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Three Paths Toward an Endgame for Putin’s War

21 September 2022 12:00:00 - Last updated: 21 September 2022 17:10:58

By Thomas L. Friedman

Last week was an interesting week to be in Europe talking to national security experts, officials and business executives about Ukraine. Ukraine and its allies had just forced Russian invaders into a chaotic retreat from a big chunk of territory, while the presidents of China and India had seemed to make clear to Vladimir Putin that the food and energy inflation his war has stoked was hurting their 2.7 billion people. On top of all that, one of Russia’s iconic pop stars told her 3.4 million followers on Instagram that the war was “turning our country into a pariah and worsening the lives of our citizens.”

In short, it was Putin’s worst week since he invaded Ukraine — without wisdom, justice, mercy or a Plan B.

And yet … maybe I was just hanging around the wrong people, but I detected a certain undertow of anxiety in many of my conversations with Ukraine’s European allies.

I learned long ago as a foreign correspondent that sometimes the news is in the noise, in what is being said and shouted, and sometimes the news is in the silence, in what isn’t being said at all. And my interpretation of what wasn’t being said last week went like this: Yes, it is great that Ukraine is pushing the Russians back some, but can you answer me the question that has been hanging out there since the fighting started: How does this war end with a stable result?
We still don’t know. As I probed that question in my conversations, I discerned three possible outcomes, some totally new, some familiar, but all coming with complicated and unpredictable side effects:

Outcome 1 is a total Ukrainian victory, which risks Putin doing something crazy as defeat and humiliation stare him in the face.

Outcome 2 is a dirty deal with Putin that secures a cease-fire and stops the destruction, but it risks splintering the Western allies and enraging many Ukrainians.

Outcome 3 is a less dirty deal — we go back to the lines where everyone was before Putin invaded in February. Ukraine might be ready to live with that, and maybe even the Russian people would, too, but Putin would have to be ousted first, because he would never abide the undeniable implication that his war was completely for naught.

The variance among these outcomes is profound, and few of us will not be affected by which way it goes. You may not be interested in the Ukraine war, but the Ukraine war will be interested in you, in your energy and food prices, and, most important, in your humanity, as even the “neutrals” — China and India — have discovered.

So let’s go under the hood of all three possible endings.

Outcome 1: No one expects the Ukrainian Army to be able to immediately follow up its substantial military gains of the past two weeks by just sweeping the rest of the Russian Army back across the border. But for the first time I could hear people asking: “What if the Russian Army actually collapses?”

Surely more than a few Russian soldiers, and the Russian-speaking Ukrainians who threw in their lot with them, thinking they would win and stay forever, are now asking themselves the John Kerry Vietnam War question: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Everyone can now see just what a big lie this whole war was. Everyone hears the stories that some of the reinforcements Putin is sending to the front are convicts who bartered their way out of prison by agreeing to fight in Ukraine for six months. Many others are mercenaries from as far away as Syria.

Wait a minute. If Ukraine really had become, as Putin claimed, a state led by “Nazis” and the spearhead of a NATO plan to push farther east toward the Russian motherland, how could Putin not ask the Russian people to mobilize for that fight? If the cause was so just and the war so necessary, why did Putin have to pay criminals and mercenaries to rise up and expect the middle classes of Moscow and Leningrad to just shut up?

People talk, and every Russian soldier or Russian-speaking Ukrainian who sided with Putin has to be thinking: “Do I stay? Do I run? Who will protect me if the front breaks?” Such an alliance is highly vulnerable to cascading collapse — first slowly and then quickly. Watch out.

Why? Because Putin has already alluded several times to being willing to contemplate using a nuclear weapon if Ukraine and its NATO allies start to overwhelm his forces and he is staring at complete humiliation. I sure hope the C.I.A. has a covert plan to interrupt Putin’s chain of command so no one would push the button.

Outcome 2: I cannot imagine President Volodymyr Zelensky accepting a cease-fire or something near it right now, with his forces currently having so much momentum and his having committed to recovering every inch of Ukrainian territory, including Crimea. But keep this outcome in the back of your mind as winter sets in and Putin’s refusal to sell natural gas to Europe drives up energy prices so high that it forces more factories to close and poorer Europeans to choose between heating and eating.

Even though it would mean Putin’s war gains fell far short of his goals, he may be interested in seizing this outcome, so he has at least something to show for all his losses and avoids total humiliation.

A lot of European leaders would grab this deal, even if they will not say so out loud. Here is how a retired senior European statesman, who spoke on condition of not being quoted by name, explained it at a business and politics seminar that I attended.

The goal of Ukraine is to win, he said. The goal of the European Union is a bit different. It is to have peace, and if there is a price for that, some leaders in Europe would be ready to pay the right price. The U.S. is far away, and for the U.S., he added, it is not the worst thing to keep the war going to weaken Russia and make certain it doesn’t have the energy for any other adventures.

To be sure, he added, the E.U. is more united than before the war started. However, in the next few months things will get quite
The goal of Ukraine is to win, he said. The goal of the European Union is a bit different. It is to have peace, and if there is a price for that, some leaders in Europe would be ready to pay the right price. The U.S. is far away, and for the U.S., he added, it is not the worst thing to keep the war going to weaken Russia and make certain it doesn’t have the energy for any other adventures.

To be sure, he added, the E.U. is more united than before the war started. However, in the next few months things will get quite difficult. There will be a big divide in the E.U. — and it will get more and more difficult because the goals will become more and more different, the former statesman said. Even if the public statements are the same, the E.U. is divided on how to deal with the war — not on the big question of whether Putin is right or there is a threat, but on how to deal with the whole situation, especially where the populist backlashes emerge when people get totally stressed this winter.

Some European leaders will begin to ask, “Is there a way out through negotiations?” Sure, some like the Baltic countries will 100 percent support Zelensky. But others will not care about freezing for Donetsk or Luhansk, he concluded.

As Michael Mandelbaum, the author of “The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy,” put it to me: Putin may smell this and decide that his best move to save a shred of dignity and “expose the divisions in the E.U. is by announcing that he is ready to negotiate a cease-fire in place and would resume gas shipments to the E.U. if a deal can be done. But this would surely require providing Zelensky with the inducement of permanent, binding security guarantees — perhaps full NATO membership.”

This outcome is dirty because it would mean that Putin got away with both murder and grand larceny, showing that he can change the borders of Europe by force. But if you don’t think some Europeans (and more than a few MAGA Republican members of Congress) wouldn’t seize it and press for it if the war stretches to winter, you are fooling yourself.

Putin seems to eyeing just this outcome, judging by his decision to call up thousands of reservists on Wednesday.

Outcome 3: This IS a less dirty deal, but with the Russian people, not Putin. In this scenario, NATO and the Ukrainians propose a cease-fire on the basis of the Feb. 24 lines: where Russia and Ukrainian forces stood before Putin’s invasion. Ukraine is spared more destruction, and the principle of the inadmissibility of changing borders by force is upheld. But Putin would have to admit to his people: “We suffered some 70,000 casualties, lost thousands of tanks and armored vehicles and experienced terrible economic sanctions — and I got you nothing.”

Of course, it is impossible to imagine him saying that. But such a deal could be in the interest of the Russian people. So, as far as I can imagine it, Putin would probably have to be ousted by a popular mass protest movement, or by a palace coup. All blame for the war could be pinned on him, and Russia could promise to be a good neighbor again if the West lifted its sanctions. Zelensky would have to give up his dream of recovering those areas of Ukraine seized by Russia in 2014, but Ukraine could begin healing and at least resume the process of joining the European Union, and maybe even NATO.

This was always Putin’s war. It was never the Russian people’s war. And while up to now the Russian people may think they have not paid a big price for staying silent, they are wrong.

When all the alleged Russian-perpetrated massacres in Ukraine are documented and shared with the world, the Russian people will not be able to escape what has been done by Putin in their name and to their names. When the fighting stops and the world demands that Russia’s foreign reserves now frozen in Western banks — some $300 billion — be diverted to Ukraine to rebuild its hospitals and bridges and schools destroyed by the Russian Army, the Russian people will start to understand that this war was not free. When the documentarians put together all the testimony of Ukrainian women who say they were raped by Russian soldiers, no Russian citizen will be able to travel the world without shame for a long time.

Again, I am not naïve. If Putin were somehow replaced by Alexei Navalny, the nationalist, anti-corruption and antiwar crusader, whom Putin is believed to have first poisoned and then eventually jailed, a cease-fire with Ukraine might still be difficult to negotiate or maintain. Moreover, repressive laws and a ruthless secret police, a lack of leaders and the legitimate fear that Putin would do to his own people what he is doing to Ukrainians all argue against Putin being run out office by a popular movement.

I am also aware that as part of this outcome Putin could be replaced by someone worse, someone from his ultranationalist right who claims that Putin did not fight hard enough or was sabotaged by his generals. Or, Putin could be replaced by a power vacuum and disorder — in a country with thousands of nuclear warheads.

But consider this extraordinary example of public protest against Putin, as reported last weekend by my Times colleagues who cover Russia, which tells you that these are extraordinary days for that country and could summon forth extraordinary responses: “Russia’s defining 20th-century pop star, Alla Pugacheva, declared her opposition to the invasion of Ukraine on Sunday, emerging as the most significant celebrity to come out against the war as President Vladimir V. Putin faces growing challenges on and off the battlefield. Ms. Pugacheva, who is 73, wrote in a post on Instagram, where she has 3.4 million followers, that Russians were dying in Ukraine for ‘illusory goals.’”

All of this helps explain the undertow I detected in Europe last week, the sense that this war could end in many different ways, some better, some worse, but none easy.

And that’s even without Outcome 4 — something no one can predict.