With the pace of events accelerating all the time, yesterday’s hot take is today’s embarrassing blunder, to be forgotten as soon as possible. Still, so far this suggested way out of the Ukraine disaster doesn’t look too bad to me.
By explicitly raising the threat of nuclear war, Putin has reminded everyone that any outcome has to look better to him than fighting on. At the same time, in every other respect, things look worse and worse for him. There have been no easy battlefield wins, Europe is supplying arms to Ukraine at a rapid rate, his allies are abandoning him, and sanctions that seemed unimaginable a week ago are already in place. So, both sides have an incentive to seek peace in the talks that are about to open.
The obvious face-saver for Putin, at which the Ukrainians have already hinted, would be a commitment not to join NATO and to adopt a position of neutrality. The first is now irrelevant: the invasion which NATO membership might have prevented has happened, and (if the war ends now) been repelled. As for neutrality, a war between NATO and Russia would kill us all, so the position of Ukraine would be hypothetical.
The other side of the coin would be a Russian withdrawal to the positions held a week ago. This would save face, but would still be an utter disaster for Putin. Whatever its official position, the postwar Ukraine will be remorselessly hostile to Putin and Russia, as well as being armed to the point where the threat of invasion (at least without nuclear weapons or similar) would be irrelevant. And even if Russia is readmitted to SWIFT, its exclusion from the world economy is a fait accompli. BPs decision to dump its holding in Rosneft, taking a big loss in the process, is an indication. The oligarchs who were welcomed with golden passports a week ago, will be lucky if they can get a fraction of their wealth back. Most importantly, Europe will be rushing to end its reliance on Russian gas and oil. Russia might find new markets in China, but it will almost certainly be selling at a discount.
As I hinted at the time, the over-optimistic part of my take was the idea that there would be a positive outcome in the US. No sign of that so far, which means the end of democracy is still on track to happen. But at least there is some chance that Europe will hold out.