Opinion | Putin’s Best Bet in Ukraine Is Negotiation

Opinion | Putin’s Best Bet in Ukraine Is Negotiation

Russia’s Ukraine gamble might have paid off if its original thesis had been correct: Ukraine was a fake country and rotten state, ready to fall gratefully into Russia’s hands.

This would have proved a lot of things—that Russia is a model for the future that somebody somewhere wants to be part of, that its neighborhood is full of countries and peoples that are naturally inclined to bend to its control.

But unless I miss my guess,

Vladimir Putin

knows nothing now would finish him off quicker than if domestic allies saw him reaching for a dangerous escalation of a botched war that no longer offers any upside for Russia, that is pursued only to save Mr. Putin’s face. He’s already tossed away 50 years of Soviet and Russian effort to build up a European gas business. This is enough damage for one episode.

Mr. Putin’s best bet is to negotiate—for starters, to get a cease-fire and then let the talks toward a final settlement drag on for 10 years, 20 years, however long he expects to be alive while he strives to rebuild his energy capital.

The question is much debated, but Mr. Putin can survive a failed war. The Russian dead mostly belong to his disposable classes and minorities from the provinces. We can assume he knows something about his situation. His conspicuous policy, to which everything else has been subordinated since the war went wrong, has been to anesthetize vital sectors of the population to the fact that a war is going on at all. Moscow and St. Petersburg’s privileged 17 million aren’t going to protest in the streets if he doesn’t conquer Ukraine. They might if he tries to drag their families into his deluded project.

He would still face hard-line pushback, but he’s turning 70 and was destined to face aging-dictator risk anyway. His chances are better by cutting his losses, but don’t expect to see it coming. He can’t show his hand prematurely because the other thing he can’t risk is being rebuffed and humiliated by

Volodymyr Zelensky.

For months, Mr. Putin has been holding out for a leverage-increasing development that hasn’t come: a military blunder by Ukraine and its Western allies, Europeans succumbing to energy panic. Even if a friend and ally were to rise to power now in Italy or another major European country, it wouldn’t deter the U.S., Brits, Eastern Europeans and even Germans from continuing to back Ukraine.

And unlike Mr. Putin, Ukraine has no trouble mobilizing its population behind the war. They fight willingly. The arms and training from the West are turning them into a local military superpower. Every story about a ballet dancer, poet or entrepreneur dying in battle compares with Russia’s dependence on goons and dolts. After being cagey about losses, Ukraine began describing 100 to 200 dead a day under Russian long-range shelling. I was skeptical. Why heavily man forward positions when Russia conspicuously lacked the infantry to follow up? But Ukraine could talk about its losses, possibly even exaggerate them, while Russia still must hide its own.

Ukraine’s obvious knack, to the lowliest foot soldier, is for the inventive, multidisciplinary warfare (including the information war) that prevails in the 21st century. Even Mr. Putin must be getting the picture, and the risk it portends of more defeats coming—perhaps explaining why he increasingly shuts out Russia’s formal military leadership in favor of consulting with his mercenary bosses.

His energy card can’t rescue him now, having waited too long to play it. Panic in Germany has given way to preparation and planning. As his “easy” war spun out of control, he turned to making sure the influential Russian middle class was minimally troubled by the conflict. Leaked last week was a video of Putin intimate

Yevgeny Prigozhin

in a prison yard trying to recruit paid fighters. Most telling was Mr. Prigozhin’s candid response to the leak: “It’s either private military companies and prisoners, or your children. Decide for yourself.”

These words, posted on social media, were aimed at the sophisticated Russia that gets its news from the internet, over the heads of the cannon fodder and their parents who wallow in propaganda-filled state TV.

Mr. Putin’s hardline backers were apoplectic over last week’s Ferris wheel episode—he was inaugurating a new one in Moscow while his troops in Ukraine were retreating.

“It is very important for people to have a chance to relax with their family and friends,” he explained. He could prove me wrong by instituting a national draft to throw the educated sons of Russia’s middle class on the pyre of his useless war. I doubt it. The real question now may not be whether Mr. Putin wants an out. It’s whether Ukrainian President Zelensky will give him one.

More than 400 bodies of mainly Ukrainian civilians have been found in the recently liberated city of Izyum, Kharkiv Oblast, while in nearby Balaklia, a victim of torture speaks out. Images: Shutterstock/AFP via Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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