brown wooden framed white and black padded chairs

After more than a month of fighting and significant losses, the Russians now claim they have redeployed to concentrate on the Donbas region, having “achieved the objectives of the first phase of the special military operation.” Yes, they are regrouping after their initial invasion plans fell apart from the outset, but the question that now emerges is whether there is any exit strategy for Putin that does not mean a humiliating defeat and a likely end to his power.

The level of information warfare coming out of both sides makes it impossible at this point to assess the magnitude of the losses suffered by the Ukrainians. But last Tuesday’s Istanbul negotiations indicate that Zelensky, too, is prepared to bring the combat to an end. The official statements coming out of the negotiators for both sides indicate that the written proposal presented by the Ukrainians is based on a compromise that both Zelensky and Putin could live with–all other factors being equal. Zelensky has offered to withdraw the NATO membership and sign a treaty pledging permanent neutrality, no nuclear weapons, and no other WMD on Ukrainian soil. It appears that Ukraine will not challenge the status of Crimea, and the issue of the Donbas is subject to further negotiation.

Of course, Zelensky is simultaneously making public statements pressuring the US and Europe to do more–including the rejected no-fly zone and expanded military support. This is smart coercive diplomacy, playing for further leverage in the negotiations. It is also smart because Ukraine has strong backing from the NATO countries so long as his forces continue to fight, while Russia is now feeling the consequences of the international sanctions on their ability to obtain spare parts and needed military hardware to keep fighting. China is doing as much and as little as it can to dodge secondary sanctions and the US and Europe keep reminding Beijing that there will be a big economic price to pay if they step in to boost Russia’s military or help Putin to evade sanctions in a blatant way.

Putin has an opportunity to turn defeat into a partial victory by claiming he has achieved what he demanded all along: Ukrainian neutrality outside of NATO. But can he say “yes?” That is unclear.

There are Kremlin factions that want to bring the embarrassing war to an end without an absolute defeat. They favor a negotiated agreement on Ukraine neutrality now. Ukraine would insist on some kind of security guarantees–possibly from the five UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany and Turkey. There are other formulations for providing such security guarantees. The 1955 Austria State Treaty was accompanied by a signed agreement by the US, the Soviet Union, and other parties, which has given Austria a thriving neutrality.

But in speeches and writings over the years, Putin has been a vocal advocate of the Eurasian idea that Ukraine is part of a Greater Eurasian Empire and has no independent existence. In July 2021 Putin wrote a widely circulated essay as he was beginning the troop buildup, making the claim that Kiev-Rus has always been one single Eurasian entity. Can Putin let go of this mystical vision, which has strong factional support among the Russian Orthodox Church and the non-urban masses?

This may prove to be too big a psychological sacrifice for Putin to make. If that proves the case, this war will go on for some time more, and pressure will mount on NATO countries to do more, as Putin becomes more desperate to use even more brutal tactics against the Ukrainian people. Images of World War I and sleepwalking into catastrophe unavoidably come to mind.

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45 Responses to HARPER: CAN PUTIN SAY `YES’?

  1. KMD says:

    This is a Russian military action. Not Putin’s war. Personalizing it leads to wishful analysis. Russian leadership is fully onboard and Putin’s approval rating among the Russian population is over 80%. The Russians are all in on this special operation.
    Here’s a different look a what has been happening in Ukraine.

    He argues that the Ukrainian military buildup in the Donbass could have been used for an offensive in Russian territory also. Russia made sure that was not going to happen.

  2. Jovan P says:

    Putin never wrote or claimed that Ukraine has no independent existence. At most, he twice issued a warning about the future of Ukraine’s statehood (once before the soccer WC in Russia, and the second time about a month ago).

    According to the Russian people even Putin cannot say yes to some kind of Minsk 3. The Nazi’s and puppets showed their true faces (on the other hand so did some brave people from the Ukraine army who fight bravely and do not torture POWs or ”collaborators”). The motive of the Russian people is not a complex of grandiosity, but finishing the task (what the task of denazification means is debatable) in order to prevent another much bloodier war in the years to come.

  3. Christian J. Chuba says:

    You are saying that since Putin planned to annex Ukraine in 4 days that he cannot spin it as a success if he only annexes Crimea, occupies a Donbas that is only twice the size that it was before, and achieves a no new NATO policy. I think he could.
    A side benefit Putin gets is that now a majority of the Russian populace understands that we are out to get them. When Putin intervened in Syria in 2015, the majority of Russians had a favorable opinion of the U.S. But that eroded as we carried on about how ‘Obama let the Russians back into the M.E.’ and accused them of heinous war crimes.

    The we are out to get them is now reinforced by the speed and glee with our attempt at a country wide blockade. The Russians look at how we tolerate other interventions without going totally berserk and take it personally.

  4. James says:

    A written treaty guaranteeing neutrality is a big deal. The Montreux Convention has worked well for Moscow.

  5. Steve says:

    “There are Kremlin factions that want to bring the embarrassing war to an end without an absolute defeat. They favor a negotiated agreement on Ukraine neutrality now.”

    And there are other factions that want to pursue the war to the absolute defeat of Ukraine, no matter the cost. This is the problem with reducing the Russian political and military establishment to the whim of an individual; it obfuscates reality to match the infantile US narrative of Russia and its people while leaving open the door to the fanciful PR agency narrative of the conflict.

  6. Eric Newhill says:

    “Putin has been a vocal advocate of the Eurasian idea that Ukraine is part of a Greater Eurasian Empire and has no independent existence. ”

    He may really believe that – or it may have been an idea he was planting in the Russian psyche to help justify doing whatever he needed to do.

    I think it is important to not analyze this from the standpoint of what Putin as an individual wants, but from the standpoint of what the Russian government wants. Too much emphasis on the notion of L’etat c’est Putin

  7. Revenire says:

    “There are Kremlin factions that want to bring the embarrassing war to an end without an absolute defeat. They favor a negotiated agreement on Ukraine neutrality now.”

    How would you know that? Does the Kremlin contact you about it? Have you penetrated Russian intelligence? I’m genuinely curious.

    And, if you can tell me how you know such a thing, can you further please name these Kremlin factions? Who are they? I assume they have names…

    Thank you.

    • Philip Owen says:

      The Silovki, Stavka (both in the Orthodox “Russian World” block and The Economists are the main ones.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    What good are security guarantees from Germany? Doesn’t the German military remain critically undersupplied?

  9. Harper says:

    I appreciate the range of comments so far. Let me reply briefly: Putin has established a pyramid of power in the Kremlin with him at the top. It is not to personalize the war, which would be a mistake. It is to say that Putin will be making the ultimate decision on when and how the war ends, and his ultimate objectives have not been fully defined. Stopping Ukraine from entering NATO is clearly one objective, since it was the primary demand back in December 2021 when Russia sent written documents to the US and NATO. A neutral Ukraine is a victory for Russia to be sure, and it is a significant one.

  10. cobo says:

    I’d rather not see the world redivided into east and west. I don’t know if the wounds can be healed in any meaningful time to recoup our once cooperation. However, whatever the designs of great powers, if “that both Zelensky and Putin could live with,” then who else matters? Roger Waters:


  11. Revenire says:

    Harper can you please answer my questions above.

    I’ve a new one too: what are your credentials to be an expert on Russia? I apologize for not knowing, and thank you in advance for clearing it up.

    Thank you.

  12. Leith says:

    Harper – Well said, thanks. Let’s hope he says yes.

    I suspect he could do it easily. He can quiet those who want total domination of Ukraine by spinning up a Firehose directed at his own people and claiming that he purged Ukraine of NAZIs and achieved all goals. The public will believe it. Public opinion within Russia is long dead and has mostly been replaced by state propaganda. Those higher ups who know better would be silent or if not they would be given an offer that they cannot refuse.

    Zelensky would have a harder time justifying acceptance of Putin’s outrageous and humiliating peace terms. No way the Ukrainian people would agree especially after Bucha. Changing the Constitution to accept the independence of LNR and DNR People’s Republics is a non-starter, especially since they have been murdering thousands of Ukrainians in the last eight years. Besides Putin wants that recognition to include 100% of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts, and to allow Russian troops to remain indefinitely in all areas of Ukraine that they occupy in Kherson and Zaporhizhia Oblasts. Versailles treaty redux? Sounds to me like a deliberate sabotage of any diplomatic compromise. I’m surprised Putin hasn’t asked for monetary reparations. Or has he?

    Zelensky and the Ukrainian Rada may well certify the Crimean annexation by Russia, provide Dnieper water to Crimea, plus sign an anti-NATO Pact. But other than that any deal they signs will be scourged by the opposition and fail. Zelensky does not have Putin’s mastery over the media. He can’t lie to the Ukrainian people about the results of negotiations and get away with it.

    • Steve says:


      True enough, Zelensky does not have the kind of control over Ukrainian media that Putin has but the US and UK do, especially given the amount taxpayer’s money has been poured into creating it through the State Dept along with the NED and its sub-units. The involvement of US and UK PR agencies spinning their yarns has been a powerful force in affecting the collective minds of the West (the target audience) to march in lockstep with the approved narrative. I doubt even Chomsky ever expected to see this day.

    • Revenire says:

      Leith the Pentagon said it could not verify what happened in Bucha, but somehow you’ve been able to?

      • Leith says:

        Revenire –

        The Pentagon does not have investigators on the ground to document war crimes. How would you expect them to confirm what happened? Hopefully the ICC will be there soon and do independent inquests – and/or the UN & HRW.

        But this morning the Pentagon did say: the apparent murders of civilians appear to be “premeditated,” “planned” and “very, very deliberate”. “But it’s difficult to know what more motivation was behind this — whether it was an … attempt or not, clearly a message was sent to the world of Russia’s brutality”.

        In any case there are many witnesses. It is a matter of who you and I should believe – the friends and relatives of victims? – or known peddlers of disinformation and propaganda in Moscow?

        • Revenire says:

          Leith, as you admitted above, there’s no evidence of Russian guilt in Bucha, but you blame them anyway. Then you tell me that the ICC, UN, and HRW will be there soon to investigate. You consider HRW non-partial? After when Kenneth Roth said about Assad, and Syria? Not on your life. The U.S. does not recognize the ICC. And what UN agency is going to investigate?

          Re: the Pentagon: notice the word “appear” – that means they don’t know. But, that doesn’t stop the U.S. from blaming Russia does it? Who needs evidence?

          You say you disbelieve the Russians. Fine. But let me ask: do you believe the Ukrainians? You honestly believe that Ukraine doesn’t do war propaganda? Ghost of Kyiv? Snake Island?

          • Leith says:

            Revenire –

            You forgot the two IL-76 transports claimed to be shot down. Those and the Ghost and the “Russian warship, go fook yourself” comment were damn masterful bits of myth used to boost the morale of Ukrainian troops and people. Very different from the slanderous horseshit that is broadcast from a firehose out of Moscow on a daily basis.

            PS – Russia does not recognize the ICC either. Ukraine has accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction since 2013. I would hope the ICC also investigates the possible shooting of Russian POWs by Ukraine.

  13. Sam says:

    It appears the focus is on the considerations of the Russian and Ukrainian leadership and what’s their domestic win. But we’re missing an important actor – OUR neocons who are in lockstep with BOTH our political parties. What do they want? And how will their worldview shape this conflict? After all they played an important role in instigating it.

  14. Hutch says:

    Monday biggest German grocer raised prices 50percent..250gm of butter is now 2 euros…on Sunday there were thousands of cars out in Berlin supporting Russia. Looks like Scholz will be leaving faster than Biden.

  15. VietnamVet says:

    The goals of the Russian invasion are quite clear; the demilitarization of Ukraine and the elimination of the neo-Nazis.

    This conflict is, once again, an ethnic war that the Balkan nations have fought through the centuries. In the next months, the Russian military must find the logistics, troops and the will to encircle the Ukrainian Army entrenched along the Donbass line of contact. If not, and western enablers continue to provide military supplies and Ukrainians continue to contest the invasion, there are only a few possible outcomes; 1) a forever war that drains Russia, a puppet is placed in the Kremlin, and ultimately the nation’s resources are stolen, 2) WWIII that is in its initial stages, right now, escalates to a nuclear exchange, or 3) a peace treaty or armistice is signed between Russia and Ukraine.

    Russia keeps the land east of the Dnieper River it has conquered already, Donbass, and the Sea of Azov’s shorelines. Ukraine keeps Odessa, Kiev, and access to the Black Sea. To stop the shelling and the next outbreak of war, a DMZ is established along the line of separation. As with past partitions, the result will be ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians and Russians on each side of the DMZ. But, a human extinction event is avoided.

    • Revenire says:

      I’ve a feeling Odessa will become part of Russia after the war. I can’t see Russia giving it up, anymore than they would Mariupol. Catherine the Great founded Odessa. It is Russian.

      • TTG says:


        Russia will have to capture Odessa first before they can refuse to give it back.

      • Leith says:

        Revenire –

        Odessa was a port and a city for more than two millenia before Catharine renamed it. Perhaps it should be given back to the Greeks? And BTW Catharine was a German.

        The Russian Navy can keep bombarding Odessa and turn it into rubble. Or they can blockade the port to prevent resupply by sea. But they will never capture Odessa. They know it would be suicide. Perhaps they could have, if they focused on Ukraine’s south instead of pissing away their troops on Putin’s idiocy of initial attacks from eight different directions. But that gave the Odessiti time to mine the shoreline and sea approaches. And now they are getting coastal defense weapons from the UK. Not that they need them – they did a good job of sinking the Saratov and damaging two other Russian Navy amphibs. After seeing that damage the Russian Navy has become a bit risk averse. Plus Turkey has blocked the Bosporus for any reinforcement the Black Sea Fleet might get from the Pacific, the Baltic, or the North Sea Fleets.

      • Bill Roche says:

        Catherine “The Great” wasn’t such and she, German by birth, d/n found Odessa. I suspect Odessa w/b a southern redline for the Ukies who will fight like hell to hold it. Don’t give up on Odessa.

      • Philip Owen says:

        Then Boston, MA is British not to mention Philadelphia or Toronto.

        • Leith says:

          Philip O –

          Whoa! I wouldn’t say that in a South Boston pub and expect to walk out without a bit of black and blue.

          • TTG says:


            I know it wouldn’t fly very far at the Black Rose. That was the most IRA bar I’ve ever been in.

    • Harper says:

      I must say that this captures the possibilities of how this war ends. I do believe that Russia taking Odessa and controlling the entire Black Sea coast is a bridge too far, and the Dnieper River is a more likely area for a DMZ. This gives Russia the primary objective, which is a buffer zone separating the western borders of Russia/Belarus from NATO.
      I make no claim to be a Russia expert. My post reflected discussions with long-time contacts in both Washington and Moscow as well as some commentaries by some Russian figures with historic close ties to Putin who have been able to make some public comments. These include recent interview by Sergei Karaganov worth reading and widely available.
      The fog of information warfare has been so dense that any outside attempt to assess a more precise state of warfare is made more difficult. Biden signed an Executive Order prior to the Russian move into Ukraine authorizing release of some classified material to the public and to allies, including material of low confidence (ie. uncertain accuracy). NBC defended their publicizing of this potential unconfirmed “intelligence” as part of an effort to preempt Russian actions. OPCW certified Russia eliminated all stockpiles of chemical weapons under UN treaty obligations and then a week later the US was claiming Russia might use chemicals in Ukraine. Many similar examples on the Russian side.

      • Eric Newhill says:

        The recent report of the train station being hit by a missile is another example of the intense info-ops, uncertain intelligence and leaping to conclusions that further propaganda and actually serve as propaganda itself.

        It seems Russia phased out that type of missile years ago, but they are present in UKR arsenals and have been used by UKR in this conflict. Zelensky is an arrogant little character, telling the West what is what and ordering NATO and EU around like he owns them. He is setting the narrative and agenda. Of course he is probably parroting what the CIA/State Dept tells him to. It is the incurious media’s alignment with CIA/State that is doing the real harm. They are digging a hole in which it becomes increasingly less easy to negotiate with Russia. How do you negotiate in good faith with a country led by someone that all official sources agree is Satan incarnate?

        • Revenire says:

          Remember when Vicki Nuland picked the next Ukrainian government? Her call is on tape. Zelensky is a puppet of the West. However, he’s needed to conclude the terms of surrender.

          • TTG says:


            Zelenskiy is two elections removed from Nuland’s pick of Yatsenyuk. Zelenskiy was elected overwhelmingly in 2019, by a far higher percentage than any in recent US presidential election.

        • TTG says:

          Eric Newhill,

          On 30 March a convoy of Russian “V” Tochka-U were filmed in Belarus on the way from the Kyiv region towards eastern Ukraine. Russia is probably running out of missiles for their Iskander missile systems. When Kremlin affiliated media first reported the Kramatorsk missile strike, they claimed their missiles hit an ammunition train that arrived yesterday evening. After the appearance of civilian casualties, they started blaming Ukraine. The remnants of the Russian missile that hit the Kramatorsk station have the inscription “for the children”. This wasn’t a cynical taunt. Russian troops often write on their missiles “For the children of the Donbas” in all sincerity. I’m sure they would have much rather hit an ammunition train rather than civilians.

          • Eric Newhill says:

            That’s one possible narrative that you offer – the Bellingcat narrative. It needs to be verified. Again I object most to the knee jerk reaction that everyone just knows it was blood thirsty psycho killer Russians.

            At least you allow that *if* it was the Russians, it could have easily been a mistake/collateral damage – the kind of thing that happens in war. I wonder how many children/civilians the Ukronazis have accidentally killed over the years of shelling in the Donbas and in fighting the Russians. We never heard about that. Wonder why. The entire train station event should be chalked up to sh!t happens in war, like wedding parties being hit by US drones.

            The problem with the demonizing of Russia over this kind of thing is that it sets the grounds for hypocrisy and double standards, which will sooner or later come back to bite the source hard on the ass. In attempting to avoid the bite, there is a need to delve deeper into a web of lies and censorship. Soon, it doesn’t even look like a free country and the moral high ground is lost. Our freedom and morality is worth more than putting Russia off balance with info-ops, to the extent that such ever really changed the behavior of an enemy in a meaningful way.

          • TTG says:

            Eric Newhill,

            True, the demonization is rife as it usually is in armed conflicts. Just like referring to an entire country which overwhelmingly elected a Russian speaking Jew as president as nothing but Ukronazis living is a non-country.

          • Eric Newhill says:

            ….and let’s be clear. “For the children [of the Donbas]” doesn’t mean Russians want to kill children, as the western media is reporting it. Rather, it means protecting the children of the Donbas from the nazis.

          • TTG says:

            Eric Newhill,

            Absolutely. It’s like writing “For the Motherland” on artillery shells, definitely not the mark of Satan.

          • Eric Newhill says:

            I don’t think Z is in control of the Nazis. In fact they have threatened him more than once. I asked you a question about that on the other thread. Eager to read your reply.

            Again, my issue is the propaganda. I get moral building and all of that. But full on constant demonizing makes avoiding worse situations and peace that much more difficult. Why can’t we just say that the Russians see it this way and the US, NATO, UKR see it that way and all of the other countries see it A,B,C, and D? We disagree with Russia’s view. So we will help fight them. How hard is that?

            Of course desiring to fight Russia involves some R2P philosophy. I don’t like it, but hey, put it out there and discuss in the media and government. Taking us as fools and pawns that should just be lied to because we’re too stupid to understand the issues and make decisions (it’s our govt, isn’t it?) doesn’t bode well for our constitutional republic. So great. We help defeat Russia,, but lose our own country in the process. Nope. How is that different than a Putin? Fighting monsters and becoming one in the process and all of that.Sorry. I will never agree with you on that approach and will resist you to the day I die.

          • TTG says:

            Erik Newhill,

            The nazis or ultra-nationalist right wingers in Ukraine have much less political power in Ukraine than in most European countries. They didn’t win enough to earn one seat in the Verkovna Rada in 2019. Their high water mark was in 2014-2015. The ultra-nationalist right wingers even have more clout in the US as long as they allied themselves with the Trump wing of the Republican party.

            I get it. You’re upset with the bad press that Russia, the Russian military, the “special military operation” and Putin himself are now getting. Some of is wartime hyperbole and propaganda. A good part of it is just facts on the ground. An invasion is an invasion. You can’t expect sympathy for the death and destruction that comes with that invasion whether it’s intentional or not. Look at the good will we squandered with our military adventurism. Now it’s Russia’s turn to learn that lesson.

      • Leith says:

        Harper – “OPCW certified Russia eliminated all stockpiles of chemical weapons under UN treaty obligations and then a week later the US was claiming Russia might use chemicals in Ukraine.”

        OPCW only certified destruction of Russia’s declared stockpile. But I suspect the USIC is worried about Fentanyl gas (Kolokol-1) that killed 170 in the Moscow Theater Hostage Crisis. Or other similar incapcitating agents that were developed much later after 1997 when Russia declared its CW arsenal, which was primarily blister agents and nerve agents.

        The Brits are probably also worried about Novichok and/or Polonium. No matter whether you and I believe the stories of Navalny, Skripal, and Litvinenko are true or false – Scotland Yard believes it. Although I’m not sure how those substances could be used en masse in Ukraine?

    • Philip Owen says:

      Stealing natural resources is a Marxist fallacy. To be of value, they must be sold. The market sets the price, give or take delaying mechanisms like OPEC. Ownership doesn’t matter. Saudi nationalised the oil. They still sell it. The added value is in using the oil.

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