Columnist: NATO must give 'desperate' Putin a 'fig leaf' to let him end the war
Annual Direct Line with Vladimir Putin in Moscow - Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual "Direct Line with Vladimir Putin" live call-in show. - -/Kremlin/dpa

On Monday, writing for The Atlantic, staff writer Tom McTague outlined how Vladimir Putin will have to be offered a "fig leaf" to end his brutal invasion of Ukraine — and outlined the ways NATO can walk that line to end the conflict while protecting Ukraine's sovereignty.

"In Western capitals, there has been an escalation both in the official response to Russia’s invasion — the scale of the sanctions and military support, for example — and in the rhetorical denouncement of the regime. This is understandable and long overdue. Putin appears to preside over something like a Mafia state: corrupt, kleptocratic, and violent, based on networks of loyalty and territorial claims that have nothing to do with popular will and that must be opposed," wrote McTague. "But Western leaders should also recognize the dangers of talking themselves into an even worse situation than already exists, and must be clear about their goals. Do they seek a way to end the conflict, or Russia’s defeat? Perhaps these are now one and the same, but the difference may well become important."

Some experts have suggested the Ukraine invasion could not just fail outright, but result in the collapse of Putin's regime. But, warned McTague, NATO cannot rely on this — and fixating on it might reduce the likelihood of getting a concrete agreement with the Kremlin to stop its war of aggression.

The real solution, he argued, includes two elements.

"First, the West must ensure that however much support it gives to Kyiv, the conflict remains one between Ukraine and Russia," wrote McTague. "That way, peace negotiations remain between the two countries, and not Russia and the West more widely. Washington, Paris, London, and Berlin cannot allow talks to become what Putin wants them to be: a negotiation about spheres of influence in which Ukraine and other states can be bargained away. This, in effect, would be a victory for Putin and his tactics of nuclear brinkmanship, leading to a more dangerous world in which other dictators take the lesson that bullying and intimidation work."

"Second, the West must not close off potential compromises that the Ukrainians themselves would be willing to negotiate," he continued. "If Putin is to accept a negotiated defeat, he will require a fig leaf to hide the reality that he has failed to subdue Ukraine. There has been speculation, for example, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky might be prepared to formally renounce his pursuit of NATO membership, one of a number of pledges that could be made to serve as a pretext for Russian de-escalation. Zelensky could also promise not to send troops into the Donbas, for example, or seek to retake Crimea — or even to seek nuclear weapons, or allow them to be stationed on Ukrainian territory. In other words, he could use Russia’s absurd propaganda to his advantage by formally pledging not to do things that he or any of his successors would have considered doing anyway."

These are more favorable terms than Putin has any right to, McTague acknowledged — but it might be the only way out.

"Unlike Khrushchev, Putin has not simply walked up to a line, but crossed it, unleashing a terror for which he should be held accountable," he concluded. "The horrible reality, though, is that the best option for the West might involve finding a way for him to not be held as accountable as he should be — but then to never forget what he has done."

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