The West may have to accept the Russian President crawling back to Moscow with his regime still alive, argues Mike Buckley

The twin aims of ending the war in Ukraine and punishing – perhaps even removing – Vladimir Putin are connected but not the same. 

The second is deservedly given air time. Western leaders now regularly speak of Putin’s downfall, or at least the mood of the Russian people turning against him. 

Putin “is a spent force in the world,” says Ben Wallace, British Defence Secretary. Wallace’s French counterpart declares “Ukraine will win”, while Boris Johnson says that Putin “must fail and be seen to fail”.

The desire to see Putin fail and if possible removed from office is a noble one. He presides, says Tom McTague in The Atlantic, over “a Mafia state: corrupt, kleptocratic, and violent, based on networks of loyalty and territorial claims that have nothing to do with popular will and must be opposed.” 

Putin’s paranoia over Ukraine’s choice to face West instead of East, combined with his fear of NATO, does nothing to justify his invasion of Ukraine or the decision to ignore a nation’s sovereignty.

But the moment is dangerous one; more dangerous, says McTague, than the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 to which this war is compared. Unlike Khrushchev, he says, “Putin has not simply walked up to a line but crossed it, unleashing a terror for which he should be held accountable.” 

Yet if the West views ending the war and punishing Putin as one and the same – and to be accomplished within the same timeframe – the risks are huge for Ukraine, Europe and beyond. 

Stephen Kotkin, a Russian historian, says that we need to find a way to “de-escalate”. The more “there’s nothing [for Putin] to lose the more he can raise the stakes,” he claims. 

Confronted with ever-tighter sanctions and growing Western support for Ukraine, Putin may level its cities as he levelled Grozny, Chechnya and Aleppo. He may decide that NATO has already effectively declared war on Russia, using it as pretext to strike NATO territory or to deploy chemical or nuclear weapons. 

Even a clear victory for the West would bring risks. There is no guarantee that Putin would fall; Chinese authoritarianism survived Tiananmen Square just as Bashar al-Assad remains President of Syria. And even if Putin is deposed, he is unlikely to be replaced by a recalcitrant, liberal leader to the West’s liking. 

The West must confront the reality that while its current strategy of sanctions plus support for Ukraine’s courageous resistance is necessary, it is unlikely to end the war. Ukraine will not be able to repel Russian forces. Sanctions will take time to bite. China will support the Russian economy, and possibly even its army. The longer the conflict goes on, the greater the losses in Ukraine and the greater the risk of escalation. 

The alternative is a negotiated outcome that some believe Putin is already positioning to accept, even as his bombardment of Ukraine’s cities becomes more extreme

“All conflicts end in [a] negotiated solution, that eventually [will] happen,” says BBC foreign correspondent Gabriel Gatehouse. Putin “can’t capture and hold the whole of Ukraine; it’s a non-starter”. 

Gatehouse points to the list of demands Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, recently announced, which were significantly less than Putin was demanding before the invasion. 

Militarily, too, Putin is not preparing for the long occupation of Ukraine needed to install a puppet regime. The Pentagon claim there is no evidence of additional troops heading for Ukraine from Belarus or Russia. Given Russian losses, less than 90% of Putin’s original forces remain at his disposal. 

“Perhaps [this] tells us the Russians are preparing… for peace,” says Gatehouse, and may “accept substantially less than they were asking for a couple of weeks ago”.

The big question, says Gatehouse, is “whether the Ukrainians would accept any negotiated solution” that would satisfy even reduced ambition from Putin. “At a minimum he is likely to demand the sovereignty of Crimea and separatist regions,” potentially with a commitment that Ukraine stay outside NATO and the EU. 


Calling Putin’s Bluff

Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has repeatedly indicated his willingness to compromise, perhaps all too aware that his appeals for NATO to supply heavier weapons or impose a no-fly zone will not be met. 

He has agreed to accept security guarantees that stop short of Ukraine’s long-term objective of NATO membership. 

Ukraine understands that it does not have an open door to join NATO yet, Zelenskiy said. “If we cannot enter through open doors we must cooperate with the associations with which we can, which will help us, protect us… and have separate guarantees.”

In negotiations, Zelenskiy may also promise not to send troops into Donbas or attempt to retake Crimea, to seek nuclear weapons or allow them to be stationed in Ukraine. By doing so, he would use some of Putin’s “absurd propaganda” to his advantage by committing not to do things that he wasn’t planning on doing anyway. 

Western leaders and populations may balk at even partial victory for Putin. Yet, Ukraine’s status as a western facing democracy is now assured – as is Russia’s pariah status. “Putin insists Ukraine and Russia are the same country, the same people,” says journalist Vitaly Shevchenko, but “that’s not what Ukrainians think. Ukrainians have seen what Russian forces do to their cities. There’s very little love lost now.” 

Sanctions may formally end but Western companies may choose never to return to Putin’s backyard. Russia will not be readmitted to the G7. The EU is likely to retain sanctions against some Russian individuals and, scarred by the war, will follow through on its commitment to end dependence on Russian oil and gas. 

The cost to Russia will be huge; sale of fossil fuel generates 56% of Russia’s export income and 39% of the federal budget. Nor does Putin have alternative markets that he can turn to. “Shifting gas sales to Chinese markets is not possible,” says Andriy Kobolyev, the head of Ukraine’s energy firm Naftogaz. “It might take 15 years to build the infrastructure. The existing pipeline to China is not connected to areas supplying Europe. [Russia] will lose 80% of revenues; a devastating blow.” 

Putin may also have created circumstances in which Ukraine can become a candidate country of the EU. 

When Zelenskiy signed the application to join days ago, he knew the EU would not accept a country with an outstanding claim to disputed or occupied territories. 

Some observers believe that the application was a de facto acceptance that Ukraine would not recover Crimea or Donbas through either military or diplomatic means. If giving up a claim to the regions is the price of EU membership, Zelenskiy may be willing to do so – to end the war and cement Ukraine’s status as a Western democracy. 

The EU has not dismissed the application, but decision has been deferred.

For now, such outcomes are no more than hopes. The talks achieve nothing while bombs continue to bombard Ukrainian cities. 

The West must tread carefully, keeping up the pressure on Russia through sanctions and military support for Ukraine while creating a path to meaningful negotiations.

Uncomfortable as it may seem, the best way to defeat Putin may be allowing him enough room to claim vindication in Moscow, while ending the conflict as swiftly as possible. Putin will suffer enough consequences, eventually costing his leadership. But, for now, the priority must be ending the war above all else. 

Mike Buckley is a freelance journalist and director of Campaign Central

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