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[Martin Schram] Repurposing Putin’s off-ramp

Wars and military escalations breed cliches that are exclusive, yet elusive.

So the Vietnam War’s best and brightest spent a decade chasing their illusory “light at the end of the tunnel.” And today’s Situation Room strategists are turning each other into nodding but clueless bobbleheads every time they emptily say somebody just needs to create an “off-ramp” for Vladimir Putin.

Everyone knows what everyone means: Just come up with a “face-saving” offer that Russia’s poker-faced president can accept -- and avoid blundering ahead with the massive Ukraine invasion.

But nobody knows what that “off-ramp” can be. Or how to make it sufficiently meaningless yet seemingly meaningful. Because everybody is going about it the wrong way. They’re all trying to build the wrong kind of off-ramp.

What has really happened is that Putin discovered that his master plan -- the reason he sent more than 100,000 troops to surround Ukraine on three sides -- has backfired. Big time. What he wanted, most of all, is to drive a wedge between the United States and its NATO allies. And his reading of what he’d seen of the United States and Europe this century -- the Syria redline, the Afghan abandonment, the Republican Party’s isolationism and Britain’s floundering -- meant that America and NATO were ripe for exploitation. Putin thought by moving massively on Ukraine, the weakened West would go limp. He’d divided the US and NATO -- his long desired payback for the shame he felt when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union crumbled.

What he has seen is that President Joe Biden and Europe’s leaders have shown strength and solidarity in ways he didn’t expect. America and Europe seemed to unite significantly behind a course of sanctions that Putin knows could all but blackball Russia from international banking and even the global economy.

With his massive move toward invading Ukraine, Russia’s president wanted to pressure NATO to pull all offensive military forces out of the former Eastern European countries that once were Soviet satellites. And of course to pledge that Ukraine can never join NATO.

The Stalinization of Vladimir Putin has been ugly no matter how you look at it. And from Putin’s view, it has provoked the opposite from what he expected. It brought US and NATO closer and forced them to increase their military presence in Eastern Europe.

What did Putin expect? And now he needs to ask himself: Will Eastern Europe, all of NATO and the United States, ever again view Putin’s Russia with a mind that isn’t preset to expect a hostile adversary -- and can someday even accept an economic and trading partner?

And that is the ultimate Ukraine invasion “off-ramp” that the West can sketch for Putin. And Joe Biden can play a key role as a diplomatic draftsman and global leader. Biden can go to the United Nations and, in a very different sort of General Assembly speech, he could remind the world of an era we all might consider worth resurrecting. He can remind the world of a time just eight years ago when Putin was pursuing a very different pathway -- a road in which he had mounted a costly and potentially effective way to steer Russia into being a genuine player and partner in the global economy.

In 2014, Putin had spent grandly to rejoin the world in what was, in effect, Putin’s Sochi Two-Step. First, at Sochi he hosted the Winter Olympics -- and won a world of plaudits for the facilities he built. A few months later, Putin was scheduled to be the host of the G-8 nations’ economic summit. Yes, at Sochi. For the first time, the world would be seeing Russia as never before -- as a potential partner in the global economy.

But just as the 2014 Winter Olympics was closing, Ukraine sought a trade relationship with the European Union, spurning a deal with Russia. An enraged Putin militarily captured Crimea, which was part of Ukraine. Of course, the G-8 canceled its summit and ousted Russia from the group. Russia has suffered ever since as a nonplayer in the global economy. If Russia now invades Ukraine, Russia’s people will suffer most from the massive banking sanctions that likely will follow. But Biden can tell that won’t happen if Putin doesn’t invade Ukraine. Experts believe Russia’s people will get Biden’s message via social media, even if the state media gets a little snippy.

Maybe, just maybe, the roadway Putin built in 2014 can be repurposed to become the diplomatic infrastructure “off-ramp” Putin can veer onto today.

And someday Ukrainians may look back at 2022 as the year they first got to know Good Neighbor Vladimir.

Martin Schram
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)

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