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Commentary: Putin should ‘save face’ and end Ukraine war while he still can

There is no off-ramp that US President Joe Biden can offer Vladimir Putin without rewarding Russia’s act of aggression. Only the Russian leader can reduce his ambitions and still claim victory, says James Carouso.

Commentary: Putin should ‘save face’ and end Ukraine war while he still can
Vladimir Putin takes the stage as Russians wave their national flag behind him. (Photo: POOL/AFP/Sergei Guneyev)

WASHINGTON: It has been more than two months since Russia sent troops into Ukraine. Facing mounting losses and slow, limited gains, Russian President Vladimir Putin “doesn’t have a way out right now”, said United States President Joe Biden on Monday (May 9), adding that he was “trying to figure out what we do about that”.

The war is clearly not going the way Putin wanted. Russia’s air force has not dominated the skies, its ground advances have been stalled by strong Ukrainian resistance, and its sanctions-hit economy is expected to shrink by 10 per cent, the worst contraction in nearly three decades.

Presumably, Biden’s statement reflects concern about the risks from an embarrassed Putin. To limit those risks, is there a way Putin can save face, even if he orders an end to his invasion?

RUSSIA IS ALREADY BACKTRACKING ON INVASION

Putin has already been forced to pull back from his aims of capturing Kyiv, installing a government subservient to Moscow and ending the concept of Ukraine as an entity separate from Russia. In March, Russia declared the first stage of their military plan completed and that efforts would be focused on the “main goal” of liberating the Donbas region. 

Now it appears that Putin’s immediate goals are reduced to claiming an enlarged territory for the vassal territories in Luhansk and Donetsk, securing a land bridge from Crimea and perhaps taking all the Ukrainian seacoast, including the important port of Odesa. This would leave a rump Ukraine which, presumably, could be expected to become poorer and an economic drain on the West. 

Would Putin again be willing to reduce his ambitions and simply stop near where his forces are currently deployed? After all, they have largely achieved much of the above goals except for the Ukraine coast. 

He could claim to have successfully “rescued” most Russian speakers (primarily in the Donbas and Crimea) from the “Nazi” Ukrainian regime. And control of the Sea of Azov by Russia has been achieved.

Declaring a Russian ceasefire might even work in Putin’s favour. A ceasefire could divide Ukraine’s Western backers along the line of those who want to “give peace a chance” and those who want to continue funding Ukrainian efforts to recover lost territory.

NO VIABLE “OFF-RAMPS”

But there is nothing Biden can offer to Putin to help him make the decision to stop. Any hint of appeasement will be seen (correctly) as rewarding Putin’s aggression and risk other countries, which were formerly part of the Russian empire, becoming future targets in Putin’s sights

The lessons of Sudetenland, when Germany was allowed to occupy part of Czechoslovakia in a bid to prevent World War II (unsuccessfully), are never far from the minds of historians and politicians.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly made clear that he has no intention of allowing Russia to keep any of the territories it has taken. Of course, it would be politically impossible for him to say otherwise – not to mention a terrible negotiating tactic.

But the reality of war could soften his stance, especially in peace talks, if the human and economic costs become too severe or he feels the West would no longer support him sufficiently in a long, protracted fight. 

Biden can only support a ceasefire if Zelenskyy agrees to one, possible if there is good reason, such as serious peace talks with Putin, mediated by the United Nations or another mutually acceptable third party. 

A hotel in Ukraine flattened by Russian bombs. (Photo: AFP/Genya SAVILOV)

DOES VLADIMIR PUTIN HAVE A WAY TO SAVE FACE?

Putin will not consider a ceasefire or halt military action if he believes he can still snatch a military victory. But the signs increasingly point to this being impossible: Russia will slowly lose a brutal war of attrition, unable to replace lost military equipment due to sanctions, while Ukraine receives increasing material from the West

So, it’s notable that Putin did not declare a full-scale war on Russia’s Victory Day, which would have ended all prospects of a negotiated peace. It looks like he is allowing room for a way out.

But a huge underlying problem arises: There is absolutely no confidence that Putin will keep to any negotiated agreement. After all, he took Crimea in 2008 and Donbas in 2014, all while claiming Russia had nothing to do with it.

In the run-up to the Ukraine invasion, declarations from the US and others that Russia was preparing to attack were met with fierce denials. Who could trust that any peace agreement with Putin would be kept over time?

This is why US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said that the US wants to see Russia “weakened” so that it cannot do this sort of thing again.

This could be achieved through continued Western sanctions that deny Russia access to technology and revenue to rebuild and modernise their military, building up the military resilience of nations on Russia’s periphery, enlarging NATO and responding to any Russian military preparations with greater speed and seriousness.

ONLY ONE REAL OPTION FOR THE WEST

Currently, there is no appetite among western countries to provide Putin with an off-ramp. It would be seen as an invitation to others to try similar adventures and effectively reward the execution and torture of civilians, rape and indiscriminate bombings that have included schools and hospitals.

So the West has only one real option: Keep adding economic, diplomatic and, through Ukraine, military pressure on Russia, to help Putin come to the conclusion the rest of the world has already come to – that Russia’s ultimate objectives in Ukraine are unattainable.

The sooner Putin does, the more room for manoeuvre he can have at the negotiation table before Ukraine rolls back Russian gains.

In reality, Putin only needs to save face with the Russian people. He already controls what Russians read and hear about the war, but that doesn’t stop parents from losing their sons or restocking empty supermarket shelves.

If Russians have already accepted that the war has been to stop Ukraine from becoming a nuclear-armed Nazi state bent on the genocide of Russian-speaking people, Putin can sell them any excuse for climbing down and still claim a great victory.

James Carouso is a Senior Fellow and Chair of the Australia Advisory Board at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC, and a former Acting US Ambassador to Australia.

Source: CNA/geh
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