There are growing hints that Russian President Vladimir Putin is considering a negotiated outcome to the war in Ukraine. It is increasingly obvious that Russia cannot win decisively on the battlefield. The most likely outcome now is a stalemate. Even if Moscow somehow pulls off a victory, it would be pyrrhic. A Ukrainian insurgency will almost certainly arise in territory Russia tries to hold indefinitely. The war is becoming a massive drain on the Russian military and economy, and is eroding Russia’s already tenuous claim to be a great power.
The best thing Russia could do is stop and get out. That would stanch the bleeding. Putin himself though would almost certainly prefer to double-down. He has tied his legacy to this war, and his Chinese ally is watching. If Beijing thinks he cannot beat a third-rate military on his border, it might cut him loose.
This suggests Putin might take some kind of face-saving deal. The longer the war drags on, the less Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will want to compromise. War losses will harden his anger and negotiating position. A deal opportunity is most likely right now. Current terms might include:
The Indefinite Neutrality of Ukraine
Even Zelensky now seems to grasp that any kind of deal with Russia with Putin in charge must include this. Specifically, this means Ukraine will not join NATO. Perhaps, to sweeten that concession for Zelensky, a time-frame could be placed on it – twenty or thirty years (that is, after Putin’s passing). After that time, NATO and Ukraine would be permitted to discuss accession; accession would not be automatic.
But if Russia gets a no-NATO pledge, it must in turn accept Ukrainian membership in the European Union. The EU might not take Ukraine. It has rejected other countries before. But Ukraine’s battlefield effort was to keep open some channels to the West. An economic relationship is less concerning to Moscow than a military one. Ukrainian heroism has earned this right. Zelensky will almost certainly reject a deal that forecloses both NATO and EU membership.
Russia Gets Crimea or Donbas, but Not Both
The most painful Ukrainian concession will likely be the formal recognition of some Russian territorial conquest. This is also deeply unsettling for the international order. A fairly robust postwar principle of international relations, particularly in Europe, has been a refusal to accept the use of force to re-draw boundaries. This is one reason Putin faced sanction for his 2014 land-grab of Crimea, which Ukraine and the West have never recognized.
Putin supplemented that by stirring up trouble in Ukraine’s east. He very clearly wants both his Crimean anschluss and Donbas separatism recognized as part of his war goals. He should not be given both.
Indeed, he should not be given either, of course – but this is almost certainly a must-have for Putin. He will not stop the war without some territorial acquisition. This will be how he defends the war back home and justifies its sacrifice to unhappy citizens and elites.
Crimea is already long-gone. Even a successor to Putin – one less nationalistic and aggrieved – is unlikely to return it. Zelensky should consider swapping that acceptance of reality for better terms elsewhere. Russia would be required to withdraw from all of its conquests in this conflict, including in Donbas
A Russian Indemnity after Sanctions Relief
If Putin is to receive land for the use of force, then he should face some kind of compensatory burden. Putin’s military has done untold devastation to Ukraine in the war. It would be scandalous if it were simply to withdraw from broken cities at no cost.
Post-war Ukraine will almost certainly receive substantial Western aid, including from multilateral donors like the World Bank. But an unsanctioned Russia will be able to generate hard currency again with energy exports, and the war has not physically devasted its economy. Some of Russian support for Ukrainian reconstruction is required – perhaps from Russia’s substantial but now hard-to-access international reserves.
Part of this economic settlement is the lifting of sanctions on Russia. If the Russian army withdraws to its pre-war lines, all the sanctions imposed on it during the war should be dropped.
No Russian War Guilt or Deposition of Putin Himself
War reparations will be hard for Putin to bear. That should be made it easier by dropping any insistence on formal recognition of guilt or prosecution of Putin or Russia. US President Joseph Biden has hinted at that by calling Putin a ‘war criminal.’ Zelensky has hinted at it too by calling Putin’s war ‘genocide.’ And this will be hard to bear as Russia’s indiscriminate shelling of Ukraine’s cities certainly meets the definition of a war crime.
But the experience of Germany after the Versailles Treaty suggests how punishing terms can fire revanchist beliefs in the defeated. Putin is already flirting with open fascism. If Zelensky insists on investigations, or if the West insists Putin must go, Putin will not end the war.
Putin wants a demilitarized Ukraine, but it is very clear now that he cannot be trusted to respect Ukrainian sovereignty. Post-war demilitarization of Ukraine would invite Putin to attack again. If Ukraine cannot be in NATO – per Putin’s demand – it cannot also be defenseless.
This suggested deal is a messy, mixed bag. It does not sit well with Putin’s obvious war guilt, his military’s appalling behavior, and his drift toward fascism. But it does get Russia out of Ukraine, connect Ukraine with the West (via the EU), and allow it to arm itself to prevent a repeat.
Zelensky might hope that Western military help will arrive eventually, or that he can soon counter-attack as the Russian economy collapses under the pressure of sanctions. This is possible but still unlikely. The probable course of the war is a stalemate, with thousands more civilian casualties. The off-ramp suggested here is a superior alternative, for both sides.