Ukraine cannot control when it will next be attacked by Russia. But its military and its state leadership can decide how the on-going Russian invasion will end.

The liberation of Kherson and presence of President Volodymyr Zelensky in the liberated city tells us something about the logic of war, conquest and peace-making. The conqueror has only one advantage in his grasp – he decides when the conquest will begin. Where that conquest fails, any and all appeals for peace can only be pleas for honorable defeat.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been talking about peace with Ukraine for a long time. Since July, he has used “peace” rhetoric with enormous arrogance towards Ukraine. “We haven’t started anything yet in earnest,” he said, adding that those who reject peace negotiations must know that the further they go, the harder it will be for them to negotiate.

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He talked about peace on Sep. 30, at a performance in the Kremlin where he illegally admitted four breakaway Ukrainian regions into Russia. Again, he did so by humiliating Ukraine and its resistance in the process, calling on the “Kyiv regime” to “immediately cease fire and all hostilities and return to the negotiating table.”

For Ukraine’s part, there has not been much talk about peace negotiations. Sure, there has been pressure from Western allies such as France, but are these genuinely friendly calls from the West out of concern for the survival of Ukraine and its people, or calculating maneuvers stemming from domestic pressures such as rising inflation and gas prices?

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Liberation of Kherson and the true path to peace

The first utterance of peace talks in Ukraine came when a valid reason presented itself. The liberation of Kherson offered a visible and tangible indicator of the conditions for moving towards peace – namely the steady liberation of occupied zones in Ukraine ahead of a complete withdrawal of Russian forces from the territory of Ukraine. This is just as the United Nations called for with a majority of votes on March 2.

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Kherson brought back to the stage not only the logic of war and peace-making, but also common sense. The one who started the war, and especially the one who loses in that war, cannot decide when peace will come.

Putin could theoretically decide on peace in Ukraine today – it is enough for him to sign the decision on the withdrawal of his army from Ukraine, and there would be no need for further talks – but on his back is the burden of a huge self-deception under which he has led his entire nation and army. It is an adventure from which, today, he is frantically looking for a way out in order to stay in power. At the same time, he wants to preserve the legacy of his rule which is easily measured in billions of US dollars.

Zelensky, on the other hand, could not talk about peace and negotiations before he came to the liberated city of Kherson and told his countrymen that they were “ready for peace, peace for all their country” and that the victory in Kherson marks the beginning of the end of the war.

When Putin talks about peace, he sees it as an envelope in which he wants to wrap his defeat, then to present it decorated with a bow to his subjects as a glorious victory. When Zelensky talks about peace, he means a liberated country with the invaders driven out whatever the price.

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Putin’s calls for peace are the cries of a loser wanting to stay in the saddle, and that is why he is in a hurry to start negotiations. Zelensky’s peace rhetoric is focused on victory. That rhetoric is dosed; it does not end with the Kherson episode and will be intensified with each new liberation and each successive Russian withdrawal.

The scenes from liberated Kherson give Zelensky the right to prepare for new peace offers, but he will have to wait until there are further military victories on the ground.

Less than two months ago, Putin triumphantly admitted the Kherson region into the Russian Federation and said that it was “forever.” His “forever” lasted 40 days. He spoke about the “democratic choice” of the citizens of Kherson to live in Russia and celebrated an apparent 90 percent support for amalgamating with the country. Where did those 90 percent of citizens hide when Kherson was liberated? And who were the thousands of people who greeted the Ukrainian army with tears of joy and flowers in the center of the liberated city?

Putin should know that sooner or later the scenes from Kherson will be repeated in Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia – all those places he appropriated with a simple decree and a violent referendum, declaring the people “Russian citizens.” The more often he calls for peace and negotiations, the increasingly aware he is that his murderous adventure is going downhill.

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It is possible that Putin will remain immune to attacks of reality, but what he threatened towards Kyiv’s authorities in July will come back to him like a boomerang. The longer the current situation drags on, the harder and more expensive it will be for him to negotiate.

The reality is that, as long as the Russian army is on the territory of Ukraine, Putin’s calls for peace are fake, just like the referendums in the four occupied regions and supposed accession of these territories to Russia.

Putin’s peace initiatives are calls for a life belt to be thrown to a drowning man. Compromise in this sense would mean opening up space for the bully to get away with the crime he has committed. Ukraine can clearly see this and has rebuffed it by raising its national flag in the center of liberated Kherson.

This must be clearly seen by the West, especially those European leaders who would like to solve their internal problems by making concessions to the aggressive occupier of a sovereign European state.

The future of peace in Europe is being decided today with Kherson, and tomorrow it will be decided in Donbas, Zaporizhzhia and, of course, in Crimea.

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The end of the war can only be discussed when Ukraine makes that decision – not Putin. He already took his chance on that when deciding on the war’s beginning.

Dr. Orhan Dragaš is a Serbian expert on security and international relations. He is the founder and director of the International Security Institute, based in Belgrade; author of numerous expert articles, newspaper columns, as well as the books “The Modern Intelligence-Security Community, Utopia or Reality”; and; “Two Faces of Globalization – Truth and Deceptions.”

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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