Yet Mr. Putin’s demands for Yalta-style negotiations for a new security order in Europe are a non-starter. For one thing, the Biden administration has vowed to make no decision about Ukraine over the head of the Ukrainians, a policy summed up in the oft-heard phrase “Nothing about us without us.” That eliminates one Russian ambition — division of spheres of influence that would neutralize Ukraine without its agreement.
Mr. Biden and NATO would also not endorse any agreement that would bar a sovereign state from membership in the alliance. It is an article of faith in NATO that such decisions are up to individual nations and cannot be bartered away. Finland, for one, has declared that the option of joining NATO is key to its security, given its long border with Russia.
Step back from all of this, and it begins to look as if Russia’s real concern isn’t the placement of weapons on its borders, but the very existence of a sovereign Ukrainian democracy with the freedom to chart its own course in the world.
Still, there is room for negotiations. One constant Russian demand is that Ukraine meet its obligations under the six-year-old Minsk II agreement, a deal brokered by France and Germany that envisaged a degree of regional autonomy for rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine in exchange for an end to Russia’s proxy war there. Minsk II was something of a victor’s deal at the time and is unpopular in Ukraine, and both sides have dragged their feet on it. But it does offer a basis on which to revive a search for a resolution of the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
There are also ways in which the United States and NATO could signal that they have no immediate intention of bringing Ukraine into the alliance or giving it advanced weaponry, while not surrendering their right to do so. Meeting Russia’s offer to hold talks on European security may not be the worst way to narrow the rift between Russia and the West.
The problem is that there is no certainty about what might persuade Mr. Putin to pull back his soldiers. He is generally regarded in Western capitals as a ruthless autocrat and nasty adversary, but also as someone who will not pick a fight he can’t win. Yet after 22 years in power, he is surrounded by sycophants who are more likely to tell him what he wants to hear than to explain a changing reality.
His talk of “historical unity” between Ukraine and Russia, for example, overlooks the fact that his brazen seizure of Crimea and proxy war in eastern Ukraine have turned many once-wavering Ukrainians against Russia, thus helping develop the very national identity whose existence Mr. Putin denies. And while there is no dispute that Russia has the military power to swiftly overwhelm Ukraine, Ukrainian regular and irregular forces would most likely fight bloody rear-guard actions with heavy Russian casualties — something ordinary Russians would not long tolerate. In the end, Mr. Putin could end up as the Russian leader who “lost” Ukraine to the West.