In a Washington Post editorial, Ambassador and Professor Michael McFaul, an eminent scholar and specialist on Russia and the former Soviet Union (and a staunch critic of Putin) who I respect enormously, made the argument that was needed now is to provide Putin with an “off ramp”. He suggests a simple exchange—the end of the fighting in exchange for the end of the sanctions (which he acknowledges the Ukrainians will oppose).
Even if this was the offer I am not sure Putin would accept it. McFaul also was skeptical, but because he thought that Putin was dead set on enacting regime change in Ukraine. I think there is another reason. Putin needs more than the end of the sanctions (which he does believe Russia and he can tough out, at least for the next couple of months). To come out only with the end of the sanctions would not be enough. Rather than lifting the sanctions, a more permanent settlement should occur, while the sanctions are still in place (although some of those sanctions could be lifted selectively). Sanctions broadly should stay in place to ensure a credible commitment from the Russians to a more lasting settlement.
Putin needs something to come out of this that looks like his foreign policy goals have been realized (at least in part) so that he can save face at home (as I have written before, there is growing internal opposition not only from protesters, but more importantly, from within the political elite).
What would this involve? Putin’s main foreign policy goals have been 1) neutralization of Ukraine (meaning that Ukraine will not be fully integrated within the Western security system i.e. NATO) 2) protection of the breakaway republics in the Donbas 3) Ukraine’s formal recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea
I do not think that Ukraine will recognize violations of their territorial integrity, so the independence of the DPR and LPR is probably not what is going to happen (perhaps formal Ukrainian recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, however, could happen). Recognition of Crimea could be easier, because that territory was only incorporated in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (the Soviet Union Republic) in the 1950s, and perhaps that makes it more palatable then annexation of the Donbas, which was always part of the Ukrainian Union Republic—although I doubt the Ukrainian side will be easy to convince.
Here is what I think could be an off ramp
1) Ukraine and NATO declare some period of time that Ukraine will not join NATO, but will not be prohibited from applying. This would have to be a fairly long period to satisfy Putin (perhaps up to 25 years).
2) Ukraine, Russia, and OSCE agree to really implement the Minsk 2 agreements, where the DPR and LPR are reintegrated in the Ukraine.
3) The status of Crimea remains international disputed, but Crimea remains a de facto part of the Russian Federation
4) Ukraine, already an associate member of the EU, will be fast tracked as a member of EU. This would make Ukraine similar in status to Finland, which has been a member of the EU since 1995, but not a member or NATO (which may change)
Finland’s status is a model for an “off ramp” for Putin. Indeed Finland’s experience with Russia (and the Soviet Union) is quite analogous to what Ukraine faces now. A part of the Russian empire until 1918, when it declared its independence, it suffered Soviet military onslaught in the “winter war” of 1939-1940. While the rest of the world was already embroiled in WW2, Stalin unleashed a huge military invasion to subjugate Finland. Like Ukraine currently, Finland had its hero Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim who directed the Finnish armed forces and heroically resisted the overwhelming military superiority that the Soviets had, largely via guerilla tactics, and the use of the “Molotov Cocktail” a term first used by the Finnish military.
Hostilities ceased in March 1940 with the signing of the Moscow Treaty in which Finland ceded 9% of its territory to the Soviet Union. Soviet losses were heavy, and the country's international reputation suffered greatly. Further Finland retained its sovereignty and enhanced its international reputation—and ultimately its incipient democracy. The very poor performance of the Soviet Army also encouraged Hitler to believe that an attack on the Soviet Union would be successful (which may be one of the reasons why Putin is intent on pressing the offensive further in Ukraine) and it also confirmed negative Western opinions of the Soviet military (as the Russian Ukrainian military fiasco is doing now)
In the end, Finland retained its independence, received continued aid from the West, and evolved into a European democracy. And is now a full member of the European Union.
The parallels with Finland are informative for Ukraine. I think this may provide a better model for an off ramp offer to Putin than simply offering an end to the sanctions