44] Is there any other point you want to make? Any question I didn’t ask that you wanted to address.
Paul Williams [00:33:48] It’s important for President Biden and America’s allies to remind on a daily basis the strategic importance of what Ukraine is doing to help Europe be safe and the moral division between an indicted war criminal, the president of Russia, and Ukrainians fighting to remove the yoke of occupation from 8 million Ukrainians.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:34:20] Thank you so much for your time. This is very helpful.
Paul Williams [00:34:23] I appreciate it very much.