Hanno Pevkur: False peace in Ukraine would plant a ticking time bomb

Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur.
Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The West's conduct over the next six months will be of crucial significance in terms of the fate of Ukraine's independence war. Ending support for Ukraine or proposing to sit down for peace talks would demonstrate the West's weakness which Russia would be quick to take advantage of, Estonia's Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur (Reform) writes.

Ukraine is entering its second winter of war. The Russian aggression is continuing in full force, while talk of negotiating with Russia is starting to surface. Even if someone is seriously considering holding such talks behind Ukraine's back, we would do well to understand that it could only lead to a false peace. That is why the free world's conduct over the next six months will determine not only how the scales will tip in this war, but will shape European, including Estonian, security in general.

A false peace would amount to self-deception and plant a ticking time bomb. That is why it is our position and task to continue working together on strengthening our defensive capacity and supporting Ukraine while serving as a professional example to allies.

War of attrition underway in Ukraine

Even though news from the Ukraine war has often been forced to take a back seat in the media recently, Russia is continuing its destructive efforts just as much as it has in the past 21 months. Hundreds die in Ukraine every day.

Russia is occupying a fifth of Ukraine, which is double what it had seized between 2014 and the start of the full-scale war last February. In addition to Crimea, it controls almost all of Luhansk Oblast, three-quarters of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, and well over half of Donetsk Oblast. The Buchas and Irpins are still happening, with efforts to terrorize the civilian population of the occupied oblasts continuing outside the view of the international public.

At the same time, Russia is not even attempting to deny or hide having deported 750,000 Ukrainian children or the idea of sending some of them to the front line. Russia's calculations are cold and cynical in trying to convince Ukraine, and the West in general, that it can keep the war going for longer and continue to inflict casualties and destruction until the other side gives in.

Russia believes in its strategy. Having lost well over 100,000 men in Ukraine, over 300,000 if we count the wounded, the majority of the Russian population still backs the Kremlin's aggression or is at best indifferent. Social numbness seems to have reached a point where there is no such thing as a pain threshold anymore.

Russia has the upper hand in terms of quantity on the battlefield, talking about artillery and air power; it has kick-started its military industrial complex and managed to secure munitions from North Korea. The Russian war machine is coughing and sputtering but it has learned from its mistakes and managed to dig its heels so deep in the soil of eastern and southern Ukraine as to render Ukraine's efforts to reclaim its territory extremely difficult, even with help from the West.

Russia's confidence is fueled by the sanctions situation. While they are still working, the West has stopped halfway in rendering them more effective, allowing Russia to take advantage of loopholes. We know from personal experience that the Russians are world champions when it comes to evasion. For example, only a small part of Russian oil is sold below the $60 price cap that is supposedly in place today.

The West's conduct over the next six months will be of crucial significance in terms of the fate of Ukraine's war of independence. An attempt to end the war and make peace cannot be ruled out.

Public opinion tends to be a good indication of future decisions. Support for helping Ukraine is visibly wavering in both the U.S. and Europe. It has fallen considerably among the U.S. Republicans who count more opponents than proponents in their ranks today.

Support for maintaining the effort has fallen to below 60 percent in Europe, even though the majority is still held by the proponents. We would do well to keep a close eye on narratives in the Western media suggesting, some more publicly than others, that the time has come to consider laying down arms.

But history teaches us that if one wants to talk about peace, it must first be served as a victory. Like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who in September of 1938, after signing the Munich Agreement, talked about "peace for our time." Scattered statements suggesting that Russia has already lost the war strategically, that it must not be destabilized, that Yevgeni Prigozhin would have been even worse, that we need to solve the third world food shortage or concentrate more on the Israel-Hamas conflict or China fit right into this context.

Suddenly, we can once again read about Ukrainian infighting, corruption, elections and casualties. Just 11 NATO allies out of 31 spend the required 2 percent of GDP on defense. These are all signs that Russia is perfectly capable of reading.

Significance for Estonia and the West in general

Russia's attack on Ukraine is the single greatest security challenge of the last decades. Wars eventually end in peace treaties, while peace in Ukraine must not be achieved on Russia's terms. That is why Ukraine must win this war and Russia be forced to pull back. Aggression must not pay as it only makes the villain hungrier.

Ending support for Ukraine or proposing to sit down for peace talks would demonstrate the West's weakness, which Russia would be quick to take advantage of. It would bring back the demands Russia made a few months before invading Ukraine. These are NATO pulling back to its 1997 borders, a public declaration to end NATO enlargement and Russia's greater say in European security architecture. This would put Estonia and the safety net currently guaranteeing our sovereignty back on the menu.

While Russia might be temporarily weakened, the important thing is making sure it will not come away from the war knowing its strategy worked. That it won and the West pulled back. Russia would have a million soldiers with battlefield experience, a military industry working under full steam, a more robust mobilization system and a national ideology based on revanchism. This development would in no way guarantee Russia settling for a fifth of Ukraine or refraining from ultimately putting NATO's resolve to the test.

What next?

We need to continue supporting Ukraine. There are also no hard facts to support the West pulling the plug. The Ramstein coalition's combined economy is 30 times the size of Russia's, while its defense spending is 13 times higher.

While the West has managed to raise tens of billions of euros in Ukraine aid, this pales in comparison to what was spent on overcoming the Covid crisis the effect of which on the U.S. economy alone is measured in the trillions.

Much touted war weariness can be explained by the media and its consumers' hunger for new stories rather than fundamentally turning our backs on Ukraine. Therefore, a clear, strong and visible message of the West's continued support for Ukraine is of critical importance. No less important is for allies to rapidly continue developing their own defensive capacity.

Estonia's national defense has entered a new era both in terms of personnel, weaponry and munitions. We are capable of posing military-strategic dilemmas for Russia, while Estonia's national defense is also far from ready. NATO has altered its defense posture and agreed on defensive plans but allies still have a long road to walk before those plans can be reliably put into practice.

I'm convinced that the West needs a convincing and universally clear strategy for long-term Ukraine support. Estonia has demonstrated, both in the million shells initiative and as a promoter of sanctions, that we have done the right thing in supporting Ukraine. Hopefully, we will be able to serve as motivation and help fill in this long-term strategy. More is at stake than simply making sure living in comfort will remain possible in the West for the coming decade.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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