Wanted: An exit ramp from Ukraine for Russia

Efrem Lukatsky/AP
People negotiate an improvised path under a destroyed bridge while fleeing the town of Irpin, Ukraine, March 7, 2022. Russian artillery and rocket fire stymied efforts to create humanitarian corridors out of several cities to allow civilians to flee.
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“Exit ramp.” Amid Vladimir Putin’s escalating violence against Ukraine’s civilian population, it is a strangely detached term to use for the diplomatic search for a negotiated end to the Russian invasion.

Western diplomats have not given up the search for a way out that Mr. Putin could accept. But they face a “Putin paradox”: The prospect of a scorched-earth assault on Ukrainian cities makes peace an even more pressing priority. But scenes of ever worse violence will harden Western public opinion against any settlement that in any way seems to reward Mr. Putin.

Why We Wrote This

A deal to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not yet in the cards. But when the time comes for talks, Ukraine’s defiant resistance has earned it the leading voice in setting the West’s terms.

French President Emmanuel Macron and the leaders of Israel and Turkey are in touch with the Russian president, trying to gauge his mindset. But it is hard to see how, under the current circumstances, Russia’s likely demands could ever meet with Western acceptance.

Aside from anything else, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s defiance and his people’s determination to resist invaders have earned their country a worldwide reputation for bravery and independence. Ukraine itself is likely to have the last say about how, when, and whether to move toward any diplomatic exit ramp.

The term diplomats use – “exit ramp” – sounds almost shockingly detached amid Vladimir Putin’s escalating violence against the civilian population of Ukraine.

It’s shorthand for finding a negotiated formula to stop Russian attacks, and more specifically to provide Mr. Putin with sufficient political cover to call a halt to them. And while Washington and its European allies doubt that’s possible at the moment, they haven’t given up.

But they’re facing a “Putin paradox” that makes peace more pressing, but perhaps less possible.

Why We Wrote This

A deal to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not yet in the cards. But when the time comes for talks, Ukraine’s defiant resistance has earned it the leading voice in setting the West’s terms.

For there are growing signs Mr. Putin is ramping up the kind of scorched-earth assault his forces unleashed on the Chechen capital of Grozny more than two decades ago, and on Aleppo, Syria, in 2016.

On the one hand, that’s focusing Western diplomats’ minds on the need to pursue any realistic diplomatic avenue to halt the violence.

But the intensification of Russia’s assault is also apt to have another effect. Scenes of ever more terrible violence are likely to heighten horror and anger throughout the West. That will make it harder for Western leaders to pursue an agreement seen as in any way rewarding Mr. Putin for his actions.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson captured the conflicting pressures and priorities in an article for The New York Times on Sunday.

He wrote that the West should remain open to “diplomacy and de-escalation.”

French President Emmanuel Macron is in regular contact with the Russian leader, and the allies are taking an interest in Mr. Putin’s recent talks with two other leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

This doesn’t mean they’re close to an “exit ramp” plan. But they hope to get a sense, from Mr. Putin’s mindset, of whether such an option might ultimately prove possible.

But Mr. Johnson also added a caveat: “Putin’s act of aggression must fail and be seen to fail.”

Alberto Pezzali/Reuters
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left) and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (right) on Downing Street in London, March 7, 2022. The three leaders agreed to increase their military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

That’s a reminder that designing the shape of an “exit ramp” agreement, however complex, could still prove easier than securing the political conditions in which it would be possible to enact.

Fashioning such an accord would start with comparing what all sides might want, and what each might be willing to give up.

Mr. Putin’s wish list is clear: He wants to retain Crimea, annexed in 2014, and the self-styled breakaway “republics” in eastern Ukraine that he formally recognized before the invasion. He would, presumably, hope to hold on to a large chunk of whatever territory his forces held at the time any diplomatic effort began.

And he would doubtless insist on formal acceptance of the demand on which he ostensibly invaded: that Ukraine will never join NATO.

Western leaders might be able to come up with diplomatic wording to give ground on that last point. Ukraine was never likely to join NATO in the foreseeable future anyway. It’s even possible that a formula could be found to acknowledge that the Russian-backed eastern provinces are not likely to be reincorporated into Ukraine anytime soon.

A far trickier issue might be the unprecedentedly tough – and effective – sanctions that the West has imposed on Russia since the invasion. Mr. Putin wants them gone. The U.S. and its allies might consider the prospect of loosening some of them at some stage, but presumably only in coordination with proven Russian compliance with its own commitments.

It’s hard, though, to see how Western leaders could endorse Russian control over the towns and cities they’ve been attacking and terrorizing since the invasion began. And there’s one very bright red line: any acceptance of Mr. Putin’s claim that the freely elected government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is somehow illegitimate.

Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 6, 2022. His daily speeches are credited with sustaining his citizens' morale in the face of the Russian invasion.

That leads to the final – crucial – party to any such arrangement: Mr. Zelenskyy and, through him, the millions of Ukrainians whose livelihoods, or lives, have been lost to Russia’s onslaught.

As things now stand, the most that Ukrainians are ready – indeed eager – to explore is the prospect of cease-fire “corridors” to allow civilians who are trapped in cities under Russian bombardment to evacuate to safer areas of Ukraine.

As for Mr. Putin’s menu of territorial demands, they’ve long been anathema to Ukraine’s government, which sees them as an overt challenge to the country’s territorial integrity and independence. That conviction has only deepened since the Russian invasion.

If a serious negotiating process did get underway, Ukrainians hope that it would have been forced on Mr. Putin, if he were eventually obliged to accept that a comprehensive military victory is beyond his reach.

But officials in Kyiv know that it’s at least equally possible, amid the intensifying Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities and their residents, that they might feel morally obliged to negotiate in order to avoid unbearable levels of civilian suffering.

In the ordinary course of such diplomatic processes – the kind of crisis-resolution examples batted around in university courses – such a decision would be a product of potentially delicate talks between Ukraine and its key allies, the U.S. and European states. Those allies might very well press for concessions simply to avoid a dangerous escalation.

And that kind of discussion may well happen.

In ways Mr. Putin almost certainly didn’t anticipate, however, the political environment in Europe has changed seismically since his invasion.

Ukraine is indeed less powerful than its allies. Yet in a shift epitomized by Mr. Zelenskyy’s own passion, presence, and defiance, Ukraine has become, in the eyes of the wider world, exactly what Mr. Putin insisted it was not: an indisputably proud, brave, independent nation.

So it’s Ukraine itself that’s likely to have the last say about how, when, and whether to move toward any diplomatic offramp.

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