The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
I am astonished that in all the 24/7 coverage of the Russian invasion, so little attention is being paid to what to my eyes seems clearly to be a most – perhaps the most – significant development of the past few days: The utter silence, on both the Russian and the Ukrainian side, about what they talked about at their first negotiating session at the border, followed, today, by the announcement that they will be holding a second round of talks shortly.
This is exactly what you would expect to happen if there were actually serious proposals under consideration. If it was all just arm-waving and table-pounding, you'd think that one side, or both, would have said so, blaming the other side for the futility of the exercise. I take the fact that the Ukrainians have agreed to a second meeting as a very positive sign; they must think that something useful could come out of continuing the discussions, and they're in a helluva lot better position to make that judgment than I am.
One thing is crystal clear: the Russians did not want to be in this position. When the invasion began, Putin had no intention of negotiating with Zelensky or his government. His plan – does anyone doubt this? – was to destroy Zelensky and his government, and then to get on with things. That wasn't merely incidental to his overall objective – it was his overall objective.
But now, six days in, he's negotiating with Zelensky. Maybe it's a total sham, and he's just doing it to bide time, or for the publicity value. But the Ukrainians appear not to think it's a sham, and I'll trust their judgment.
What does it mean? It seems to me clear that the Russians want out. Putin has a problem he didn't anticipate, and it is a problem that, unfortunately for him but fortunately for the civilized world, will not be and cannot be solved on the battlefield. The problem, of course, is the new weapon the Allies have deployed – collectively, the "sanctions" – which appears to be capable of laying waste to the Russian economy and the Russian standard of living. "Bombing them back to the Stone Age," as it were, but without the use of bombs.
And the Russians must surely see that that problem will not go away, even if they gain their objectives on the battlefield. Indeed, that may well make the problem worse; marching into and occupying Kharkiv and Kyiv, dissolving the government, imprisoning, or murdering, Zelensky and his associates, none of that is likely to further endear Putin to the world or to cause the Allies to loosen the noose.
So I continue to be optimistic that this tragedy may be coming to an end, because I think the Russians are pretty anxious for a way out, and I think – or at least I hope – that the Ukrainians can find one, some concession that they can swallow that gives Putin a way to declare victory and leave.
And in the true spirit of putting my money where my mouth is, I've got $50 that says that the war is over, and the Russians are on their way out of Ukraine, by the end of this month. First one to take me up on that in the Comments is in.
One advantage, incidentally, that the Allies' new weapon has in comparison to conventional weapons of war is that its effects are, to a very substantial degree, entirely reversible. The sanctions are a kind of siege – nothing comes in, nothing goes out, if it works well; once it is called off and the gates re-open, the Russian economy can return rather quickly to something like its pre-war state. That, one has to assume, must be part of the negotiations now underway – some guarantee that the sanctions will be lifted if/when the Russians leave. [Which could get tricky, insofar as the Ukrainians aren't the ones imposing the sanctions]
So it's really not like bombing Russia back to the Stone Age, whose effects would not be so easily reversed.
Not to mention that actually bombing Russia back to the Stone Age – which we do, after all, have the capacity to do – would invite a retaliation whose consequences are obviously too horrible to contemplate.
But that points to another nice feature of the new weapon we have deployed: Russia can't turn it against us in retaliation. It can lay siege to Kyiv, on the ground; but it can't lay siege to the US economy, let alone all the component Allied economies, the way we can lay siege to its economy. That's a nice weapon to have at your disposal.