Putin is looking for an off ramp and has outlined his main terms.
In mid-March, it became clear that a full-blown Russian defeat in Ukraine was a real possibility. That possibility has grown in the past few weeks as the Russians have continued to perform shambolically in every way possible, and NATO has increased its military support for Ukraine. The scary open question was – and is – whether Russia would escalate in some fashion. There was speculation that Putin would declare a mobilization in his Victory Day speech, even though it is far from clear that a mobilization would be effective either militarily or politically.
In his speech yesterday, Putin did not declare a mobilization, or even lay the groundwork for one. Instead, he seemed to be laying the groundwork for a cease fire that would involve only rhetorical concessions from Ukraine and NATO. The key section:
Another punitive operation in Donbass, an invasion of our historic lands, including Crimea, was openly in the making. Kiev declared that it could attain nuclear weapons. The NATO bloc launched an active military build-up on the territories adjacent to us.
Thus, an absolutely unacceptable threat to us was steadily being created right on our borders. There was every indication that a clash with neo-Nazis and Banderites backed by the United States and their minions was unavoidable.
Let me repeat, we saw the military infrastructure being built up, hundreds of foreign advisors starting work, and regular supplies of cutting-edge weaponry being delivered from NATO countries. The threat grew every day.
Russia launched a pre-emptive strike at the aggression. It was a forced, timely and the only correct decision. A decision by a sovereign, strong and independent country.
Putin’s bottom line: Ukraine stays out of NATO, and Crimea remains in Russian hands (or perhaps he would even accept genuine self-determination for Crimea). NATO reiterates that its only concerns are defensive.
Putin will not be able to claim victory in a war of territorial conquest, but he can claim a victory in a defensive war against unprovoked aggression.
If this is right, we should allow Putin to save face and go home. We should not threaten him with prosecution (prosecuting others involved in war crimes is fine). As long as he remains in charge of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, deposing him is beyond our capability, and in any event his successor in the event of a collapse of his regime may be even worse than he is.
In the longer run, perhaps this catastrophic war will persuade Russians that their inclination towards authoritarianism is unjustified and they should work to rejoin democratic Europe. It will soon become clear that the consequences of isolation will be catastrophic for Russia. We should make clear that we would welcome them back into the democratic fold. Things could certainly go badly wrong, but after resisting any optimism on the war for weeks I really do see a path forward that is far from endless war and war crimes and totalitarian domination for Ukraine.