Give Putin An Off Ramp
War is as Clausewitz said the extension of politics by other means. It is not about emotion. It is not about fantasy endings with unconditional surrenders and total victory. It is about hard, real-world decisions.
It is time to make those kinds of decisions about the war in Ukraine. It is time to push aside all the jingoistic rhetoric and the propaganda from all sides and find a way to bring this thing to an end. It is time to find a way to end the fighting.
Putin invaded Ukraine with a clear plan. He intended to seize Kyiv and other major population centers in a matter of days, install a new pro-Russian puppet government and move on. The world would accept the fait accompli. Putin would hide behind the fiction that he had saved his brother Slav’s from the Nazis, and Ukraine would be the new Belarus.
Ukraine would be nominally independent but compliant. The real decisions would be made in Moscow. Putin would be one step closer to his fantasy of rebuilding the USSR, and the threat of Ukraine joining NATO would be removed forever.
It did not turn out that way. The Ukrainians had other ideas. They resisted. They put to good use a lot of weaponry like Javelin anti-tank missiles the West had poured in.
The Russians turned out to have some real military limitations. Their logistics fell apart. Vehicles ran out of gas. They failed to destroy Ukrainian air defenses. What was supposed to be a cakewalk turned into a slow-motion meat grinder of an offensive.
Putin knows that. His saber-rattling with nuclear weapons is not an indication of strength. It is an attempt to scare the West into backing off on continuing to provide support to Ukraine. He is pointing to his nuclear weapons, so we will quit and walk away. He is doing that because the support we are providing is working.
Three days ago, the Kremlin announced a series of conditions under which it would immediately end military operations inside Ukraine. Dmitry Peskov a spokesman for the Russian government said Moscow was demanding that Ukraine cease military action, change its constitution to enshrine neutrality, acknowledge Crimea as Russian territory, and recognize the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent states.
No one would suggest simply accepting the Russian terms as tendered, but as a starting point, they give every reason for optimism. Two weeks ago, Putin was expecting to be celebrating a brilliant military success. Now is announcing he would be happy for the fight to just be over.
Let’s break down the terms the Russians have trotted out:
Ceasing Ukrainian military activity – Nobody is going to agree to Ukraine unilaterally standing down on military activity. Negotiating some kind of mutual armistice, though, does not seem impossible.
Changing the constitution to enshrine neutrality – What this boils down to is an assurance that the Russians think is durable that Ukraine will never join NATO. The chances Ukraine will join NATO are currently zero. No rational American administration wants Ukraine in NATO. Guaranteeing to go to war if Ukraine is ever attacked, which is what NATO membership would mean, does not serve any identifiable American national security interest.
Acknowledging Crimea as Russian territory – Leaving aside the tangled history of who actually owns Crimea, there is the cold, hard truth. The Russians control Crimea. They are not leaving. The Ukrainians are never going to get them out. Acknowledging Crimea is Russian amounts to admitting what is already true.
Recognizing the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent states – As with Crimea, this amounts to a demand that Ukraine admits what is already true. These areas along the Russian-Ukrainian border are effectively under the control of the Russian military. The Ukrainians are not going to kick them out and regain control. What Putin is demanding is that Ukraine accept the reality on the ground.
As a starting point for negotiations, frankly, the Russian conditions could hardly be more promising. They boil down largely to a demand that Ukraine recognizes existing borders and stay out of NATO. By agreeing to those terms Ukraine will not, in fact, be giving up anything. It is never going to take back the territories Russia is claiming, and it is never going to join NATO.
Does that mean the negotiations will be simple? Obviously, not. The devil as always will be in the details. Putin will make every attempt to evade clear commitments on his side. He will only negotiate in good faith at all if the pressure economically and militarily continues. In the end, though, Putin will do what is best for him and Russia. He is not mad. He is, like most Russian leaders, clear-eyed and pragmatic. He lost this round. He wants it to be over.
Putin is looking for an off-ramp. Give it to him.