Are Zelenskyy and Putin Locked in a No-Win Situation?

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As the bloodshed and suffering continue, Ukrainians and Russians are meeting to try to find what Western “experts” like to call an “off-ramp” that might allow Putin to back down, save face and leave intact while bringing an end to the fighting. It's a tall order because Putin, if he cannot win outright, is seeking a settlement that includes a disarmed Ukraine that will be defenseless should he decide to invade again at some future date.

Zelenskyy and his countrymen know they cannot depend on or the United States when the chips are down. Oh, their friends to the West may provide humanitarian assistance and some weapons, but the survival and independence of Ukraine is not a core interest to any of them. If they could force Zelenskyy to essentially surrender by accepting Putin's terms to end the fighting, the damage to the world economy and the all too real possibility of an escalation that could drag everyone into the much wider war they all fear, they would do it in a heartbeat.

Ukraine has been through all this before. Stalin tried to erase the Ukrainian identity in the thirties by outlawing their language and killing three or four million Ukrainians by seizing their food and starving them to death. No one cared and wanted to avoid antagonizing the Soviet dictator. Even the august New York Times denied he was doing it. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed under its own weight decades later, Ukraine found itself in possession of hundreds of nuclear weapons but gave them up in return for a Western promise that they would never need them because the West had her back.

Although the USSR is but a memory today, the Russian Empire that Mr. Putin is trying to reconstruct is anything but. Ukraine. In addition to being the birthplace of Russian Orthodox Christianity, Ukraine has always been regarded by Russians as either part of itself or of what they call the “near abroad.” When attacked by Napoleon and Hitler, Russians survived through a defense in depth, drawing the invaders through captive, friendly or neutral border nations and finally into Russia herself. Invaders have found it was too far; the weather was too harsh and invading armies soon outran their supply lines and were defeated or forced to retreat.

Back in the sixties, a friend and I drove through the Soviet Union, spending July 4th in Kiev. As we flew to Europe, I found myself seated next to a pleasant enough German fellow who asked where we were going. I said our ultimate destination was Moscow, and he replied that he had spent the first half of World War II walking to Moscow and the second half walking back. It was a very long and not very pleasant walk, and we all know how it ended. And that has always been the secret to Russia's defense.

This year's invasion of Ukraine reminds me of one that happened in the opening months of World War II when Stalin invaded neighboring Finland with the assumption that the Finns would collapse in days or weeks so he could install a puppet regime in Helsinki and turn his attention to other potential victims. Stalin argued that an independent and potentially unfriendly Finland was a threat because of its position on his border, just as Putin argues today about Ukraine. It didn't work as well as he hoped. The Finns then, like the Ukrainians today, didn't roll over, surrender and accept the fate he had planned for them. There weren't many of them. The Russian forces had them outnumbered. What has come to be called “The Winter War” began on November 30, 1939, as 450 thousand Soviet troops crossed the Finnish border and the Soviet air force began bombing Finnish cities. Stalin's senior military advisor announced that they were taking action to protect themselves and that it would all be over within three weeks.

He was wrong. The Soviet advance soon bogged down as the outgunned Finns used whatever weapons they could find fought back. It went on for three months, with Stalin eventually dispatching a million men to Finland, more than 170,00 of whom were shipped home in body bags or buried where they died in Finland. It was costly and humiliating, though few doubted that Stalin would eventually prevail. Finland's neighbors promised aid, but very little arrived and much of what did came too late to do much good. Soviet military superiority did eventually force the Finns to sign a peace treaty favorable to Moscow, but Finland retained her sovereignty and Stalin had to give up his dream of taking over his neighbor or installing a friendly Soviet-controlled puppet government in Helsinki. The whole thing was humiliating, and as Hitler looked on, he became more and more convinced that the Red Army was a paper tiger the Nazi Wehrmacht could defeat. Historians say Stalin's failure to defeat the plucky Finns was a major reason Hitler decided to ignore his pact with Stalin and invade the Soviet Union.

History, it seems, does repeat itself, and in the end, the current war in Ukraine may end in a similar manner. Putin's failure to win a quick victory in Ukraine has united much of the world against him, revitalized NATO and the sanctions and isolation he now faces is unraveling the Russian economy with no real end in sight. Much of what he is demanding as Russia's price for ending the bloodshed may prove a price Ukraine will grudgingly but willingly pay to achieve that very same end, but they will not and cannot accept total emasculation or a loss of the ability to defend themselves in the future. Zelenskyy has already said they'll give up any desire to join NATO, so the sticking point other than Moscow's demand that they give up their ability to defend themselves involves the territory Russia has occupied and insists on keeping. That is where end-game negotiations will have to take place.

Ukraine's position as the negotiations between the parties resumed after Zelenskyy addressed the U.S. Congress is clear. Zelenskyy himself described them in a briefing of European leaders: “My priorities in the negotiations are absolutely clear: the end of the war, security guarantees, sovereignty, restoration of territorial integrity, real guarantees for our country, real protection for our country.”

He won't get all that, but regardless of what arrangements are eventually worked out, Russia is and will be the big loser. The new Russian Army has been revealed to be a far less effective force than anyone predicted. Western analysts, like Putin himself, were convinced before the invasion that there would be no way for Ukraine to stop an invasion such as he was preparing and that it would be over in short order. They failed, of course, to factor in the willingness of a people facing a truly existential threat to prefer to die fighting to surrender. That's the very same mistake Stalin made as he launched the old Red Army into Finland in an earlier day. I talked with a retired U.S. general recently who had been involved for a decade in training Ukrainian pilots, and he said that the one thing they all said was that they were prepared to die for their country. He said he was convinced when they said it even if the Russians weren't There is little question that Putin has the wherewithal to eventually prevail, but the Ukrainians have exacted a price so high that any victory will prove Pyrrhic.

Putin has already managed to revitalize NATO, convince even a recalcitrant Germany to rebuild its defenses and make his country a world pariah. What's more, his adventure has destroyed the very foundations of his support and popularity within Russia herself, and while he may survive, it will almost certainly be a shrunken and diminished . His popularity at home has been rooted in his appeals to Russian nationalism to “Make Russia Great Again.” Few Russians were sorry to see the end of Communism, but Putin has allowed them to believe that they are once again a nation to be respected and reckoned with on the world stage. They are rapidly becoming both a pariah and an international laughingstock.

It gets worse. Under his rule, the Russian economy stabilized, and people began to prosper. That's over. Regardless of whether he wins or not, it will take years and perhaps decades for Russia's economy to recover as queues of consumers reminiscent of Communist times line up searching for food and other necessities in short supply and the freedoms Russians enjoyed with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which allowed most Russians to live free of the constant fear of Communism for years, are being stripped away by a regime dedicated to crushing any dissent about the war Putin refuses to call a war.

Thousands of ordinary Russians have been arrested in recent weeks for questioning the wisdom of the war, and the economic elites and military leaders that Putin needs in his corner are grumbling about the current situation. As long as the Ukrainians fight on, the grumbling will continue and whether it ultimately threatens his rule, it will cost him the trust and perhaps the loyalty of people he needs to be able to count on. That will make him a loser on both the world and domestic stages.

Should Putin decide it's time to cut his losses rather than escalate further, a negotiated end could be in sight. A negotiated solution may require Zelenskyy to cede some of the Russian-dominated parts of Ukraine Putin already controls and a promise not to seek NATO membership but should leave the country able to deal freely with the West and must recognize Ukraine's right to have the means to defend herself against future aggression.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of American Liberty News.

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