Updated Mar 1, 2022 - World

Biden's dilemma: How to give Putin an off-ramp

Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on economic issues at the Kremlin yesterday.

Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on economic issues at the Kremlin yesterday. Photo: Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

With Ukraine holding Russia off longer than many U.S. officials had expected, President Biden now faces a great unanswered question — how to give Vladimir Putin an off-ramp to avoid even greater calamity.

Why it matters: A cornered, humiliated Putin could unleash untold pain on the world, from cyberattacks to nuclear threats. After enacting brutal sanctions, the White House now must consider how the invasion can end without a new catastrophe.

Between the lines: Nobody knows what Putin would accept.

  • Many officials fear that we are heading into a very dangerous period — the punishing Western sanctions pushing an autocrat into a corner.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), vice chair of the Senate intelligence committee, has hinted Putin could be addled.

  • "This is the most dangerous moment in 60 years," Rubio tweeted Sunday night. Putin, he said, "is facing a humiliating military fiasco & he has triggered extraordinary consequences on #Russia's economy & people that will not be easy to reverse ... And his only options to reset this imbalance are catastrophic ones."

A European diplomat told reporters at a briefing yesterday: "It's like the Sun Tzu thing of giving someone a golden bridge to retreat across. How do you get him to go in a different direction?"

  • "I think the door to diplomacy remains open," the diplomat continued. "Putin ... doesn't normally back down. But he also controls the information environment in his own country to such an extent that if he does, he can cover his tracks. ... So I think there is room for him to de-escalate — and that's certainly what we're pressing for."

The diplomat pointed to yesterday’s Russia-Ukraine peace talks in Belarus as the most viable off-ramp in a sea of bad options, noting that negotiations lasted for four hours and appear headed for a second round. 

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said before the talks that he was willing to discuss "neutral status" for Ukraine — one of Putin's three demands.
  • But the other two — demilitarization and "denazification" of Ukraine, and recognition of Russia's claim to Crimea — suggest Putin will never accept a deal in which Zelensky remains in power.

The bottom line: The West's response to Putin — for so long, uncertain and halting — has moved at astonishing speed and ferocity over the past week. How Putin will respond — and whether de-escalation is even possible — is keeping national-security leaders up at night.

Go deeper: Axios Ukraine dashboard

Go deeper