Three weeks of heroic resistance by Ukraine’s troops and citizen volunteers, buttressed by a historic international outpouring of support, have denied Russian President Vladimir Putin the lightning seizure of Ukrainian cities that he expected in his brutal assault. As Russia continues to indiscriminately bomb Ukraine’s cities, the stalled ground offensive may force Putin to recalculate. He could escalate violence, but also may be forced to negotiate — and a series of meetings between the two sides could be laying the groundwork for an agreement to stop the fighting. But to even consider any real negotiation, Putin must finally recognize that 44 million Ukrainians and their supporters will resist indefinitely.
As of yesterday, Ukrainian and Russian negotiators have now met in person or by video six times. Comments this week by Russian officials and in Kremlin-controlled media may be floating softened positions by the Kremlin, dropping demands for regime change, for example. Putin himself, however, has signaled no retreat from an approach that has sought to re-establish Moscow’s dominance of Ukraine — and indeed in a hardline speech Wednesday denounced Russian opponents of his war as “scum and traitors.”
In contrast to Putin’s deepening isolation, Zelenskyy received standing ovations Wednesday from Congress as he spoke to U.S. legislators. He thanked the United States for its help so far and underscored that democracies’ defense of a world ruled by law, rather than by armed force, requires further steps to isolate Putin and turn back his assault.
Not the War Putin Expected
Putin expected Russia’s 100,000-plus ground troops to capture Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, within two days, according to U.S. intelligence assessments — and to quickly seize a vast swath of eastern and southern Ukraine. Putin appears, like many dictators, to have believed his own propaganda — that “Ukraine is not even a country” and would not resist Moscow’s re-conquest after 30 years of independence.
Russian soldiers, many of them uncertain even why they are in Ukraine, have been unprepared, ill-coordinated and short on supplies. Unsurprisingly, their morale and performance have been poor. By contrast, the Ukrainians have unified in a courageous stand for their country’s defense — with thousands rushing home from abroad to join the fight.
Putin also faces a global response to his lawlessness that is arguably more united than any since World War II. The combined economic sanctions against his war by the world’s democracies have pushed Russia to the brink of a catastrophic default on its debts — its first since the fall of the tsarist empire in 1918 — that would only deepen Russia’s cutoff from global commerce and investment. Europe, led by Germany, has made a new commitment to strengthen its own defenses. Russia has become a pariah state, its isolation dramatized by the list of countries that voted with it against 141 nations condemning its invasion: Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria.
Evidence of Putin’s deepening trouble and desperation are multiplying. His government is now trying to recruit fighters from Syria to reinforce its inadequate ground forces. It has asked China for military and economic support. In Belarus, the Russian and Ukrainian neighbor where Putin supports a dictatorial government against a grassroots prodemocracy movement, Putin has failed to persuade even this dependent client regime to join his war. Residents near Belarus’s border with Ukraine have told the Belarusian service of Radio Liberty that hospitals, morgues and airports in their region are choked with dead or wounded Russian soldiers awaiting transfer back to Russia.
Russia first offered “negotiations” by sending a hardline Russian nationalist, former culture minister Vladimir Medinsky, as its chief representative for an initial meeting, February 28, with Ukrainians on the Ukraine-Belarus border. Medinsky issued “ultimatums,” Ukrainian officials said. Those first talks failed even to establish reliable corridors for the safe evacuation of civilians from cities under Russian siege.
As Russia’s ground invasion stalled and its casualties rose, Putin allowed higher-level talks, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Turkey. Zelenskyy said last weekend that Russia has now taken a “fundamentally different approach” in the dialogue, and he signaled a direction for progress. While Ukraine has sought NATO membership — even placing that objective into its constitution — Zelenskyy said Tuesday that his country is exploring ways to assure its future security outside of formally joining the NATO alliance.
Zelenskyy’s remarks and conversations with Ukrainian officials make clear that, as the talks get more specific, Ukraine will seek a framework that can ensure its security whether within or outside of NATO. This will include a Ukrainian resolve to maintain a strong military. And Ukraine will seek a commitment in some form by the United States and European nations to guarantee its security. For a general framework, Zelenskyy’s government is looking to examples such as Finland, Sweden and Austria.
The Real Challenge for Peace
Yet the real challenge to ending Ukrainians’ agony — and to protecting democracy worldwide — is not in designing a precise security architecture for their state. It is first to persuade Russians and their government to end the war by showing them that it will bring them only more death and damage. This will require intensifying and sustaining the world’s broad support for Ukrainians — humanitarian, financial, military, as well as sanctions and isolation imposed on Russia — for as long as Putin continues his attack. President Zelenskyy appealed to Congress for that support on Wednesday.
“Today the Ukrainian people are defending not only Ukraine. We are fighting for Europe and the world,” Zelenskyy said. Hours later, President Biden announced that the United States will provide $800 million more in defensive military materiel. All available evidence suggests that Putin will not consider real negotiations until he realizes that his military operation is failing. After 22 days of this war, the Ukrainian armed forces are holding him off. We need to accelerate our support to drive Putin to the negotiation table.