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Putin’s Peace Offer: Deal or No Deal?

Putin’s Peace Offer: Deal or No Deal?

On Friday, Russian president Vladimir Putin laid out a series of conditions that he said would bring a “final resolution” to the war in Ukraine.

The conditions, Putin said, “are very simple.” Ukraine must “completely” withdraw from the territory of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia and disavow any intention to join NATO. 

“As soon as Kiev announces that it is ready for such a solution and begins the real withdrawal of troops from these regions,” said Putin, “and also officially notifies [us] of the refusal of plans to join NATO, from our side, immediately, literally at that moment, an order will be given to cease fire and begin negotiations. I repeat: We will do this immediately.”

He continued:

Our principled position is as follows—neutral, non-aligned, non-nuclear status of Ukraine, its demilitarization and denazification, especially since these parameters were generally agreed upon during the Istanbul negotiations in 2022. 

While Putin guaranteed the “unhindered and safe withdrawal” of Ukrainian troops he also warned that if Ukraine and the “Western capitals” reject the offer, then they will bear the ultimate “political and moral responsibility for the continuation of the bloodshed.”

As might be expected, the response to Putin’s ukase was not encouraging. 

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin responded by saying, Putin “is not in any position to dictate to Ukraine what they must do to bring about a peace,” while Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni dismissed the overture as mere “propaganda.”

That said, if U.S. foreign policy wasn’t run by megalomaniacs, it would at least consider the plan, given that—as I’ve previously written—the matter of who governs Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia doesn’t concern us in the least.

And given the state of play on the ground in Ukraine—the economic ruin, the millions refugees, the hundreds of thousands of war casualties—Ukraine should consider taking this deal, but they will not for the simple fact that Zelensky would likely not survive if he did. The far-right ultras who, let’s remember, set off this conflagration in February 2014 would seek his (ultimate?) removal. And this is something they could now accomplish with at least a patina of legality since Zelensky has outstayed the length of his constitutional term in office, having refused to hold presidential elections in May. 

Putin’s most recent demands appear to be maximalist: If he is serious, then he is likely going to have to forcibly remove Ukraine’s forces from the territory he formally annexed before gaining total control over them. This will result in a prolonging, perhaps even—if the threats emanating out of Elysee Palace are to be believed—a widening of the war. 

Ideally, Ukrainian neutrality would be enough for Putin; Russia’s point about NATO expansion has been made. A key question is whether there is any room for Putin to moderate his demands? 

Indeed, as the esteemed Russia expert Nicolai N. Petro of the University of Rhode Island tells me, “Russia is offering something that Ukraine is not—a way to end the bloodshed; just withdraw troops. Note that no recognition of territorial concessions is being asked for.”

In the end it may come down to options, as in: Who has more of them? Despite the fulsome rhetoric coming out of last weekend’s “peace conference” near Lucerne, Switzerland, Zelensky seems to be running out of them, while Putin—with yet another six year mandate, a strong economy, the (implicit) backing of China, a larger army and population, and a military industrial complex churning at full blast—has quite a few more.

As professor Petro points out, “Putin’s proposal puts the lie to Western statements that Russia intends to conquer all of Ukraine, and from there will move to conquer all of Europe. He has explicitly limited Russia’s territorial objectives to the four partially occupied regions. Period.”

To some, Putin’s proposal seems designed for rejection, with the aim of laying the groundwork for a longer war. But the U.S. should not reject his peace feelers out of hand. 

The Biden administration, if it had any actual diplomats working for it, might try to use them as a starting point for negotiations. 

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