When Ceasefires Don’t End Wars but Cause Them

For most of human history, ceasefires were viewed by all sides as temporary events in which violence was suspended for a certain time to allow for the combatants to retrieve their dead and wounded from the battlefield or to mark religious or other holidays. But in the decades since World War II, many in the international community have changed their view of ceasefires, viewing them instead not as a brief suspension of hostilities but as the proper first response to any outbreak of violence and as a necessary first step toward peace.

As admirable as stopping bloodshed is, there are three problems with this view, problems that those seeking ceasefires should be aware of even if they continue to pursue them to prevent a conflict from intensifying or spreading. First, the pursuit of ceasefires in response to violence almost always requires those doing so to understate the responsibility of one or another side for the war and thus reduce clarity about what is going on. As a result, this pursuit can lead to the acceptance of a kind of moral equivalence in a situation when there is a real aggressor and a real victim who deserve to be identified as such. And that in turn means the aggressor will find it even easier to continue his aggression while claiming to be interested in a ceasefire because those who want one will not want to challenge him on that lest talks break down.

Second, many ceasefires do not lead to peace but rather result in “frozen” conflicts where neither side sees it as the “confidence-building” measure many outsiders do but instead as an occasion for nursing one’s wounds and grievances and preparing for new attacks. The number of such conflicts around the world and in the post-Soviet space is so large that diplomats, analysts and commentators routinely refer to them as “frozen” conflicts, with the implicit and sometimes even explicit suggestion that they can be kept that way more or less forever. The likelihood of that, history suggests, is not nearly as high as the optimists would have it.

​And third, because an aggressor knows that the first response of the international community now will be the pursuit of a ceasefire rather than the repulsion of his actions, he will see the cost of attacking others as having fallen and the potential rewards of attacking as having grown larger – and consequently some aggressors may very well conclude that their use of violence is a useful way to achieve their ends and thus turn to war more often. To the extent that happens, ceasefires may not only fail to end any particular war but rather become the cause of more of them.

Do these considerations mean that no one should ever pursue a ceasefire? Of course not. No one wants to fail to stop killings when it is possible to do so with a ceasefire, but there are times when ceasefires are not the answer, especially if one side has no little or no interest in peace but only in creating another frozen conflict it will be able to exploit. An appreciation of that reality seems very much to be missing at the present time in the case of Ukraine. Those pushing for a ceasefire need to understand the ways in which what they are doing will be used by one side against the other and to recognize that at best they will achieve an armistice that will eventually be broken rather than a peace that will last.

As many have observed, sometimes violence can only be met by violence, and sometimes peace can only be achieved by being willing to employ it – rather than operating under the dangerous delusion that achieving a ceasefire with an aggressor will be enough.

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Paul Goble

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