The situation in Ukraine has reached a tenuous state now. Ukraine and Russia will have talks on the border of Belarus and the country to discuss ending the conflict. While it may seem Putin has the upper hand, the timing of the talks is what is important. They happen on the day that the toughest economic sanctions ever levied against a major economy go into effect. The impact will be extremely severe for Russians almost immediately, particularly in an economy that has been in decline. But it takes time for the pain to trickle up in an authoritarian regime. The question is if Putin can get as much as he wants from the talks before the door starts to close on him.
Make no mistake. Ukraine is in a pretty dire situation right now. Intelligence has shown that a massive force is headed to Kyiv to mount an all out assault to occupy the city and topple the government. The invasion has not gone as Putin or his defense team has wanted it to go. Ukrainians have proven more resilient than the Kremlin gave them credit for. Throughout these past four days, the world has rallied behind Ukraine like never before in recent history. After all, Putin evokes memories of Hitler in his efforts to rebuild an empire.
If he is intent on toppling the government, why have talks then. There is a simple explanation. Putin is a man of timing and he realizes his opportunities for achieving his goals are dwindling by the day. He wasn’t expecting the outpouring of support for Ukraine that he is seeing now. From the first days of this conflict, he seems to have been so deep in isolation that he didn’t do a good job of reading the room. Using rhetoric from World War II in a rambling speech, he thought he was providing a case for invading Ukraine, not for the world, but for his own country.
Putin’s View on the World
I’ve followed him for quite a while and went back through some of the video of his appearances on various occasions. He is 69 years old and grew up as a historian focused on Russia’s engagement in World War II. In recent years, he has spoken extensively about how the West ignored the contributions Russia made to the war and how the territories that were lost during the break up of the Soviet Union should be reunited into the fatherland. He focuses on nazism throughout these appearances and started adding Russophobia into the speeches such as last year’s Victory Day celebration.
But, the language he uses is dated language and is often lost on the new generation of Russians. It is born of a Kremlin full of KGB agents who served with him during the Cold War, but doesn’t register with the younger generation of Russians who value a more global economy where they have opportunities not offered to their mothers and fathers. The gap in generational ideology is stark and one that he didn’t calculate for.
If you listen to that generation of Russians, you’ll find they do not support this invasion and actually would prefer to let Ukraine be its own country. They do not see a threat from NATO or the West and actually embrace the cultural advantages offered by intersections with others. I’ve chatted with a couple of people who work on technology teams that include both Ukrainians and Russians. They’ve told me the Russians have actually apologized for this invasion and say it is not their Russia. In a few cases, they tell their teammates they stand with Ukraine.
Why is this significant to the talks on Monday? These talks take place when the harshest set of economic sanctions will hit Russia. Going through them, the sanctions cut off financial activity to and from the banks in the country. Russians have started withdrawing large sums of cash knowing their credit cards may become worthless as businesses fear they will not be paid for credit transactions. Reporters have already noted their hotels are asking them to settle in cash for fear of this.
The assets of the oligarchs, top Kremlin leaders, and their families will be targeted. This extends beyond just foreign accounts to physical assets such as properties, cars, boats, and even services outside of Russia. Oligarchs could be locked out of their expensive properties in London, Miami, and other places around the world, then unable to fly back home due to financial and travel restrictions. The will have to figure out how to function like normal human beings.
Finally, there is the Central Bank. When the US and EU sanctioned it, they attacked the one thing that might have helped Russia last through the early days of the sanctions, the $630 billion stockpile of international reserves many thought would insulate Russia. That is now locked down with no way for the Central Bank to access it. Any chances of using that to prop up a ruble that is expected to free fall on Monday are off the table. Russia’s economy will be pretty much a wasteland this coming week.
This is why Putin is heavily dependent on having talks as soon as possible to try to secure as much as he can from Ukraine at a time when the country is at its direst point. If Ukraine is able to hold out any longer and the financial impact of the sanctions starts to trickle up, world support will continue to rally even stronger and Putin’s hold on public opinion will diminish. So where could this end up?
Terms Russia Might Present
Russia could try to pressure Ukraine in ending the conflict and spare its people any more damage. It could point to the lines of military convoys headed towards the capital and other cities, trying to paint an even more devasting picture to the Ukrainian negotiators.
They could offer terms that would include a commitment to remove any language in the Ukrainian constitution regarding membership in NATO and a promise to never entertain such an option. They would also require Ukraine to demilitarize completely to weaken the country in case it might ever consider that again.
They would require the removal of Ukraine’s president and installation of a pro-Russian leader from within the country instead. I’m sure they have several people in mind. Zelensky’s administration would be tossed out in favor of a pro-Russian administration. They would also call on Ukraine to declare to the world that the conflict has ended and that all sanctions should be lifted.
Russia wants this wrapped up as quickly as possible before things start to get rough in “the fatherland.” If the Ukrainian team holds out, it could make it even more difficult for Russia to force terms on them as the sanctions start to eat away at the Russian economy. While Russia may be able to withhold information from Ukraine, it can’t hide the impact of an economy in free fall. The average Russian will ask why this invasion was necessary.
What Might Ukraine Do?
The problem with these terms is that it would set the country back significantly in terms of a free and independent state. That’s something I don’t think Ukraine is willing to accept at this juncture. They are just eight years into a new order after the 2014 Maidan Revolution. Those images and the period prior are fresh on their minds. This is another thing I don’t think Putin has calculated. If he does succeed in the terms listed above, he will be faced with a large population that knows how to create change. The generation in Ukraine today is the same generation that broke ties with Russian before.
One thing Putin cannot do now is to lose Zelensky to a careless murder. The president has become the world leader we all wish we had today. The more we learn about this former comedian turned politician, the more we love him. If Zelensky were to be killed now, it would rally the Ukrainian people like never before. It would rally the world like never before. Putin’s problem now will be what to do with him. He can’t leave Zelensky in office. Imprisoning him would motivate the people just as much.
Zelensky may have been able to save the country in a way none of us would have ever suspected. Putin could have met his match due to the growing popularity of Zelensky. If Ukraine pushes for more favorable terms to their own interests, it could give the sanctions time to create the effect we all hope they will. Time is running out for Putin and he may be backed in a corner he cannot figure out how to get out of and save face.