Russia’s proposals to end the war/Special Military Operation amount to asking for Ukraine’s unconditional surrender and remaining under Russian influence thereafter. It is less the proposals which are interesting, more the fact that they have been made at all. And by Russia. The war has, so far at least, “developed not necessarily to [Russia’s] advantage“. And as Emperor Hirohito observed “the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.” Still, it is early days and if Russia is minded to be as brutal as it was in Chechnya and Syria, to pay no regard to the laws of war, to mine humanitarian corridors and use them for fighting rather than helping civilians, matters may change. It is not internet memes or speeches which win wars, after all, but men, material and weapons.
What might a negotiated settlement look like? What to do about Crimea? Or the Dombas region? Demilitarisation? Future alliances? Guarantees? All very interesting no doubt. But we’ve been here before with the 1994 Budapest Memorandum under which Ukraine was given assurances by Russia. Given everything Russia has done since while Putin has been in charge, of what value are any Russian assurances now or in the future? Russia has repeatedly lied in the lead up to this war. It has lied to its own people about what it is doing. It has called Ukrainians Nazis while making one of its first acts the bombing of the memorial at Babyn Yar, site of one of the worst WW2 Nazi atrocities. How can Ukraine trust such a violent, deceitful neighbour? And if trust is not there, how can any agreement possibly work?
Who is untrustworthy? Russia? Or its current leader? Perhaps there is no distinction between the two. It’s not as if Russia has ever been much blessed with peaceful trustworthy leaders, 1 or 2 exceptions aside. Perhaps aggression, paranoia and covetousness are inherent in Russia’s sense of itself and any leader will find himself drawn there, no matter how good his initial intentions. Even Gorbachev, despite his “Sinatra doctrine” for the Warsaw Pact countries, threatened Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in 1989 that their existence as nations might be in danger. Sound familiar?
But what if Russia and Putin could be detached? Might that provide the faintest glimmer of hope – that a less “tonto” leadership might emerge, that a start could be made towards a workable sustainable agreement with its neighbours, that Russia might start the journey back from isolation?
How might he be detached? His control seems total, the Duma quiescent and obedient, his internal police force willing to arrest thousands – from 82 year old Leningrad siege survivors via women nursing babies to primary school children. Who would dare mount a coup? Civil unrest or worse within Russia might make Putin more unstable and aggressive. Resignation or retirement seem unlikely. Even if Russia loses this war, he will remain angry, vengeful and determined to try again. The sort of defeat which results in a country’s wholesale reset – as happened to Germany -seems both improbable and the route to it far too dangerous to contemplate.
So what about making explicit – in private, if need be – that Putin has to go and that it is the only comfortable option for him. Make it easier for him by allowing him to disappear with his entourage (including the odious Lavrov) and, yes, some of his loot to one of Russia’s few friends (Syria?) to live out his years in whatever grandiosely vulgar socially distanced palace is available. Make it clear that without his departure there can be no agreement, no lifting of sanctions, no trade, no chance of any sort of vaguely normal relationship. If he hangs on, he risks an unhappy brutal ending. Signal to potential successors, to Russians that Russia and Putin are not synonymous. His crimes need not be theirs. There is a way back for them without him and his regime.
It may not work. His view of Russia and its neighbours may be more widely shared than we would like to think – and not simply because of government propaganda. It sticks in the craw of course. It is certainly not justice. A quiet ending is not what he or his victims deserve. He should be on trial for his crimes. As should his accomplices. Were he to have a Litvinenko-like ending or fall out of a third-floor window, it would be karma of a sort. Much of the world is in a “Russian warship. Go f**k yourself” mood. Why allow him the sort of old age he has denied so many of his victims? Why indeed. But if this were the only way to start the process of bringing an end to this war, why not take it?