How to give Putin an off-ramp

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With Ukraine holding Russia off longer than many U.S. officials had expected, President Biden now faces a great unanswered question — how to give Vladimir Putin an off-ramp to avoid even greater calamity.

Why it matters: A cornered, humiliated Putin could unleash untold pain on the world, from cyberattacks to nuclear threats. After enacting brutal sanctions, the White House now must consider how the invasion can end without a new catastrophe.

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Between the lines: Nobody knows what Putin would accept.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), vice chair of the Senate intelligence committee, has hinted Putin could be addled.

  • “This is the most dangerous moment in 60 years,” Rubio tweeted Sunday night. Putin, he said, “is facing a humiliating military fiasco & he has triggered extraordinary consequences on #Russia’s economy & people that will not be easy to reverse … And his only options to reset this imbalance are catastrophic ones.”

A European diplomat told reporters at a briefing yesterday: “It’s like the Sun Tzu thing of giving someone a golden bridge to retreat across. How do you get him to go in a different direction?”

  • “I think the door to diplomacy remains open,” the diplomat continued. “Putin … doesn’t normally back down. But he also controls the information environment in his own country to such an extent that if he does, he can cover his tracks. … So I think there is room for him to de-escalate — and that’s certainly what we’re pressing for.”

The diplomat pointed to yesterday’s Russia-Ukraine peace talks in Belarus as the most viable off-ramp in a sea of bad options, noting that negotiations lasted for four hours and appear headed for a second round.

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said before the talks that he was willing to discuss “neutral status” for Ukraine — one of Putin’s three demands.

  • But the other two — demilitarization and “denazification” of Ukraine, and recognition of Russia’s claim to Crimea — suggest Putin will never accept a deal in which Zelensky remains in power.

The bottom line: The West’s response to Putin — for so long, uncertain and halting — has moved at astonishing speed and ferocity over the past week. How Putin will respond — and whether de-escalation is even possible — is keeping national-security leaders up at night.

Go deeper: Axios Ukraine dashboard

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