“It’s not that I want to talk to Putin,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said last week about Russia’s president. “I need to talk to Putin. The world needs to talk to Putin. There is no other way to stop this war.”
The United States should heed this plea. Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s unprovoked and illegal invasion has been both heroic and effective, but its situation is precarious. For all their flaws, Russia’s armed forces may yet prevail in a prolonged conflict, and there is still a real danger that much of Ukraine will become a Russian vassal state under a puppet government. Moreover, even if Ukraine can hold off Russian forces indefinitely, the prospect of forcibly evicting them from its territory—particularly in the south—is daunting. All the while, Russia is slaughtering Ukraine’s citizens ever more indiscriminately.
But as Zelensky’s statement suggests, Ukraine’s plan to end this war is probably not to vanquish the invading forces. Rather, its goal appears to be to make the prospect of continuing the war, and the occupation that could follow it, exceptionally painful for Russia—so painful that Putin comes to view a settlement agreement that preserves Ukraine’s independence as the lesser of two evils.
Putin may already be feeling the pain. The United States believes that Putin embarked on this war seeking to conquer most or all of Ukraine. Today, Moscow has implicitly recognized Zelensky’s government by demanding, in return for an end to the war, that Kyiv agree to Ukrainian neutrality, acknowledge Crimea as Russian territory, and recognize Donetsk and Lugansk as independent states. If Ukrainian forces continue to perform well, Putin will have to settle for still less and may even have to pay Ukraine reparations. (Conversely, if Russian forces achieve breakthroughs, Putin will be able to drive a harder bargain.)
Even in the best case, if Zelensky wants a negotiated settlement, he will likely have to make significant concessions to Russia—as he has acknowledged. Any such concessions will probably be bitterly opposed by many in the United States and Europe. Ultimately, though, it is not their call. The democratically elected government of Ukraine should get to decide what price it is willing to pay for an end to the slaughter of its citizens and the preservation of Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign state.
The United States and its allies should support Zelensky in any diplomatic course he pursues. Indeed, he cannot end the war without them. Economic sanctions on Russia strengthen his hand at the negotiating table by raising the costs to Russia of continuing to fight. By the same token, however, it is virtually inconceivable that Russia would agree to a settlement without sanctions relief. For this reason, the United States and its allies must be prepared to lift sanctions—including on Russia’s central bank—if Russia and Ukraine negotiate and implement a settlement agreement.
To date, the United States and its allies have sent out mixed messages about sanctions relief. U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland indicated an openness to it. By contrast, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has declared “economic and financial war on Russia” with the goal of causing “the collapse of the Russian economy.” In a similar vein, British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss stated that “the purpose of the sanctions is to debilitate the Russian economy.” This ambiguity is dangerous because it risks obscuring the existence of an off-ramp for Putin and could thus prolong the conflict and increase the small but real chance of nuclear escalation.
U.S. President Joe Biden should clear up the confusion by stating publicly that the purpose of sanctions is to end the war, not to remove the government of Russia. In coordination with Kyiv, he should dispatch a trusted lieutenant—such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken or CIA Director William Burns—to try to negotiate with Russia. Washington and its allies could also explore whether they could address Russian security concerns, and vice versa, through the implementation of reciprocal arms control measures—as the United States and NATO proposed in January.
Success in this endeavor would be far from guaranteed, and the Biden administration would take heat for even trying. This criticism, however, could be undercut by Zelensky’s stating publicly that he would support sanctions relief for Russia in return for the implementation of any agreement he negotiated.
And what of Putin? Is he willing to negotiate?
This question is difficult to answer because if he is interested in negotiations, he has a clear incentive to downplay that interest right now. It is certainly possible that he will push on, regardless of any concessions that Zelensky might offer. Indeed, he informed French President Emmanuel Macron last week that the objectives of Russia’s invasion “will be fulfilled in any case.”
However, as everyone who has haggled over anything knows, you end up paying a higher price if you make it clear from the start that you’re desperate to buy. In this vein, Putin may be trying to extract greater concessions at the negotiating table by claiming that he has no interest in talking. Ultimately, it is impossible to know whether there is a deal to be had unless we try to get it.