Thursday marked five weeks since the Russian army crossed the border into Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s dreams of a lightning conquest of the cradle of Russian civilization went up in smoke. When Ukrainian soldiers ambushed columns of Russian tanks, they torched not just the military hardware, but the dress uniforms that Russian soldiers carried with them for the planned victory parade in Kyiv. And yet, victory for either side remains elusive.
These days, the question asked most frequently in Washington and in Russia and foreign policy circles is: How does this end? No one, myself included, has a good answer—or much of an answer at all. This week brought more talks between Ukrainian and Russian delegations, first in Istanbul on Tuesday, then by video conference on Friday. The negotiations on Tuesday, in particular, seemed to produce something that many, especially in the West, were eager to cling to as a ray of hope: The Russian deputy defense minister announced that Russian troops would be withdrawing from the areas around Kyiv to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.” The Ukrainian delegation, in turn, put neutrality on the table—that is, giving up the dream of joining NATO—and suggested tabling discussing the status of Crimea for 15 years. The Russian side seemed to toy with the idea of dropping their demands that Ukraine make Russian one of the country’s official languages.
It seemed like a hopeful sign—or one that was better than no sign at all—but the Biden administration was quick to tamp down expectations. “There is what Russia says and what Russia does,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken cautioned. It was a wise warning: the Russian government has yet to keep its word. After all, Russian officials claimed all winter that they had no intention of invading Ukraine. And who can forget Putin’s declaration that thousands of Russian troops would be returning to their bases from the Ukrainian border on February 15—nine days before Russia invaded.