Can Ukraine end the war in a negotiation with Russia — even within a multi-lateral framework? Clearly, Joe Biden and the EU hope to push Volodymyr Zelensky into talks, perhaps with Turkey or China as Vladimir Putin’s interlocutor/guarantor. The desire to prevent a nuclear escalation in the Russo-Ukrainian war certainly makes that look like at least an option, if not a solution.

However, Zelensky has thus far refused to embrace that idea — and for good reason, writes Boris Bondarev in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs. Bondarev spent twenty years inside Russia’s Foreign Ministry, growing more and more disillusioned with Putin’s authoritarianism and the ministry’s refusal to tell hard truths internally as well as externally. Bondarev’s essay mainly focuses on his departure from the ministry as well as the deplorable state of affairs in Russia and the Kremlin.

A negotiated settlement with Putin would mean nothing, Bondarev warns, in large part because of the utterly benighted nature of Russia’s foreign ministry that is “high on its own supply,” and Russians generally who are victimized by it. Putin’s bubble can only be burst by an outright, humiliating defeat — and anything less will only set the stage for another war:

Over the course of the war, Western leaders have become acutely aware of Russia’s military’s failings. But they do not seem to grasp that Russian foreign policy is equally broken. Multiple European officials have spoken about the need for a negotiated settlement to the war in Ukraine, and if their countries grow tired of bearing the energy and economic costs associated with supporting Kyiv, they could press Ukraine to make a deal. The West may be especially tempted to push Kyiv to sue for peace if Putin aggressively threatens to use nuclear weapons.

But as long as Putin is in power, Ukraine will have no one in Moscow with whom to genuinely negotiate. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will not be a reliable interlocutor, nor will any other Russian government apparatus. They are all extensions of Putin and his imperial agenda. Any cease-fire will just give Russia a chance to rearm before attacking again.

There’s only one thing that can really stop Putin, and that is a comprehensive rout. The Kremlin can lie to Russians all it wants, and it can order its diplomats to lie to everyone else. But Ukrainian soldiers pay no attention to Russian state television. And it became apparent that Russia’s defeats cannot always be shielded from the Russian public when, in the course of a few days in September, Ukrainians managed to retake almost all of Kharkiv Province. In response, Russian TV panelists bemoaned the losses. Online, hawkish Russian commentators directly criticized the president. “You’re throwing a billion-ruble party,” one wrote in a widely circulated online post, mocking Putin for presiding over the opening of a Ferris wheel as Russian forces retreated. “What is wrong with you?”

Zelensky has been making this point all along. Anything short of an outright defeat would merely be a pause, in large part because Putin and his foreign ministry live in their own fantasy world. Having started a war with Ukraine, Putin will not stop until he gets a victory, or until he has no military left to contend in Ukraine. Bondarev underscores Zelensky’s point, and is less worried than others about Putin’s threat to go nuclear:

Should that happen, Putin would find himself in a corner. He could respond to defeat with a nuclear attack. But Russia’s president likes his luxurious life and should recognize that using nuclear weapons could start a war that would kill even him. (If he doesn’t know this, his subordinates would, one hopes, avoid following such a suicidal command.) Putin could order a full-on general mobilization—conscripting almost all of Russia’s young men—but that is unlikely to offer more than a temporary respite, and the more Russian deaths from the fighting, the more domestic discontent he will face. Putin may eventually withdraw and have Russian propagandists fault those around him for the embarrassing defeat, as some did after the losses in Kharkiv. But that could push Putin to purge his associates, making it dangerous for his closest allies to keep supporting him. The result might be Moscow’s first palace coup since Nikita Khrushchev was toppled in 1964.

Of all these options, the third is the most likely — because it will be the easiest to sell. Bondarev himself notes that Putin’s diplomats have done nothing but tell him what he wanted to hear rather than relate the truth, and his military advisors and commanders have been even worse at honest feedback. Of course, Putin’s the man who put the incentives for this behavior in place, but he can credibly claim in the end to have been badly misled by his flunkies as a way of extricating himself from Ukraine if all else fails.

Even that will be so fraught, as Bondarev points out, that Putin will have to have no choice but to adopt that strategy. And the only way that happens is if Ukraine utterly defeats Russia in the field, not if they negotiate a status quo ante result that allows Putin to escape accountability for an abject defeat.

That would also require a loss of control over the information space. ISW didn’t have anything new on that point in last night’s briefing, but addressed that situation in their Saturday night assessment. The milbloggers have begun to get nervous, and rightly so, but so is the Kremlin:

Prominent Russian milbloggers who yesterday announced the existence of “hit lists” reportedly originating with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and targeting milbloggers for their coverage of operations in Ukraine walked back their claim on October 15. As ISW reported on October 14, prominent Russian milblogger Semyon Pegov of the WarGonzo Telegram channel accused “individual generals and military commanders” of the Russian MoD of developing a “hitlist” of Russian milbloggers whom the MoD intends to prosecute for “discrediting” the MoD’s handling of the war in Ukraine.[6] Pegov’s claim was amplified by several other milbloggers and generated substantial panic about censorship in the hyper-nationalist Russian information space.[7]

Pegov announced on October 15, however, that “there are no more lists”, and that the issue of lists has been removed from the agenda and congratulated his following and the wider milblogger community for being untouchable in the face of attempted crackdowns.[8] Pegov also reiterated that he has been aware of the list for weeks and knew that administrative and political power structures had already begun working on investigations of individual channels. Pegov claimed that he has learned who the author of the list was and praised his followers and colleagues for supporting him. Other prominent milbloggers amplified Pegov’s statements and stated that milbloggers continue to lead the fight for truth in the information space.

As ISW has previously assessed the announcement of mobilization served as a catalyst for a breakdown in the Russian information space that put the increasingly alienated MoD further at odds with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the cohort of milbloggers that he has periodically supported and empowered.[9] The Russian milblogger community may have strategically weaponized the rumors of MoD hit lists against the MoD itself by exposing the information and appearing to defeat the MoD attacks against it—whether or not they were real in the first place. The discourse surrounding the existence of these lists indicates continued structural fractures between the MoD establishment, the milbloggers, and the Kremlin.

The milbloggers are mainly rabid nationalists with as much to lose as Putin in any accountability for the war, once lost. However, they’re mainly on board as true believers, and the effects of disillusionment are starting to add up significantly in the wake of the Ukrainian counteroffensives.

Be sure to read all of Bondarev’s essay in Foreign Affairs. He gives a very insightful look at the ultimate outcome of cults of authority, and leaves the impression that the West may have also fallen victim to it on a lesser scale as well.

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