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To end Russia-Ukraine tensions, Vladimir Putin needs a way to save face

This is a concept that the U.S. has only too rarely understood: Putin, quite simply, wants respect.

Ukraine is a crisis that Russian President Vladimir Putin has brought on himself, and if it goes over the cliff as it could, he will have only himself to blame. But the West, especially America, must be sure that the Russian leader doesn't drag the rest of the world, especially Europe, over the brink as well.

There must be some way to give Putin an off-ramp. At this point, that has been desperately lacking from President Joe Biden.

This means that no matter who's responsible at this point — and there will be plenty of time for finger-pointing once those 100,000-plus Russian troops along the border with Ukraine start heading for Kyiv, or for home — there must be some way to give Putin an off-ramp. At this point, that has been desperately lacking from President Joe Biden.

There is a long shopping list that could begin to move matters in a more positive direction, both carrots and sticks. But so far, there seems to have been little but sticks. In recent days, there have been a host of in-your-face threats from the United States — extreme sanctions, putting 8,500 troops on "heightened preparedness" just in case NATO decides to activate its "response force.” Meanwhile, France has offered to send troops to Romania, Denmark is sending F-16 jets to Lithuania, the Netherlands F-35 jets to Bulgaria, and Spain a frigate to the Black Sea.

More important is the carrot that allows Putin to save face and be able — especially to his most critical domestic audiences — to paint himself and Russia as winners. This is a concept that the U.S. has only too rarely understood: Putin, quite simply, wants respect.

"I don’t think America is the party that wants to solve" the Ukraine crisis, Nina Khrushcheva of the New School told me in a telephone interview. The great-granddaughter of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who's just returned from a year in Moscow, added that, "The Americans want to undermine Putin even more." And that is not a path toward a peaceful resolution.

It's worth pointing out that then-President John F. Kennedy gave Khrushchev a face-saving way out of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 by agreeing to withdraw U.S. Jupiter medium-range missiles from Turkey, a NATO member state. That should serve as a model for Biden now.

After all, Putin, for all his bluster, needs to show some victory if he’s going to be coaxed back from invading. With Covid-19 still raging at home and vast widening disparities in wealth, his nearly 20 years in office have demonstrated little improvement in the lives of most Russians, which Putin has conceded is his greatest worry. Indeed, much of this discontent has been manifested in a growing opposition from leaders such as the imprisoned Alexei Navalny, whom Putin has just branded a terrorist in his latest effort to tamp down his growing following. Putin badly needs some perception of a win at home.

Certainly, the U.S. would like to encourage a multiparty system in Russia and reclaim some of Washington’s lost ground on any number of recent global issues. There are still recriminations from then-President Barack Obama's failure to react quickly and strenuously to Putin's blitzkrieg seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. More recently, America has itself lost face from the catastrophic denouement of the war in Afghanistan.

The new Russian threat against Ukraine, it would seem, is a tailor-made crisis that allows Biden to stand up to Putin and show his backbone, and maybe deflate Putin’s domestic standing further. This could perhaps come at an opportune moment for dethroning the Russian leader. But is that the right choice and is this the right time? Certainly not.

The world has a diplomatic device, already eight years old, that could serve as an off-ramp — an institution designed to allow diplomacy to play out away from the grip of U.S. intervention: the Normandy Format. At the D-Day celebrations in Normandy in 2014, Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France agreed to begin informal four-party talks to resolve the ongoing violence in eastern Ukraine. The U.S. was excluded, as the process was designed to be an intra-European effort.

Europe as a whole would like to cool the tensions and allow diplomacy to take precedence more than the U.S. appears to want; unlike the U.S. troops on standby, the European security measures are tokens. And the recent readouts from the White House and France’s Elysée Palace after a joint call with other European allies, Ukraine, Russia and the Russian ally Belarus show these somewhat divergent orientations.

The Elysée statement emphasized the need for “de-escalation” in “negotiations” as part of a "reinforced dialogue with Russia which we are in the process of leading," i.e. through the Normandy Format, with an upcoming consultation already scheduled between Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron. By contrast, the American readout made no mention of Normandy or the role of France. While it expressed support for a diplomatic resolution, its language on that score was decidedly more tepid.

On Wednesday, the U.S. delivered a written response to Russian demands on Ukraine. The contents have not been made public, but it is likely it didn’t go as far as European officials in background briefings suggested they would have liked, especially on the crucial issue of membership in NATO for Ukraine, which Russia strenuously opposes.

The draft U.S. note submitted to Russia on Wednesday offered no change on its open-door policy of Ukrainian membership in NATO, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. But Western European countries such as France would likely be willing to make that concession to prevent Moscow from invading. There is little real appetite among most European members of NATO for the addition of any country that might need to invoke Article V (an attack on one is an attack on all) anytime soon.

Beyond policy objectives, what likely has smarted the most for Putin was the sudden and unceremonious manner in which he was expelled from the G-8 in 2014 after his seizure of Crimea. What has become the G-7 is the ultimate club for nations of power. Since then, Putin has had his nose pressed frustratingly against the window. Clearly this is not the time to reward him, nor does this seem to have been mentioned in the American note to Putin. But some means to demonstrate that Russia is not fully a pariah nation, on its way to joining the ranks of North Korea and Iran, would be a good start.

It's time for the U.S. to take a step back and let the Europeans play the primary role in these initiatives. They do, after all, have a more direct and proximate stake in a full-scale war on their continent and seem to be able to apply some brakes to Putin’s ambitions. The latest Normandy gathering adjourned late Wednesday with a new date for discussions to resume in two weeks— at the very least, that staves off an invasion through that time.

There is an expression I first learned in Russian class in 1961, "an iron fist in a velvet glove." Europe, led by the French, seems to be taking the kind of path that Biden should be taking: moderation and reflection, with just a taste of steel.