Vladimir Putin has been demonized, compared to Hitler, excluded from multilateral meetings and institutions, regularly mentioned as a war criminal, and considered by the West to be an international pariah. All of the above are polite descriptions of how he is being presented. Other narratives are not fit to print.
But what if we choose to view him through a different prism? What if we said that the war cannot end without Putin’s participation in some solution? What if we envision some form of negotiation with him, remembering how International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer was criticized for meeting with and publicly shaking hands with Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov in Moscow as if the Russian diplomat was a Covid-19 superspreader.
Maurer was doing his job as the head of a neutral, independent organization. He must talk to all sides in a conflict; that’s his humanitarian role
On the other hand, it appears that one should not talk to someone who has been condemned by Western leaders and is under legal investigations by international judicial bodies for war crimes. Exclusion has been among the significant reactions in the West’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. No more oligarchs at the World Economic Forum. No more Russian tennis players at Wimbledon. Vladimir and his friends are persona non grata in the Western world.
The problem with exclusion is that some resolution of the Ukraine crisis must be found as soon as possible. Too many lives have been lost.
Can the war end without Putin’s involvement?
The popular narrative for the war ending is for a rebellion that will overthrow Putin. That would be the perfect solution. Rumors of his frail health might also lead to a change in Russian leadership. In both scenarios, it is hoped that a new leader will stop the fighting and lean more toward the West.
That hopeful thinking has little traction for the obvious reason that we have not seen major discontent within Russia or its armed forces. And Putin’s health has not affected his leadership of the war. In addition, even if Putin were removed from or leaves office, there is no guarantee that the next leader would be more democratic. Indeed, if Libya and Iraq are examples of post-overthrow of strong leaders, the ouster of Putin is not guaranteed to promote peace and security in Russia or elsewhere. It could mean chaos in all Eastern Europe.
Ukrainian President Zelensky has said he would meet with President Putin. If the head of Ukraine, which is the direct victim of the aggression, is willing to meet with Putin, why can’t leaders from the West meet with him, assuming Putin agrees to negotiate with them?
If inclusive dialogue with Putin makes sense, then we should be making plans for the next step: an acceptable end to the fighting. To say – as the American Secretary of Defense did – that the goal of the United States was to weaken Russia is not helpful. Negotiation 101 says that we should be working on some win-win solution to end the fighting. Humiliating the enemy, the eventual loser, will not succeed. The Versailles Treaty concluding WWI is the classic example of this failed policy. The view from Moscow must always be part of a long-standing solution for ending the Ukrainian crisis.
How to negotiate with Putin as a devil? The major example I can come up with is in the Book of Job. God and the Devil are discussing, quite casually, the state of the world. God brags about how righteous is his man Job. The Devil replies that it is easy for Job to be righteous since he lives a privileged life. The Devil and God then make a wager about whether Job will still be righteous if he loses all his privileges.
Now it may seem flippant for God to bet with the Devil, and Job suffers enormously, although he is rewarded in the end. My point is that God and the Devil talked together. There was no exclusion.
If we want the war to end, we must consider negotiating with Vladimir Putin, the devil. Demonizing and excluding him will not be helpful to finding an end to the violence. And where “winning” the war and weakening Russia may be an American objective, it will not be successful in the long run.
For one of the obvious lessons of this war is that what goes out comes back. The end of the Soviet Union and Russia’s humiliation after 1991 are directly linked to the invasion of Ukraine, at least in Vladimir Putin’s mind. As a counter example of graciousness in victory; the winning wrestler in the Swiss national amateur sport of Schwingen wipes the sawdust from the shoulders of the loser. Singing “We are the champions” at the end of a war makes little sense.
If Vladimir Putin is part of the problem, he must be part of the solution, whatever that means.