Putin’s subdued Victory Day speech
A reduced scope of objectives indicates possible options for settlement of the war
Contrary to the predictions of nearly all U.S. and European observers, nothing dramatic emerged from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Victory Day speech on Red Square on May 9 concerning the Russian war in Ukraine: He did not declare victory or formal war; he did not announce a mass mobilization of Russian society; he did not repeat earlier veiled nuclear threats; neither did he indicate any diplomatic way forward. This absence of the dramatic is actually quite dramatic in itself.
In a brief speech less than 10 minutes in duration, Putin struck a sober tone, acknowledging significant Russian losses in its “special military operation” in Ukraine, now in its 11th week, and indicating no path forward on either the military or diplomatic tracks. He never mentioned Ukraine by name but neither did he pronounce the term Novorossiya (New Russia) that he has in the past invoked to legitimize (in Russians’ eyes) the absorption of all of southeastern Ukraine into Russia. At the same time, Putin did refer to the United States and NATO and even the alliance between the Soviet Union and the United States and Great Britain during the Second World War: the former by way of justifying his decision for war because of their putative refusal to consider Russian negotiating terms of late 2021 for European security; the latter as a reference to the benefits that could be accrued from security collaboration among Moscow, Washington, London, and their allies.
Putin’s specific references to the ongoing war were limited to the “Donbass” (Donetsk Basin) region of far eastern Ukraine; and while he mentioned alleged “neo-Nazi” influences in the Ukrainian government, Putin avoided calling for regime change in Kyiv.
In our judgment, Putin’s remarks, while in no way indicating a rejection of the premises for beginning the war in the first place, do reflect a much-subdued Russian reevaluation of the prospects for Russian “victory.” They imply a dramatically reduced scope of Russian objectives and a possible willingness to negotiate a settlement on the basis, but not limited to, the status quo ante bellum. Of course, this reevaluation in Moscow, such as it is, is fundamentally the byproduct of the military facts on the ground, i.e., that while Moscow can destroy much of what it wants in Ukraine, it has not the material power to destroy Ukrainian capacity to resist Russia or the moral power to govern significant parts of the Ukraine—even in the allegedly pro-Russian east—either directly or indirectly. At the same time, it remains most unlikely that Ukraine’s armed forces, however much they may be reinforced by the impressive Lend-Lease-type aid program now coming from NATO countries, can remove Russian forces from all of Ukrainian soil, including Crimea, by force of arms alone.
Based in part on Putin’s remarks, we outline terms of a possible settlement below. Consider, first, the chief substantive points that Putin made in his “Victory Day” speech.
- Russia advocates the establishment of an “indivisible” system of international security. (In effect, this means one, especially in Europe, where Russia is inside the system as a partner instead of outside the system.)
- Russian diplomatic proposals of December 2021 for the establishment of such a system in Europe, with special reference to Ukraine and NATO, were never seriously addressed by the NATO countries.
- The Russian war in Ukraine is a preemptive one and has been waged to prevent the consolidation of a NATO security infrastructure in Ukraine that would constitute a threat to Russia.
- The United States claims not to be bound by any rules of international law in its own national security decision-making.
- Russia is different from the NATO West: Russia’s traditions of greatness, including its role in defeating Nazi Germany, have been mocked by the West in general and specifically in Western support for Ukraine on an anti-Russian basis.
- Russia would have welcomed U.S. veterans of World War II at the ceremony and continues to value the contributions of the Western allies to the joint victory over Nazi Germany.
- All of Putin’s battlefield references were to the Donetsk Basin region in far eastern Ukraine bordering Russia.
- Putin acknowledged that the Russian armed forces had suffered significant losses, pledged unstinting support for the bereaved families, and asked for a minute of silence.
- The power of Russia resides in its internal unity.
- Putin ended by pledging “Victory!”
Based on the totality of these statements, and on the political-military context in which they were pronounced, we draw the following conclusions regarding the prospects for a settlement of the war:
- It continues to be the case that each side’s incentives to settle the war will be influenced by their respective estimates about the balance between the future expected costs of continuing the war versus the inevitable uncertainties arising out of the compromises necessary for peace. These uncertainties include domestic-political considerations as well as traditional aspects of international security.
- In this respect, the course of the war on the several battlefields continues to shape the prospects for peace: Russia and Ukraine must each conclude that there is more to be won by settling than by continuing the war.
- Russia does not have the capacity for waging successful war in all of Ukraine, or even the larger part of it.
- Russia is not interested in a simple bilateral peace between itself and Ukraine. It wants a peace whereby, whatever concessions it may wring out of Kyiv—such as some specific guarantees of autonomy for Ukraine’s far eastern provinces—NATO must make corresponding commitments that address some core security concerns of Russia, such as no NATO-country strike weapons based in Ukraine capable of hitting Moscow, which lies just 300 miles from the northeast Ukrainian border.
- More broadly, Russia wishes to be included substantively in all-European security structures. One such structure currently exists: the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). We outline immediately below how the OSCE could play a constructive role in promoting a peace settlement.
- Putin’s subdued focus on the Donetsk Basin in his Victory Day speech, combined with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent affirmation that a peace is possible based on the status quo ante bellum (i.e., Crimea and the eastern provinces as of February 23, 2022 under de facto Russian control), suggests that a deal could be struck containing all or some of the following elements:
- An immediate cease-fire while substantive negotiations begin, to be monitored by the OSCE.
- Identification of an eventual demilitarized zone (DMZ) of approx. 100km breadth along each side of the Ukrainian-Russian and Ukrainian-Belarusian borders, pending withdrawal of troops from these regions. Again, OSCE troops (perhaps from non-NATO OSCE countries like Ireland and Switzerland) could monitor the implementation of such a DMZ.
- Russia concedes (or at least does not oppose) Ukraine’s right to join the European Union, while Ukraine pledges a “conditional neutrality,” i.e., no NATO membership so long as Russia observes the terms of the DMZ.
- NATO pledges that neither the organization nor any member country will deploy offensive strike weapons in Ukraine capable of striking Moscow or beyond.
- Russia and Ukraine agree to a 10-15 year cooling-off period in order to assess the long-term political status of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, as well as of Crimea. Under OSCE or UN auspices, refugees must be allowed to return, some stable civil life must be reestablished, after which referenda organized by either the OSCE or the United Nations would be held to determine the wishes of the local populations concerning independence or the terms of autonomy.
- U.S. and EU economic and financial sanctions on Russia would be lifted to the extent that Russian troops will have withdrawn from occupied Ukraine.
- Frozen Russian financial assets in the EU and North America will be unfrozen to the extent that Russia contributes to an OSCE and/or UN fund for the reconstruction of Ukraine.
This is necessarily a tentative and uncertain analysis. But to the extent that Putin’s unexpected sobriety in his “Victory Day” speech hints at an unexpected willingness to reevaluate Russia’s course in the war, it would be irresponsible not to explore the possibilities for movement from this status quo horribilis.