Russian propaganda on the war against Ukraine illogically, but deliberately, combines three different narratives.
First, President Vladimir Putin insists that his goals for the “special military operation” remain unchanged. Ukraine must be “neutralized,” and a pro-Russian government will be installed in Kyiv (Interfax, December 14).
Second, Putin repeatedly confirms his readiness to engage in peace talks, accusing Kyiv of sabotaging the process and clarifying that such conversations could only be had under the conditions of Ukraine’s surrender (Vedomosti, December 23).
Third, and perhaps most ambiguously, the Kremlin sends deniable signals about possibly “freezing” hostilities while asserting that Russia would never give up its imperial “conquests” (RBC.ru, January 25; NV.ua, January 26).
The first and second narratives are aimed primarily at the domestic audience. Putin seeks to connect with both the war-mongering “patriots” and the silent majority, which increasingly wants to see an end to the war (Re: Russia, January 26). The strength of this preference is underscored by the long lines of potential voters eager to support Boris Nadezhdin, the only candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections who spouts “No more war!” as a slogan (Novaya Gazeta Europe, January 26).
The third narrative is partly intended to reassure China, which holds an increasingly dominant position in bilateral relations with Moscow (see EDM, December 5, 2023; January 22, 23; RIAC, January 5). Russian notions of a “frozen conflict” in Ukraine, however, are primarily aimed at fueling disagreements among Kyiv’s Western partners, which are being compelled to increase their support for sustaining the long war (see EDM, January 28). Kremlin propaganda eagerly amplifies every voice in the West that expresses doubts about shouldering this burden (Izvestia, January 27). Moscow hopes to split transatlantic unity by exploiting signs of “Ukraine fatigue” among compromise-minded Western policymakers and analysts (Valdai Club, January 25).
Statements from Nordic-Baltic leaders stressing the need to invest more in preparations for a possible direct confrontation with Moscow undercut Russian reports of weakening Western resolve (Topwar.ru, January 26). Swedish Civil Defense Minister Carl-Oskar Bohlin was the first to make this point publicly, arguing that the Russian threat would not be deterred by Sweden’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Kommersant, January 26). Norwegian Chief of Defense General Eirik Kristoffersen and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas reinforced Bohlin’s warning with precise assessments of the Russian threat (RIA Novosti, January 25; RBC.ru, January 16). For its part, Finland firmly supports the consolidated Nordic-Baltic stance. The leading candidates in the Finnish presidential elections, currently underway, agree on the proposition to fortify the shared border with Russia and argue that cross-border ties can only be restored if Moscow renounces its imperial ambitions (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 25).
The essence of this collective opinion is not that war with Russia is imminent. Instead, the Nordic-Baltic outlook stresses that any “freezing” of hostilities in Ukraine would grant Moscow time to reinforce its front-line forces and rebuild its badly damaged war machine at home (Kommersant, January 27). Europe’s determination to address all vulnerabilities is demonstrated by the large-scale NATO exercise Steadfast Defender-24. Moscow, which had to cancel the Zapad-2023 exercises last year, cannot replicate this show of strength (Izvestia, January 21).
The joint military exercises come as the European Union’s next debate on approving another aid package to Ukraine is fast approaching. The ultimate decision will be made at the special European Council summit on February 1, where objections from the Hungarian government appear set to be overruled (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 24). A positive result from Ukraine’s European partners may prompt the US Congress to break its deadlock over a complex funding package that includes $60 billion for Ukraine. It may also give fresh impetus to channeling frozen Russian financial assets toward Ukraine’s reconstruction (Forbes.ru, January 22).
Gradually shifting the dynamics of the war
These developments will gradually shift the dynamics of the war. If presently Kyiv struggles with shortages of artillery shells, air defense systems, manpower, and long-range capabilities, in a few months, the infusion of new aid will allow Kyiv to prepare adequate training and equipment for fresh Ukrainian battalions recruited according to Kyiv’s pending legislation on mobilization (Republic.ru, January 22; NV.ua, January 26).
This change of fortunes will give convincing power to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s peace plan discussed at the World Economic Forum in Davos (see EDM, January 16, 22; BFM.ru, January 16). Switzerland has agreed to host a summit on Zelenskyy’s “peace formula” later this year. The key task for Ukrainian diplomacy is to ensure China’s participation, though that still may not bring any real progress (TASS, January 26).
Türkiye is another important contributor to these discussions. Ankara desires to maintain the role of mediator between Ukraine and Russia, as it did with the Black Sea Grain Initiative (see EDM, September 13, November 3, 2022). The Turkish government cultivates a particular position within NATO, balancing its commitments to the alliance and relations with Moscow. Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan likely seeks to reassure his country’s NATO allies after finally ratifying Swedish membership (Rossiiskaya gazeta, January 25). Perhaps more worrisome from the Russian perspective is the recent Turkish-Bulgarian-Romanian agreement to organize a joint demining naval group in the Black Sea to ensure the security of grain shipments from Ukraine’s Odesa ports (Interfax, January 11; Focus.ua, January 26). Putin wants to dissuade Erdogan from supporting Ukrainian initiatives and has signaled his desire for a bilateral summit. The two presidents have not spoken since mid-October 2023, departing from the pattern of frequent phone calls (RIA Novosti, January 26).
Compromising the Ukrainian proposition for ending the war is just one of the goals of Russia’s diplomatic maneuvering. The Kremlin may still entertain the illusion that relentless military pressure will exhaust Ukrainian defensive capabilities and discourage the West from maintaining and expanding its support. In a couple of months, however, Moscow may conclude that Western unity is set to hold until the end of 2024.
The Kremlin’s propaganda narrative of “freezing” hostilities in Ukraine would then become a siren song to disorient Russia’s adversaries and an official directive to pause the war. A “frozen conflict” would allow Moscow to implement plans for further economic and social mobilization and further erosion of Western resolve to invest in supporting Ukraine. Zelenskyy seeks to preempt this “peace offensive,” but it is ultimately up to every member of the US-led coalition to commit to defeating Russia’s continuation of war by political means.