Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to bend Ukraine to his will, but a new peace proposal being floated by the Kremlin suggests Moscow may be bowing to reality.
Russia has been forced by its own military struggles, unexpectedly fierce Ukrainian resistance and worldwide opposition to scale back its demands three weeks after invading its democratic neighbor, experts told NBC News.
Instead of replacing Kyiv's pro-Western government and permanently crippling its military, Moscow now appears prepared to accept a scenario in which Ukraine commits to being a neutral country with its own armed forces along the lines of Sweden or Austria.
This, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday, "could be viewed as a certain kind of compromise."
Or, said David L. Phillips of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University, "this is a face-saving measure for Putin."
"He wanted a subservient Ukraine and now sees he can't get everything he wants," Phillips said.
So far the Ukrainians, who were talking again Thursday with their Russian counterparts, have seemed open to the neutrality idea.
Only a “Ukrainian” model with enforceable security guarantees is acceptable to Kyiv, presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said on Twitter. This means a "rigid agreement with a number of guarantor states undertaking clear legal obligations to actively prevent attacks" on Ukraine, he said.
Ian Kelly, the former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's reluctant admission on Tuesday that NATO membership was not in the cards for his country may provide a potential exit ramp from a war it appears Putin can't win as easily as he anticipated.
"To me this is an indication that the Russians are looking for a way out of this war and quickly," Kelly, who is also the ambassador in residence at Northwestern University, told NBC News. "This appears to be an attempt to permit Putin to climb down from his initial outrageous demands and find a formula to stop this war."
'A massive Russian climb down'?
Moscow launched the attack three weeks ago expecting to swiftly oust the democratically-elected Zelenskyy and halt the country’s drift toward the West that Russia seemingly viewed as an existential threat. Its forces have battered Ukrainian cities, creating the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II, but they have taken heavy losses and made little substantive progress.
When the war started, Kelly said, Putin was demanding what he called the "de-Nazification of the Ukrainian government, meaning getting rid of Zelenskyy and installing a pro-Moscow regime, and de-militarization, which essentially means no NATO, no standing army to oppose Moscow."
Putin has repeatedly and falsely cast the Ukrainian leadership as Nazis even though Zelenskyy is Jewish and was democratically elected.
The potential deal centered around neutrality "is a definite sign that Russia is looking to accept a compromise," Kelly said. Ukraine is not “demilitarizing" and is not saying it won’t form military alliances with other countries, he added. "It's just not using the word NATO."
Ben Rhodes, who was deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration and is now an MSNBC contributor, agreed that any cease-fire that hinges on Ukraine becoming a neutral country would be a "massive Russian climb down from 'denazification and demilitarization' (aka regime change and Russian dominance)."
"But the future of occupied Ukrainian territory remains a huge question mark," Rhodes said on Twitter.
Several sticking points remain, most notably what to do about the areas in southern and eastern Ukraine that Moscow has either annexed, recognized as independent or occupied militarily.
Zelenskyy has refused to recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and has vowed not to give up any Ukrainian territory.
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, wrote in an opinion piece Wednesday for The Washington Post that Putin “is still hoping to win.” But if there’s a stalemate, he said, any settlement will be “hard to accept” for both sides.
“Putin would have to acknowledge that he waged a senseless war, killing thousands of Russian soldiers and thousands of innocent Ukrainians (ethnic Russians and Ukrainians alike), only to achieve what he de facto already had — control over Crimea and parts of the Donbas region as well as Ukrainian neutrality,” McFaul wrote.
Zelenskyy "also would have to agree to conditions, including perhaps neutrality, that would be hard to accept” after everything his country has been through, McFaul wrote.
And so far, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday, the U.S. is "not seeing Russia take any actions to de-escalate."
But even if the two sides do agree to a deal to end the fighting, it's unlikely the crisis will come to an easy conclusion.
The Russia-watchers, echoing members of the Biden administration and the leaders of other NATO countries, said the West should keep tightening the screws on Moscow in the event of a cease-fire, especially given Putin's track record.
"No sanctions should be lifted to reward Russia for entering into a cease-fire," Phillips said. "Clear criteria are needed for removing sanctions such as the withdrawal of Russian troops from all Ukrainian territory and a decision by Moscow to stop its aerial and artillery bombardment."
"The cease-fire must be verifiable," he said.