Outcome 3: This IS a less dirty deal, but with the Russian people, not Putin. In this scenario, NATO and the Ukrainians propose a cease-fire on the basis of the Feb. 24 lines: where Russia and Ukrainian forces stood before Putin’s invasion. Ukraine is spared more destruction, and the principle of the inadmissibility of changing borders by force is upheld. But Putin would have to admit to his people: “We suffered some 70,000 casualties, lost thousands of tanks and armored vehicles and experienced terrible economic sanctions — and I got you nothing.”
Of course, it is impossible to imagine him saying that. But such a deal could be in the interest of the Russian people. So, as far as I can imagine it, Putin would probably have to be ousted by a popular mass protest movement, or by a palace coup. All blame for the war could be pinned on him, and Russia could promise to be a good neighbor again if the West lifted its sanctions. Zelensky would have to give up his dream of recovering those areas of Ukraine seized by Russia in 2014, but Ukraine could begin healing and at least resume the process of joining the European Union, and maybe even NATO.
This was always Putin’s war. It was never the Russian people’s war. And while up to now the Russian people may think they have not paid a big price for staying silent, they are wrong.
When all the alleged Russian-perpetrated massacres in Ukraine are documented and shared with the world, the Russian people will not be able to escape what has been done by Putin in their name and to their names. When the fighting stops and the world demands that Russia’s foreign reserves now frozen in Western banks — some $300 billion — be diverted to Ukraine to rebuild its hospitals and bridges and schools destroyed by the Russian Army, the Russian people will start to understand that this war was not free. When the documentarians put together all the testimony of Ukrainian women who say they were raped by Russian soldiers, no Russian citizen will be able to travel the world without shame for a long time.
Again, I am not naïve. If Putin were somehow replaced by Alexei Navalny, the nationalist, anti-corruption and antiwar crusader, whom Putin is believed to have first poisoned and then eventually jailed, a cease-fire with Ukraine might still be difficult to negotiate or maintain. Moreover, repressive laws and a ruthless secret police, a lack of leaders and the legitimate fear that Putin would do to his own people what he is doing to Ukrainians all argue against Putin being run out office by a popular movement.
I am also aware that as part of this outcome Putin could be replaced by someone worse, someone from his ultranationalist right who claims that Putin did not fight hard enough or was sabotaged by his generals. Or, Putin could be replaced by a power vacuum and disorder — in a country with thousands of nuclear warheads.