Recent history demonstrates that Russian commitments to ceasefires and humanitarian corridors are tentative at best and deliberately manipulative at worst.
Late last week, an agreement was struck between the Ukrainian and Russian negotiating teams to establish so-called “humanitarian corridors” allowing civilians to evacuate from urban centres under attack from Russian forces.
Without much additional detail, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said these corridors were to be implemented in areas where the heaviest fighting is currently taking place. In response, Russia declared a ceasefire to allow civilians to evacuate from the besieged city of Mariupol on the Ukrainian Black Sea coast.
However, the deal quickly collapsed. Ukraine accused Russia of violating the agreement and even targeting the escape routes that were to be used. There were numerous other reported incidents of Russian forces deliberately targeting civilians attempting to escape, including a family fleeing advancing Russian forces on the outskirts of Kiev.
On Monday, March 7, Russia once again announced that there would be a cessation of hostilities the following morning in several Ukrainian cities, including Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Mariupol and the capital Kiev, to allow civilians to evacuate.
Many of the proposed evacuation routes lead towards Russia and Belarus, which Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk called "unacceptable." Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia denied the accusations and said: “ultimately it will be the choice of the people themselves where they want to be evacuated to.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed scepticism about the sincerity of Russia’s announcement.
If humanitarian corridors are actually to be implemented, not only would they represent a positive development for civilians in Ukraine but they could also provide space for further diplomatic openings, in the hope that tensions between Russia and Ukraine and Russia and the West could be cooled. Perhaps they could even pave the way to a more permanent solution.
President Vladimir Putin’s reported insistence on nothing short of Ukraine’s total surrender does not lend much hope in this regard.
The Syrian experience
Russia’s recent history of military intervention tells us that hopes to see such agreements implemented are likely overly hopeful and arguably naïve. Moscow has brokered similar “de-escalation” and “reconciliation” agreements in Syria since 2015, which more often than not ended up with Russia consolidating its positions on the ground.
A series of broken ceasefire agreements by the Russian-backed Syrian regime from 2016 onwards is demonstrative of Moscow’s disingenuous commitment to implementing such agreements. In opposition-held areas of the country, Russia and Russian-backed regime forces have on numerous occasions violated agreements brokered by Türkiye, while continuing to target key civilian infrastructure.
The Syrian experience has demonstrated that the Russian record of abiding by ceasefire agreements is tenuous at best, raising serious questions as to the willingness of Putin to adhere to any negotiated agreements on the ground that are not to his advantage. The most recent proposals of humanitarian corridors leading almost exclusively to Russian and Belarusian territory being a case in point.
Russia’s interests in Syria, ranging from ensuring the survival of the Assad regime to consolidating its strategic presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, were always at the forefront of Russian diplomatic efforts – including ceasefire and other agreements ostensibly taken in the name of providing some measure of humanitarian relief. While this may not be unique to Russian statecraft, the brutality and cynicism that characterised these efforts offer insight into what may come in Ukraine.
While civilians wishing to leave may well benefit from these humanitarian agreements, they certainly should not be taken as a gesture of goodwill from Moscow. As several experts on Russia have noted, Russian diplomacy has conventionally been used in conjunction with military and other forms of coercive power to push back against its opponent's resolve.
Paul Poast, a professor of International Relations at the University of Chicago, recently pointed out that Putin may have significantly miscalculated the extent of the Ukrainian resistance, and now finds himself in a position where he must double down on his efforts, if even his minimal objectives are to be achieved. This, of course, implies serious escalation.
Recognising the limits of extending analogies from Syria to Ukraine, the Syrian example demonstrates that Russia’s declaration of ceasefires to allow the establishment of humanitarian corridors may, in fact, be nothing more than an effort to buy its forces time to regroup and refocus.
Notably, on the same day that Ukraine and Russia agreed to establish these humanitarian corridors, Sergey Lavrov, Putin’s long-time foreign minister, said that Russia’s operation in Ukraine would continue until “the end.”
The same day, French President Emmanuel Macron held a phone call with Putin, in which the Russian leader reportedly reiterated Russia’s maximalist endeavours and ended with a source close to the French president saying that “the worst is yet to come.”
While the valiant Ukrainian response to the invasion is arguably primarily responsible for galvanising NATO and others to mount a campaign of support for the besieged country, more sober voices have provided insight into what we are likely to see as the conflict progresses.
The fact that Ukrainian forces have managed to significantly slow and bog down Russian advances has seemingly led to adjustments in Russian strategy towards what we have previously seen in Syria, but also in Chechnya; namely siege warfare involving the indiscriminate targeting of urban centres.
Policymakers should continue to pursue ceasefire and humanitarian corridors, but they should not fall into the complacency that characterised much of the thinking towards Russia’s intervention in Syria. The Syrian case has, unfortunately, shown us why.
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