A Crucial Day Ahead as Negotiations Intensify

RUSSIA STILL ISN’T WINNING THIS WAR: Moscow faces debt defaults, starting this week, as its troops suffer massive casualties, with a furious street-by-street battle looming in Kyiv. So there’s still a chance to find an “off ramp” at the negotiating table.

THAT WILL BE THE FOCUS TODAY, as Russian and Ukrainian negotiators meet in a virtual summit, and as high ranking U.S. and Chinese officials meet in Rome.

THE SEEDS OF A DEAL were planted last week, when Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman and a confidant of Vladimir Putin, said the following: if Ukraine changed its constitution to accept some form of “neutrality” rather than an aspiration to join NATO; recognized the separatist areas of Donetsk and Lugansk; and agreed that Crimea is part of Russia — the military strikes would stop “in a moment.”

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY, desperate to save his people from a massacre, has indicated a willingness to consider the steps listed by Peskov.

IN THE MEANTIME, THE OUTLOOK HAS NOT IMPROVED FOR PUTIN: On the military front, it’s clear that the battle for Kyiv will be pivotal, but Russian troops have been bogged down in the suburbs. The battle for the city could take weeks, inflicting enormous losses on Russian troops — and, undoubtedly, intensifying the anti-war mood back in Moscow.

IN THE MEANTIME, with the ruble virtually worthless, Russian debt will begin to default within days, as the country’s elites flee to the West and all Russians face a dramatic drop in their standard of living. The devastating impact of the sanctions, far worse than Putin anticipated, may be more important than developments on the battlefield.

PUTIN SIGNALED WEAKNESS in the last few days — he needs assistance from China. Whether Beijing complies will be a pivotal issue this week. Any sign of Chinese aid would raise the issue of massive U.S. and Western sanctions, surely a factor in this morning’s market sell-off in Beijing.

THE BIG SURPRISE CONTINUES TO BE the aggressive push-back by the U.S. and the West. President Joe Biden is under pressure from Congress to impose even more trade sanctions while increasing arms shipments to Ukraine. U.S. involvement in this war, somewhat similar to the pattern in World War 1, seems to be inching toward more engagement, despite the obvious risks.

THE GREAT WILD CARD continues to be Putin, the subject of a fascinating piece in yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Review titled “No Man is an Island, Except Putin.” It describes his isolation and inaccessibility, egged on by the oligarch Yuri
Kovalchuk, who has become an inseparable companion of Putin. Both want to revive the Russian empire.

KOVALCHUK, ACCORDING TO THIS MUST-READ ARTICLE, is an ideologue “subscribing to a worldview that combines Orthodox Christian mysticism, anti-American conspiracy theories and hedonism.” He and Putin are determined to restore Russia’s greatness — but, clearly, that has failed. Russia is a pariah, about to enter an economic Depression for years to come.

Related: What About China’s Designs on Taiwan?

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