Vladimir Putin's Speech Contains the Off-Ramp to the War in Ukraine | Opinion

"You cannot negotiate with people who say what's mine is mine and what's yours is negotiable," said President John F. Kennedy of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's tough diplomacy in 1961.

Kennedy's memorable line captured an enduring feature of Russian strategy rooted in tsarist times, when the boundaries of the Russian Empire expanded to include one-sixth of the earth's surface. In Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech last Friday to his country's visibly anxious political and military elite, the attitude remains in evidence. Putin's speech did, however, hint at a long-sought "off-ramp" for the most destructive conflict in Europe since World War II.

"We call upon the Kyiv regime to cease fire and hostilities immediately, to end the war...and to return to the negotiating table," Putin said. "We are ready for this," he added, "but we will not discuss the choice of the people in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson," the four eastern Ukrainian provinces whose annexation by Russia Putin had assembled his vassals to witness. Putin continued that Russia would use "all available means necessary"—a category widely believed to include nuclear weapons—to defend its territory, presumably including its newest acquisitions.

For another 30 minutes, Putin expounded an updated version of the tired conspiracy theory that Russia is encircled and targeted for colonization by hostile Western powers—ruthless imperialists who he believes covet his country's wealth and seek to destroy its sovereignty. For good measure, he took potshots at radical gender ideology, critical race theory, and other outrages espoused by "Western elites," whose works he equated with "Satanism."

Shorn of his propagandistic tirade, Putin's speech should be read as a tentative peace offer. He made a big show of the annexation of the eastern provinces, and stated that Ukraine's acceptance of their loss is "the only way to peace." He did not, however, demand any territory beyond them, or Ukraine's formal surrender and future diplomatic/military neutrality, all of which have figured in Russian demands since the war began. Geographically, the annexed territory amounts to the "land bridge" connecting the rest of Russia with Crimea, which observers have believed Putin has wanted since he annexed the historically Russian peninsula in 2014.

From a military standpoint, this may well be the limit of Putin's current ambitions. In the first days of the war, his forces tried, but failed, to capture Kyiv and depose Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the signing
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the signing ceremony with separatist leaders on the annexation of four Ukrainian regions at the Grand Kremlin Palace, September 30, 2022, in Moscow, Russia. Contributor/Getty Images

Putin subsequently shifted offensive operations to eastern Ukraine, where much of the population is Russian-speaking, and where pro-Moscow separatists have held power in Donetsk and Luhansk since 2014. Despite these advantages on the ground, Russian forces made only limited progress. In recent weeks, Ukrainian counterattacks have reversed some of their gains, eviscerated Russian morale, and inflicted heavy casualties even on elite Russian units. In despair, Putin has declared partial national mobilization and a draft of 300,000 conscripts. This, too, has backfired, with protests rocking dozens of Russian cities as men of military age flee the country en masse to escape conscription.

By contrast, Ukrainian morale is soaring, as tens of billions of dollars in military aid flows into the country while Russia can barely fulfill basic logistical needs. Recent reports have revealed Russian recruitment efforts among incarcerated convicts and ammunition purchases from North Korea. China, which signed an "unlimited" alliance with Russia last year, has deftly avoided taking a strong side in the Ukrainian conflict. Russia's exclusion from the world economy also now looks permanent; four days before Putin's speech, the main conduit of Russia's valuable energy exports, the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, was disrupted by high-yield explosions in an apparent act of sabotage.

In these circumstances, it is entirely possible that Putin is seeking a peace deal that will allow him to declare victory at home, where there is no independent media to challenge his narrative, and continue to rule for life. His only alternatives are to continue fighting a war he cannot win and suffer dire consequences, or, as he threatened in his speech, go nuclear and ultimately suffer even direr consequences.

An agreement on these terms could also benefit Ukraine. It is unclear how long Kyiv can maintain its current military momentum, but the longer the war against its much larger neighbor lasts, the likelier it is that Ukraine will eventually falter through both attrition and exhaustion of Western goodwill. Sizable constituencies in the West already resent sending billions to Ukraine, an attitude that will likely grow as the global economy worsens. Others fear protracted war with Russia as a consequence of deeper involvement in a place of little significance to their national interest.

The provinces Putin has annexed are, along with Crimea, also Ukraine's poorest regions. Before 2014, they consumed massive state subsidies. Sustaining Crimea alone has already cost Russia tens of billions; shifting four more economically depressed and now war-torn regions to its rule will only further weigh down Moscow's finances while lessening the long-term burden on Kyiv. More important, the provinces' large ethnic Russian populations, which have historically swung elections to pro-Russian candidates, would be forever excluded from Ukraine's elections, leaving the country more homogeneous and more immune to fifth column influence. Furthermore, Kyiv already signaled in peace negotiations held earlier this year that it might consider such a territorial transfer.

Ukraine seems unreceptive to Putin's offer—perhaps a natural reaction, since Kyiv has every reason to believe it is winning. Zelensky replied that he was willing to negotiate with Russia, but only if Putin were not its president. His former press secretary, Iuliia Mendel, wrote in The Washington Post that negotiations would have to be predicated on a withdrawal of Russian troops. Neither eventuality is likely, but Ukraine's leaders may yet realize that a land-for-peace deal, however imperfect, would be far preferable to nuclear war on any scale.

Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.