H.L. Mencken is said to have observed that for every problem there is a solution that is “neat, plausible and wrong.” People I like, admire and usually agree with are now proposing such a solution to the brutal, imperialist war Russian President Vladimir Putin is waging against Ukraine.
For example, Gary Bauer, the distinguished president of American Values, last week urged President Joe Biden to “use any and all leverage to get [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy and Putin to the negotiating table as soon as possible.” Newsweek’s Josh Hammer, an up-and-coming young commentator, wrote last week that “world leaders should be rushing to negotiate a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine.”
But world leaders have been attempting that—not least among them French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, both of whom have long enjoyed amicable relations with Mr. Putin. To understand why that hasn’t produced a breakthrough, imagine them palavering with Mr. Putin at the Kremlin about now:
Macron: Vladimir Vladimirovitch, mon vieux! Thank you for receiving us! And happy birthday!
Scholz: Vova, mein Freund! The big Seven-Oh! How time flies!!
Putin: Manny, Scholzy, I appreciate the good wishes. My birthday was nice. Alina and I spent a couple of days at my palace on the Black Sea. But I didn’t have time for a real vacation. I’m so busy now with my Special Military Operation against the Ukrainian Nazis. But you both know about Nazis, don’t you? Hah! Enough chit-chat. What’s on your mind?
Macron: We just want to be helpful.
Scholz: To clear up misunderstandings! To put the ship back on an even keel!
Putin: I always welcome frank discussions. Can I offer you some vodka and caviar? I have plenty.
Scholz: No, thanks, I’m good.
Macron: Me too. Well, maybe a little wine?
Putin: I have a nice white from the Russian regions of Georgia. Not as good as your Sancerre but I think you’ll find it amusing. I also have brandy from Armenia. Not as good as your Cognac, but Armenia is now—how shall I put it?—back in the fold.
[Snaps his fingers. White-gloved servants enter with bottles and glasses.]
Macron: So, to the point—we want peace. You do too. Am I right?
Putin: Hey, what’s with Biden? He walks funny, you know? And does he really think boys can be girls and girls can be boys? Man, I’d like to go a couple of rounds on the judo mat with the Big Guy.
Scholz: You needn’t worry about Biden.
Macron: Yes, we speak for NATO and for the European Union. So, with your help, we can settle our disagreements to everyone’s satisfaction.
Putin: What do you propose?
Macron: We want to give you an off-ramp.
Putin: An off-ramp? Manny, I don’t need an off-ramp. Do you need an off-ramp? Because if you do, I’ll give you one.
Macron: Well, I mean, we all want a diplomatic solution, right?
Putin: So, here it is—you stop sending weapons and ammunition to that Jewish comedian in Kiev. Not Kyiv by the way. Speak Russian! And no more NATO expansion. Finland and Sweden stay out. Lithuania—out too. Also, you guys repair the Nord Stream pipelines so I can start sending you gas again. You’ve got a cold winter ahead, Scholzy! Or are you depending on “global warming” to heat Berlin? Hah! Okay, how’s that for an off-ramp?
Macron: Well, mon cher Vovochka, those are kind of maximalist demands. We were thinking maybe a return to the status quo ante Feb. 24. You keep Crimea. Maybe some of Donbas? Russian troops leave other parts of Ukraine?
Putin: Nice try, young man. Come visit me again when you have something realistic to put on the table. Listen, I’ve got to get back to work. I have some tactical nukes I need to inspect. Tell Biden I said that. And ask him if he’ll have more flexibility after the election. Hah! Manny, one teeny favor? Alina would love this season’s Louis Vuitton satchels—all sizes—and a case of Dom Perignon. I’d appreciate it. Au revoir! Tschuss! Do svidaniya!
[Snaps his fingers. Soldiers enter and roughly escort Messrs. Macron and Scholz out.]
I’m going to end on a serious note, as befits a serious crisis. Vladimir Putin is a tyrant and a war criminal. He’s using cruise missiles to strike civilians and civilian infrastructure to create fear. We must hope he’s not a madman, preparing to use weapons of mass destruction to exterminate those who refuse to submit to him, willing to escalate beyond that and indifferent to the prospect of his own children and grandchildren perishing in a nuclear exchange—one he initiates.
But if he is mad, all the more reason not to give in to his nuclear blackmail. Because if that gambit succeeds, he will use it over and over. So will the rulers of China, North Korea and Iran if it becomes nuclear-armed. We know where that road leads.
So long as Ukrainians are willing to fight for freedom against an enemy of freedom, Americans and other free peoples should support them.
We don’t know how the battle being waged against Ukraine ends. We don’t know how the broader war being waged against America and the free world ends. We either resolve to tolerate this uncertainty or we choose defeat—and not only in Ukraine.
But the day Vladimir Putin knows he can win neither on the battlefield nor through blackmail is the day he may seek a diplomatic solution or, better yet, a more comfortable retirement than awaits most tyrants. On that day, his meeting with NATO leaders will be quite different from what I’ve sketched out above.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times.
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