Biden: I'm worried that Putin doesn't have a way out of the war in Ukraine

Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Yeah, I’m worried too.

If Russia weren’t a nuclear power, the way out would be simple. We keep arming the Ukrainians until they boot Putin’s ass out of the country, teaching him and the Russian people a hard lesson about wars of conquest. For Biden to “worry” about Russia’s pride in that scenario would amount to embarrassing weakness from a U.S. president.


But they are a nuclear power. And if their offensive in the Donbas fails, as seems increasingly likely, Putin will have to choose between escalation and retreat. Retreat is unthinkable for a strongman who’s staked his legacy on subduing Ukraine. Which means escalation is the only option.

Yet there’s no obvious conventional means for Russia to escalate. A national mobilization would take too long. They can’t easily resupply their troops in the field because western sanctions have denied them the components they need to make certain types of materiel. They can redeploy Russian soldiers stationed in other parts of the world to Ukraine — and have begun to do so, in fact — but eventually they’ll run out of those too.

If saving face is an absolute prerequisite to Russian withdrawal and there’s no longer any conventional means to save face, Putin will inevitably consider unconventional means.

So Biden is right to worry.

Biden, speaking at a political fundraiser in a Washington suburb, said Putin had mistakenly believed the invasion of Ukraine would break up NATO and break up the European Union.

Instead, the United States and many European countries have rallied to Ukraine’s side…

Biden said Putin is a very calculating man and the problem he worries about now is that the Russian leader “doesn’t have a way out right now, and I’m trying to figure out what we do about that.”

The fascist goon has boxed himself into an unwinnable war and can’t get out without either incinerating what’s left of his prestige or incinerating Ukraine. So the west will have to contrive a “prestigious” exit strategy for him.


But that won’t be easy. Ukrainian pride matters here too and Zelensky and his people appear to be in no mood to make territorial concessions in a war which they appear to be winning. Kiev seems prepared to try the “boot his ass out” option and dare Putin to go nuclear in response. The U.S. and Europe are … less prepared, and so they may have begun leaning on Zelensky behind the scenes to make a deal with Russia before this conflict spirals.

More so Europe than the U.S., I’d imagine. If we were eager to get Ukraine to de-escalate, showering them with $33 billion in mostly military aid is a funny way to do it.

You can understand why this subject was on Biden’s mind last night, though. He must have been briefed on Putin’s weirdly low-key Victory Day speech and deduced, I think correctly, that the Kremlin has grasped that its chances of a meaningful victory are up in smoke now that Ukraine is getting top-shelf heavy weapons from NATO. So they’re at an inflection point. Which way do they want to take this conflict? If they don’t see a conventional off-ramp that lets them end the war with their dignity somewhat intact then the only way to de-escalate is to escalate.

“US officials still believe Putin is undeterred and wants a tangible victory in Ukraine,” CNN reported last night. “But they don’t know what measure could be sufficient for Putin to declare victory.” Yeah, what are the goals of the Russian military campaign at this point? Initially they wanted to seize, disarm, and “denazify” the country by toppling Zelensky. When that didn’t work, they moved to Plan B, conquering the Donbas. But a month of fighting shows no near-term prospect of that happening either. Lawrence Freedman is hoping against hope that Putin will accept that the cause is futile and offer a ceasefire in exchange for a return to the pre-war status quo in the east and Ukraine making some symbolic concessions about not joining NATO and not acquiring nuclear weapons. “Putin described an imaginary threat for which he therefore might accept an imaginary solution,” he writes, optimistically. The alternative for Russia is unpleasant:


The second phase of the war has been underway for a month now and the Russians have made few gains. The encircling movement to eliminate the substantial Ukrainian force in the Donbas has yet to take place. There have been a few gains but they have been minimal while Ukraine is starting to see some successful counter-offensives pushing up from Kharkiv and eating away at Russian positions in Kherson. The Russian have amassed whatever forces they can muster for this latest push, with little left in reserve, and it does not appear to be sufficient. Equipment is still being lost at an alarming rate. Meanwhile, advanced artillery pieces from Western countries are being employed by Ukraine, which is likely to add to the attrition of Russian forces. It is not surprising that there are reports of Russian commanders refusing to put their troops into exposed positions.

It is possible that this second phase of the war around the Donbas will follow the same pattern as the first phase. The first step is for it to become apparent that the Russians cannot win. Then the implications of a draw for a negotiated solution are discussed, before the position of Russian forces becomes unsustainable and they have to withdraw. Except that this time withdrawal means accepting defeat. If that is an intolerable prospect for Moscow then the rational next step is not to escalate in some way but to offer a cease-fire as soon as possible, with the hope of then securing the minimum defensive objectives or at least causing tension between Zelensky and his international supporters if the offer is refused.


Right, the closest thing Putin may have at the moment to a conventional weapon that knocks the west backwards is … an offer to de-escalate. European leaders would lunge at it; Zelensky would probably resist; the U.S. would be conflicted. There would be bickering. If Ukraine insisted on fighting on, some European nations might withdraw their support. Putin could claim that he was right all along that the Ukrainians want war, not him. American doves on both sides would begin pressuring Biden to demand that Zelensky stand down before we all get nuked. The western alliance might splinter.

But for Putin to offer a ceasefire and ceasefire terms that do little more than restore the status quo ante, he’d have to swallow his nationalist pride. How likely is that?

Incidentally, the White House’s dilemma about finding Putin a face-saving way out of the war explains why Biden was reportedly furious at all the leaks last week about U.S. intelligence helping Ukraine to target Russia’s generals and its Black Sea fleet. “It’s stupid, it’s unnecessary. There’s no upside, only downside,” said one European official to Politico. The president agreed, apparently telling the director of national intelligence and the head of the CIA to get their acts together and shut their people up. The more gloating there is from the U.S. about Russia’s predicament, the more brazen we are about taking credit for their failures, the more reckless Putin’s impulse may become to restore Russian prestige. Nothing good lies that way.


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