On 11 February, I posted this on Facebook.

Putin does not want to start a new war, which will be a disaster for him and his country.  But Putin cannot back down and admit failure to persuade the West.  We need our leaders to find some form of words which will allow Putin to claim victory and give him an excuse to pull his troops back.

 On 24 February, Russia invaded Ukraine, and the world changed.

However, the fundamental issues have not changed.  Putin cannot be seen to back down.  He cannot afford to be defeated - as a dictator, he maintains his position precisely because he is seen as the man with the power.  Defeat means weakness, and weakness means that someone else will step up and claim the power - over Putin's dead body, perhaps metaphorically, but perhaps literally.

There are only two ways out of this conflict: external negotiation or internal coup.

An internal coup is not easy, but it is not impossible either.  Since invading Crimea, Putin has been isolating himself within the Kremlin, aware of his increasing weakness, and aware that he is driving Russia down a road with no way out.  But no one man is capable of running a country, controlling everything, on his own; you have to trust some people and some systems, otherwise you could never make any decisions.  And many rich and powerful people in Russia are seeing the economy collapse and their wealth threatened: they will not just  sit back, watching their wealth and power disintegrate - you do not become rich and powerful through being passive and hoping for the best.  At some point, somebody, or some group will act.

I would not be surprised to hear that Putin has resigned, and gone to live on some remote estate surrounded by a few trusted guards.  Or, perhaps more likely, that he has been found dead in his rooms, with a note saying how distressed he is by the suffering he has caused to his beloved Russia.  And, within a week, someone else will be selected and elected, and explaining to the world how Putin never had the support of the Russian people, and how the Russians were the prime victims of his crimes.  The new leader will talk about peace and withdraw Russian forces from Ukraine, but will probably prove to be a worse dictator than Putin.

Perhaps that sounds good.  But pushing Russia to lose face is not going to benefit our relationship with them in the long run, and the sort of person who is likely to emerge victorious from the behind-the-scenes fighting is unlikely to be kinder and friendlier than Putin was.  You may wish that Putin was gone, but beware what you wish for.  And we know very little about what is going on behind the scenes: while this may happen tomorrow, or next week, it also may not happen for a year or two.  How many people will die, and how much of Ukraine will be destroyed in the meantime?

The other option is that the war ends by negotiation, which means that Putin gets to claim success.  We find a way for Putin to save face, to broadcast to the world his tremendous victory, and bring his valiant army home, with medals and rejoicing all around.  We may not like 'giving' Putin the victory, but we really do not want the alternatives.  I believe that this has to be our goal, the objective that the Western nations should be working towards.

What might the negotiated peace look like?  Putin has declared that the Eastern regions are independent states, so recognize them, with Crimea, as such.  But these independent states might still be tied to Ukraine, in much the same way as Scotland is tied to the UK.  Recognize the use of the Russian language in these states, perhaps in much the same way as Welsh is recognized in Wales, publish guarantees that Russian speakers will "no longer" be persecuted.  Politicians are generally very good at writing agreements which appear to do one thing, but actually deliver something very different; we know what Putin said his aims were, and it doesn't seem that difficult to create the appearance of success.  What we really need is not more guns in Ukraine or a 'no fly zone', but a willingness to accept the appearance of failure in order to achieve a real peace.


[See also Ukraine]


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  • For five helpful and informed perspectives on what has happened leading up to the war in Ukraine, and what can be done about it now, please see this Guardian article: How do we solve a problem like Putin?

    How do we solve a problem like Putin? Five leading writers on Russia have their say
    The Russian president’s invasion of Ukraine threatens the safety of the entire world. Writers on Russian history and politics try to suggest a way fo…
  • A Facebook comment said:

    What about Putin and the Russian oligarchic mafiocracy's MAIN concern : Ukraine remaining unaligned and NOT joining NATO? Can negotiations be successful without that concession?

    NATO has been foolish over the years, but I do not believe it would be foolish enough to grant membership to Ukraine, at least not in my lifetime. Certainly no grown-up diplomat in a NATO member (with the possible exception of the USA...) would consider that a road they would want to travel down. Putin may be making a lot of noise about it, but was not a realistic possibility.

    Of course, politics being what it is, because NATO's non-expansion into Ukraine is so important to Putin, NATO's expansion into Ukraine gets raised as a serious possibility, so that we can get the maximum benefit in return for letting it go.


    • It's fine though for Belarus to be aligned to Russia with borders on Nato countries?


    • Unless you can somehow force a continuous line of countries to be non-aligned, it's inevitable that in places a West-aligned country will border a Russia-aligned country.  I don't see how to avoid that.

      I'm not saying that any aspect of this current mess is good, fine or acceptable: it is what it is, and our job (as I see it) is to find ways to make it better, and then do what we can to bring about that improvement.  One thing we can do is to encourage informed, ethical and realistic discussion of the problem and the possible ways forward.


  • I seriously doubt that Putin will ever let the eastern parts of Ukraine go. His goal is to have them recognised as independent, but then to install puppet goverments aligned to Russia. As he has in Belarus.  Adding those states to the Russian Federation is his goal, not allowing a new Ukrainian federation.  The reason Russia is fighting so hard to defeat the cities around the Black Sea is surely intended to give Russia the access to the area around the already annexed Crimea - and of course to cut Ukraine off from its ports.Odessa is the only remaining one - will it's history and its built heritage save it from aerial bombardment?

    I worry that the train is now running too fast to allow a saving of face reversal.

    An unjust peace is probably better than a just fight, but it is not our fight.  It is for the Ukrainians to decide the approach they want to take, and I can't see them accepting a big land grab by the country that has bombed their cities into oblivion.

    • I was trying to describe the sort of ground the peace negotiation will need to cover, not saying what I think the final agreement will actually be.  You are right, Putin wants the new states to be independent of Ukraine.  Perhaps they will be.  But I think you under-estimate Putin's current weakness.  The Russian economy and the Ruble are struggling, and in six months, if nothing changes, ordinary Russians will be struggling to get many of the goods they currently take for granted.  He needed to force people to come to a rally where they can appear to support him.  When a dictator has to force people to cheer, he knows things are not going well.

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