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To end Russian-Ukrainian tensions, Vladimir Putin needs a way to save face

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To end Russian-Ukrainian tensions, Vladimir Putin needs a way to save face

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Ukraine is a self-made crisis of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and if it goes over the cliff as it might, he will have only himself to blame. But the West, especially America, must be sure that the Russian leader does not drag the rest of the world, especially Europe, to the brink as well.

There must be a way to give Putin an exit ramp. At this point, that is desperately lacking in President Joe Biden.

This means that it doesn’t matter who is responsible at this point – and there will be plenty of time to point fingers once those more than 100,000 Russian troops along the border with Ukraine start moving towards Kyiv, or home – there has to be a way to give Putin an exit ramp. At this point, that is desperately lacking in President Joe Biden.

There’s a long shopping list that could start to move things in a more positive direction, both carrot and stick. But so far there seems to have been only sticks. In recent days there have been a slew of direct threats from the United States – extreme sanctions, putting 8,500 troops on ‘enhanced readiness’ just in case NATO decides to activate its ‘response force’ “. Meanwhile, France has offered to send troops to Romania, Denmark is sending F-16 planes to Lithuania, the Netherlands F-35 planes to Bulgaria and Spain a frigate to the Black Sea.

More important is the carrot that allows Putin to save face and be able – especially for his most critical domestic audiences – to present himself and Russia as winners. It’s a concept that the United States has only too rarely understood: Putin, quite simply, wants respect.

“I don’t think America is the party that wants to solve” the Ukrainian crisis, Nina Khrushcheva of the New School told me in a phone interview. The great-granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who has just returned from a year in Moscow, added that “the Americans want to undermine Putin even more.” And this is not a path to a peaceful resolution.

It should be noted that then-President John F. Kennedy helped Khrushchev get out of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 by agreeing to withdraw US medium-range Jupiter missiles from Turkey, a member state of NATO. This should now serve as a model for Biden.

After all, Putin, for all his bluster, has to show some victory if he is to be persuaded to invade. With Covid-19 still raging at home and vast growing disparities in wealth, his nearly 20 years in power have shown little improvement in the lives of most Russians, which Putin has acknowledged to be his biggest worry. Indeed, much of that discontent has manifested itself in growing opposition from leaders such as the jailed Alexei Navalny, whom Putin has just branded a terrorist in his latest effort to stifle his growing following. Putin really needs some perception of a home win.

Certainly, the United States would like to encourage a multiparty system in Russia and regain some of the ground lost by Washington on a number of recent global issues. There are still recriminations for then-President Barack Obama’s inability to respond quickly and forcefully to Putin’s blitzkrieg takeover of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. More recently, l America itself lost face at the catastrophic outcome of the war in Afghanistan.

The new Russian threat to Ukraine, it seems, is a tailor-made crisis that allows Biden to stand up to Putin and show his spine, and perhaps further deflate Putin’s domestic position. Perhaps it could come at the right time to dethrone the Russian leader. But is it the right choice and is it the right time? Certainly not.

The world has a diplomatic device, already eight years old, that could serve as an exit ramp – an institution designed to allow diplomacy to take place away from the grip of American intervention: the Normandy Format. During D-Day celebrations in Normandy in 2014, Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France agreed to start informal four-way talks to resolve ongoing violence in eastern Ukraine. The United States was excluded, as the process was designed to be an intra-European effort.

Europe as a whole would like to ease tensions and allow diplomacy to take precedence more than the United States seems to want; unlike US troops on standby, European security measures are symbolic. And recent readings from the White House and the French Elysée after a joint call with other European allies Ukraine, Russia and Russian ally Belarus show these somewhat divergent orientations.

The Elysée press release underlined the need for a “de-escalation” in the “negotiations” within the framework of an “enhanced dialogue with Russia that we are conducting”, that is to say at through the Normandy Format, with an upcoming consultation already planned between Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron. In contrast, the American reading makes no mention of Normandy or the role of France. If he expresses his support for a diplomatic resolution, his language in this regard is decidedly more lukewarm.

On Wednesday, the United States provided a written response to Russian inquiries on Ukraine. The contents have not been made public, but it is likely not to have gone as far as European officials would have suggested in background briefings, particularly on the crucial issue of EU membership. NATO for Ukraine, which Russia fiercely opposes.

According to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the US draft memo submitted to Russia on Wednesday offered no changes to its policy on Ukraine’s NATO membership. But Western European countries like France would probably be willing to make that concession to prevent Moscow from invading. There is little real appetite among most European NATO members for the addition of any country that might need to invoke Article V (an attack on one is an attack on all) of so early.

Beyond political goals, what probably struck Putin most was the sudden and unceremonious manner in which he was expelled from the G-8 in 2014 after taking over Crimea. What has become the G-7 is the ultimate club of power nations. Since then, Putin has his frustrated nose against the window. Obviously, now is not the time to reward him, and that does not appear to have been mentioned in the US note to Putin. But some means of demonstrating that Russia is not a total pariah nation, on the way to joining the ranks of North Korea and Iran, would be a good start.

It is time for the United States to step back and let the Europeans play the leading role in these initiatives. They have, after all, a more direct and closer interest in a full-scale war on their continent and appear to be in a position to curb Putin’s ambitions. The latest Normandy rally was adjourned on Wednesday evening with a new date for the resumption of talks in two weeks – at the very least it avoids an invasion during this period.

There is an expression that I first learned in Russian class in 1961, “an iron fist in a velvet glove”. Europe, led by the French, seems to be going the kind of way Biden should be going: moderation and reflection, with just a taste of steel.

To end Russian-Ukrainian tensions, Vladimir Putin needs a way to save face

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