The harsh truth in Biden’s faux pas

Journalist Michael Kinsley famously said, “A faux pas is when a politician is telling the truth—an obvious truth that he should not be telling.” By that standard, the closing sentence of President Biden’s Warsaw speech may be a gaffe for eternity . Government officials hastened to dismiss the suggestion that regime change in Russia was among the goals of US aid to Ukraine. US Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith hinted (plausibly enough) that Mr Biden’s words represented “a principled human reaction” to his early morning encounter with hundreds of desperate Ukrainian refugees.

Mr. Biden’s off-the-cuff remark, which dominated coverage of an otherwise strong speech, raises a bigger question: Is it conceivable that the rest of the world can get back to business as usual with Vladimir Putin as Russia’s President, or must he and his country be treated? as an international pariah as long as he stays in power?

Much depends on how the war ends. It is now clear that Mr. Putin cannot achieve his original goal: to quickly overthrow the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and install a compliant regime in Kyiv. Although it is too early to know for sure, recent statements by Russian officials suggest that Mr Putin is shifting to plan B – securing the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the coastal land bridge to Crimea. General Kyrylo Budanov, chief of intelligence at the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, agrees with this assessment.

It is conceivable, but unlikely, that if the West expands the scope and accelerates the pace of arms shipments, the Ukrainian armed forces could drive the Russian invaders from their country completely. At this point, however, the most likely outcome is that both sides miss total victory and a stalemate ensues, with Ukraine ruling the west and Russian forces occupying the east. This would create what General Budanov calls “North and South Korea in Ukraine.” Then what?

One possibility is that a version of the pre-invasion status quo will resume, with Russian and Russian-backed forces occupying much more Ukrainian territory than before the invasion. Fighting would likely continue, with less intensity, along the new informal line of demarcation between the warring forces.

Sanctions would continue, as would arms shipments to Ukraine and Europe’s efforts to decouple from Russian energy. The US and its allies would step up efforts to diplomatically isolate Russia.

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There is a slightly more optimistic scenario in which Turkey-hosted negotiations between Russia and Ukraine continue to advance and the intensity of the fighting gradually subsides. Still, the best Mr. Zelenskyy could offer without arousing domestic opposition would fall far short of the minimum Mr. Putin could accept without jeopardizing his survival as Russia’s leader. This is important as any draft agreement would be subject to approval by a popular referendum in Ukraine.

Before the recent Russian invasion, Ukraine refused to accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and after so much bloodshed and destruction at the hands of Russian forces, it is less likely to do so. Similarly, if Ukraine did not accept the territorial gains made by Russian forces in Donbass in 2014, why should it accept the larger gains made by Russia this year? Ukraine appears ready to abandon its long-held aspirations of joining NATO and discussing some form of neutrality, but only in exchange for security guarantees from a Western coalition of the willing that Russia would no longer find palatable.

The most likely outcome, I believe, is a truce along the lines of the accord that ended the shooting phase of the Korean War and left the major problems unresolved. Mr. Zelenskyy would tell his people that he refused to cede an inch of Ukrainian territory, while Mr. Putin would say that he had achieved his main goal – protecting Ukrainians, who linguistically and culturally identify with Russia, from a repressive “Nazi” government.

I don’t see how the US and its allies can resume normal relations with Russia while Vladimir Putin’s army enforces a de facto partition of Ukraine. Mr. Putin cannot be rewarded for naked aggression.

It is possible that Western sanctions could, over time, interact with the cost of the occupation (including guerrilla warfare against the invaders) to force Russia to withdraw, as the Soviets did from Afghanistan. But having paid such a high price for his invasion, Mr Putin will not easily undo it. Moreover, an about-face would go against the pan-Russian ideology that, like any cost-benefit analysis, informs his attitude towards Ukraine.

Meanwhile, at the heart of Europe, there would be a frozen conflict – and a ticking time bomb.

Could the kind of creative statecraft that peacefully ended the Cold War succeed under these circumstances? Then the West had to deal with Mikhail Gorbachev with whom (as Margaret Thatcher famously put it) the West could do business. Now it would have to shake a bloody hand.

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