Former MI6 Chief, Sir Robert John Sawers, says

we need to be a little bit careful about how we do that, we must leave Putin a way out

And Yuval Noah Harari says:

Nobody could say for sure how the Ukrainian people would react. There was always the option that Putin's fantasy would come true. Maybe the Russians would march in, Zelenskyy would flee, the Ukrainian army would just capitulate, and the population would not do much. And now we know this was just fantasy. Now we know the Ukrainians will fight.

And this derails the whole rationale of Putin's war. Because you can conquer the country maybe, but you won't be able to absorb Ukraine into Russia.

The only thing Putin is accomplishing is planting seeds of hatred in the hearts of every Ukrainian. Every day this war continues is more seeds of hatred; it will last for generations. Ukrainians and Russians didn't hate eachother before Putin - they were siblings - now he is making them enemies and if he continues, this will be his legacy.

Interestingly, the interviewer actually puts the question to Harari, asking:

Putin needs to win - how do we square these things?

And Harari's response:

...I don't know!

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How can a leader of a powerful country who underestimates a weaker opponent and needs to withdraw, do so without losing face domestically and internationally?

  • 7
    Excellent question, but also one that's very difficult, if not impossible, to answer. In many ways Putin is no different than Saddam Hussein. Their ilk is unable to concede.
    – Sam7919
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 15:57
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    Sorry, but this community is really not the right place to brainstorm solutions to political problems. You might want to post this question on a more discussion-oriented website.
    – Philipp
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 16:56
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    This seems to involve opinion and speculation about future events, which is why I downvoted. We can't know what Putin will consider an acceptable outcome. It might be possible to ask a specific question about ending other conflicts, but it's not clear what is a comparable situation to Ukraine or Putin, so it's impossible to produce a good answer as it stands.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 16:58
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    @Philipp history doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. Historically similar situations would furnish us (numerous) archetypical solutions.
    – stevec
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 16:59
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    @convert Putin has been President of Russia since 2000 (barring a four-year stint as Prime Minister). "Before Putin" essentially means "the 90s".
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 14:54

8 Answers 8


This is a very important question world leaders have to ask themselves, mostly because the alternatives are so unpleasant.

  • Russia will likely win, short term (6-8 weeks) - by pursuing urban siege methods like it did in Grozny and Aleppo. The fact that I am using the word likely, rather than certainly, is in itself something few would have thought 3 weeks ago.

    • Russian has 280k men in its ground forces. Putting 150k in Ukraine probably means it doesn't have that many more combat troops to up the ante with.
  • Russia will likely lose, long term, because it would have to pacify Ukraine. The US military, from Afghanistan and Vietnam, and Russian military, from Afghanistan, know perfectly well how this is likely to play out. Had they managed to depose Zelinsky quickly, it would probably have been risky. Now?

    • the nature of conscription exposes Putin politically a lot more than the US's professional army (whether or not conscripts are in Ukraine is unclear) when it comes to combat losses.
  • Sanctions will keep on biting Russia as well. But it's not like they come for free for the West, with oil @ $120, as opposed to $70 a year ago.

  • Like it or not, Russia is a nuclear-armed state which severely limits Western military involvement scenarios.

So both parties have incentives to make a deal. Is there anything to deal with?

First of all, remember that negotiators generally go by the principle that a "good" deal has to be seen as unpleasant by both parties.

The following, while not necessarily "fair", seems like it could be a starting point:

NATO formally indicates that Ukraine accession is off the table.

NATO's not really giving up all that much. If they had wanted to grant it, they would have done so already. And, really, it was pushing Russia more than a bit.

Russia gets international recognition for Crimea and Donbass.

That's a huge ask for Ukraine, no doubt. At the same time, the likelihood they'd ever get the territory back is remote. And Crimea, "gifted" to them in 1954, was originally part of Russia and seems somewhat genuinely pro-Russian, however reprehensible Russia's actions have been. Re-absorbing those territories wouldn't be easy, even if Russia gave them up.

(btw, that's Donbass in its 2021 configuration. basically territories not under Ukrainian control in 2021. no more, no less)

Ukraine gets into the EU, without constitutional changes.

That signs them up for the EU's mutual defense protocols and it gets them into a much more prosperous club. That's a huge win for Ukraine.

And also a big climbdown for Putin as it's still in his list of "red lines". However, he can fairly easily "sell it" as saying that Ukraine is not part of a defense pact aimed at Russia. And he can claim the EU will "de-nazify", whatever that means in this context.

The EU on its end has indicated at least some willingness (member states would have to ratify that) and since then it's been cooled down a bit.

IF Ukraine decided to go along with it - I did not say it was fair - and IF Putin managed a bit of rational calculation rather than grandstanding this might start things.

Neither side gives up what anything it really had in 2021. Both get something they really wanted.

War reparations? No, it is cheaper for the West to assist Ukraine than put up with the economic damages due to sanctions.

Dissuading Russia from future adventures? I think it's safe to say that the events of the last 3 weeks have not benefited Russia much. They might rearm to become more competent at high intensity warfare but for now they've learned that they weren't ready for it. They've also seen what an unexpectedly high level of sanctions feel like - had the Western countries shown this kind of resolve 3 months ago, in advance, we'd likely not have this mess (cough, Germany, cough). Think of them as a scalded cat and a very unpopular scalded cat at that.

Russian trustworthiness? That's a bit of a sticking point, given that they've essentially torn up the Budapest Memorandum. But with the Ukraine as part of the EU it would essentially be as off-limit as Finland is right now.

Whether this is something Ukraine would want to contemplate is entirely their decision. So would acceptance on Putin's end. At this point I think both equally unlikely.

Finland was put in the same position in 1941 and 1944 and they're generally regarded as having pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Also due to having bloodied Russia beyond expectations. But giving up Karelia was never "fair" in any sense of the word.

What shouldn't be driving this are Western calculations on how best to contain Russia, by having Ukrainians do the fighting on their behalf.

  • Sounds all very sensible to me. What probably would need to be included is that Russia would demand an immediate end to all sanctions. And they also might demand more land than just Crimea, Donetzk and Luhansk. Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 20:38
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    I'd note that "victory" for Russia will likely be limited to Eastern Ukraine. Its very unlikely they could capture the Western parts. Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 21:03
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    @convert So far... There might be two waves and we are maybe just at the beginning of the first. The truth is that we do not know where Putin puts the stop. It might still very well go beyond Ukraine and continue towards Moldova, where he finally and clearly finds a more unpleasant NATO border beyond.
    – Hvjurthuk
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 22:46
  • 2
    @convert We know nothing for sure but I suspect that if Putin tries to get full Ukraine and he penetrates into Moldova, then he will also bet for full Moldova. Other option is that he just connects Donbass, Crimea and follows the coast of the Black sea landlocking Ukraine (but not taking it all) and then he would just need to set a step further to connect to Transnistria and claim it also. In short, either he goes full Ukraine and enters full Moldova or he just goes for strategic assets in Donbass, Crimea, Black sea and Transnistria. At the end it will depend on how ambitious he is overall.
    – Hvjurthuk
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 22:54
  • 1
    @convert Hey, guys, let's not get carried away by JonathanReez's point about the scope of the invasion. Even an Eastern Ukraine only victory is a straight out loss for Ukraine. And on the flip side, I don't see them having enough troops to do much more than what they're already failing at doing well, so no need to go hyperbolic on Moldova. None of which have much to do with this answer and question. Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 23:02

We should keep one thing in mind first: Russia is not losing the war. They might not be winning as easily as they hoped, but they are not losing, and if things continue the way they have then Russia will win eventually.

With that appropriate context, we can think of how Putin can "save face". The typical way of doing this is to give the person something which they can spin as a victory, even if it's not exactly what they want. Russia has said they want four things in this war:

  • Ukraine must cease military action
  • Ukraine must recognize Crimea as part of Russia
  • Ukraine must recognize Donetsk and Luhansk as independent
  • Ukraine must change its constitution to enshrine neutrality

So in principle, Ukraine (/the West) can let Putin "save face" by agreeing to some of these things, even if they will not agree to all of them. That's when it's helpful to know what Russia is willing to compromise on and what it considers "bright red lines" that cannot be crossed. For example, maybe Russia is willing to compromise on Donetsk and Luhansk if they can keep Crimea, get Ukrainian neutrality, and end the war (+ presumably the sanctions).

The complication arises when Russia's bright red lines are non-starters for Ukraine (/the West), in which case there's a good chance the war will be fought to the end. Do note that if the war is fought to the end, chances are Russia will win, and they will either install a government that agrees to all their terms or they will impose even harsher terms (vae victis). I am not saying that Ukraine (/the West) should accept any of these terms, but I am certain this and similar decisions weigh heavily on their leadership's minds.

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    "Russia is willing to compromise on Donetsk and Luhansk" If Putin will take back his recognition of the republics, he would loose face and even a lot of suport in Russia, as this will be seen as sign of weaknes.
    – convert
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 11:23
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    @ZOMVID-21 We are having 2022 not even 2021 and Putin has recognised both republics as independant states, taking that recogniton back would be a sign of weaknes. Keep in mind that Minsk agreement, to which you seem to refer, is dead.
    – convert
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 14:41
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    @convert Some of Putin's speeches do sound like a dying man. He seems concerned with what he leaves his successors - "no Ukraine in NATO during Putin's reign" was a given already, it doesn't require a constitutional reform. So far he has indicated that Ukraine is a hill he's willing to die on. But what he can take as a win, that can be changed.
    – Therac
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 20:49
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Information gets distorted in 'he said, she said', so I prefer going to the source. The Ukrainian source at UNIAN was actually the only one that includes a translation of the note - everyone else only has the body - so it's possible they made incorrect conclusions. The note itself is about local prosecutors and councils. Overall Minsk II is quite mild. The strongest foreign-policy aspect there is "10. The withdrawal of all foreign armed forces, military equipment, as well as mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine under the supervision of the OSCE."
    – Therac
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 23:35
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    Russian losses in Ukraine, even by their official statistics, exceed the daily losses of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. So it will be an extremely pyrrhic victory if they do win at all. aspistrategist.org.au/… Putin calling for Syrian fighters to join is probably related to this... Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 16:07

The answer to this question really depends on what Putin's end-goal is, which he has not seen fit to divulge. It's possible that his end goal is simply to annex Crimea formally and clear an overland route from Crimea to Russia proper: controlling Crimea's ports and rail and truck lines to move goods back and forth would be a tremendous economic advantage for Russia. On the other hand, he may want to install a puppet government in Ukraine as a bulwark against 'Western' advances, comparable to Belarus. Or it could merely be a matter of pride and legacy... Without knowing precisely what he wants, it's difficult to estimate what he might settle for.

Unfortunately for him, this is a bad moment in history. The US and NATO have been worrying about Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea (among other places) for a couple of decades now, and allowing Russia to successfully annex all or part of Ukraine would telegraph as a signal to China that they can accelerate their own expansion. It's doubtful Western nations will allow that to happen. I expect Russia will continue the invasion for the foreseeable future, possibly achieving an occupation similar to the US occupation of Afghanistan (meaning it will be forced to control a population that largely does not want their presence, at tremendous economic and human cost), and will eventually have to pull out ignominiously. The Western sanctions placed against them will accelerate that process, but Putin will not pull out until he has a semblance of something he can call a victory. The subtle war here involves putting strong economic pressure on Russia until Putin begins changing his own goal posts. When Putin offers a resolution the West can stomach — meaning one that doesn't signal Western weakness to the rest of the world — then we'll see a resolution.

  • 3
    Honestly, the West would probably lose much less sleep if China invaded Taiwan. Because the Chinese haven't telegraphed an agenda that they might not stop there. Whereas for Putin: the Baltic countries have 25% Russian population, to whom he gave them citizenship, there's Transnistria to make a corridor to, and that will probably include Odessa. Etc. Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 17:28
  • 2
    Putin and Lukashenko have recently discussed a revival of the Kaliningrad Corridor. Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 17:41
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    Unfortunately, this answer is probably right. I say "unfortunately" because a prolonged insurgency is likely to result in substantial loss of human life, and even if Russia does eventually leave, it would be extremely painful for Ukraine and its people.
    – Kevin
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 17:50

The scenario that comes to mind is the Soviet semi-successful invasion of Finland in 1939. USSR had twice as many soldiers, 100 times more tanks, and 30 times more planes. The numerical advantage was much more impressive than in the current invasion of Ukraine.

The Winter War lasted over 3 months due to the dogged resistance by Finns who would relentlessly hit Soviet men and armor with everything they've got. 1939 Finland is where the Molotov Cocktails were invented. Finally, after very heavy casualties, Soviets broke through the Mannerheim Line, but, anticipating greater losses ahead, sued for peace.

In that peace treaty Finland conceded to USSR Karelia, which is a part of its territory adjacent to USSR, including the city of Vyborg, and Stalin withdrew. Even though just before the Winter War he was confident that he would capture the entire Finland in a matter of days, and basically announced that, the acquisition of Karelia allowed him to declare victory.

IMHO something like that could happen in Ukraine, with the concession of the Donbass region as well as a formal recognition of Russian possession of Crimea. I personally don't like such an outcome, but, unless NATO acts more decisively, I think that is likely happen.

Finnish areas conceded in Winter War


Announce that the primary goal was to destroy nuclear/biological weapons

Remember that Putins stated goals have already changed significantly. On February 24th he was claiming the following to be the goal of the "special operation":

"The purpose of this operation is to protect people who for eight years now have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime," he said, according to an English translation from the Russian Mission in Geneva. "To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation."

He was also calling for the Ukrainian army to overthrow their government:

Putin said in a recorded address filmed before meeting with the Russian Security Council that Ukrainians need to "take power into your own hands" and overthrow a government he dubbed "neo-Nazis," Politico reported.
“It seems that it will be easier for us to come to an agreement than with this gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis, who occupied Kyiv and took the entire Ukrainian people hostage,” he said, according to Politico.

However it quickly became clear that the invasion would not be completed as fast as Putin was hoping for, so Russia is now claiming that their goals are a lot more mild:

Russia's foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on Wednesday said Moscow is not working to topple the Ukrainian government as some progress has been made in the three rounds of the talks held between Russia and Ukraine. In her weekly briefing, Zakharova said Moscow has documental evidence that bioweapons are being developed in Ukraine by the United States.

Referring to the statement of US Under Secretary of state for political affairs Victoria Nuland, Maria Zakharova said that in response to a question, Nuland has confirmed the existence of laboratories for biological research.

"We are not talking here about peaceful uses or scientific goals," Zakharova said. "What were you up to there?" "These (programmes) were financed by the US Department of Defence."

So now regime change is no longer a priority and instead bioweapons are becoming the point of contention. Similar claims were previously made about nuclear weapons in Chernobyl:

The TASS, RIA and Interfax news agencies quoted "a representative of a competent body" in Russia on Sunday as saying Ukraine was developing nuclear weapons at the destroyed Chernobyl nuclear power plant that was shut down in 2000.

So in order to save face, Putin can do the following:

  1. Claim that destroying biological and nuclear weapons was the primary goal all along
  2. Claim that said facilities are now destroyed
  3. Claim that "denazification" has now been achieved thanks to the peace talks, possibly by having Zelensky sign a declaration committing to fight against "Nazis"
  4. Claim that Ukraine's military potential has now been exhausted and that its no longer a threat to Russia

And that's it, Putin can then withdraw his troops and claim victory. Capturing Eastern Ukraine would of course be the ideal outcome but its not strictly necessary to claim success.

  • 8
    Ah, the reverse-Bush: claiming imaginary WMDs to get out of a war, instead of into it. I like the idea! Though, would it actually save face for Putin if nobody believes they ever existed? I suppose it would still save face within Russia, and that might be all he really needs
    – divibisan
    Commented Mar 9, 2022 at 22:12
  • 4
    @divibisan Bush failed to produce any WMDs and still got re-elected... So yes it would work domestically. Commented Mar 9, 2022 at 22:35

He could pull Reagan in Grenada

Ronald Reagan publicly acknowledged the complexity of tribal affair in the Middle East after the bombing of the US marines' barracks in Lebanon. And Reagan withdrew from Lebanon. 2 days after the bombing in Beirut, Reagan ordered invasion of Grenada, where a coup had just established a Marxist government.

Some argued that the invasion of Grenada was a distraction meant to take attention away from the failure of policy in Lebanon. The invasion did achieve both the purpose of face saving for Reagan and of accomplishing the military objective of removing a new Marxist government from the Western Hemisphere.

The next year Reagan won re-election with 525 of the 538 electoral college votes.

What does that mean for Ukraine?

If the war grinds to a draw (as it appears to be), Putin has the option of changing the rhetoric and praising the Ukrainians for their resistance. He can even re-frame it as an indication of their strong "Russian spirit" or anything along those lines as long as the final conclusion is that Russia should not be fighting itself.

While Ukraine would not be likely to accept all the territorial demands made by Russia, it may agree to some of them. That will probably mean pre-war borders (with Russia keeping Crimea). The territories in the East are kind of a wild card, but the increased emphasis on the Ukrainian-language education was never a serious complaint before 2014. So it's likely that after all the pro-Russian fighters are removed to Russia, the civilian population would accept the pre-2014 education system. While it may seem like a needless concession, Russia would probably agree to quite a few concessions to make Crimea an internationally-recognized part of Russia.

What does that have to do with Grenada?

Such negotiations with Ukraine would only be possible if they are out of the public view. In order to push the Ukraine affairs to the backstage, Putin would need a new place to invade. The invasion would have to be appear scandalous. But it would have to be a place with a less capable leader and preferably someone who isn't likely to capture the world's imagination as a defender of democracy. This would redirect the outrage towards the new event, but the new outrage would have diminished energy.

Moldova is right next door. It has 2.5 million people and it already has a break-away region of Transnistria.

Even the severely worn-out Russian force presently fighting in Ukraine (with its population of 42 million) would be able to overwhelm Moldova, whose population is 17x smaller.

I don't want to make it sound like I am calling for the invasion. Personally, I hope Putin's regime collapses and gets replaced with a new government that accepts Russian Federation's place as a successor state of the Russian Republic of the USSR rather than pursue its current imperial ambitions.

Territorial conquest simply isn't essential to functioning of a modern states. And Russia is already forced to spend too much of its energy on maintaining its borders instead of improving the country which it has. Even before the war started, most of Russia's wealth and prosperity was concentrated in Moscow. While 90%+ of the rest of the population had to settle for much less.

But the question wasn't what would be a regime that was better than Putin's regime. The question was how Putin's regime could save face. The "Grenada" play is one such possible face-saving outcome.

  • 6
    But to start a conflict with Moldova, Russia need to keep the southern part of Ukraine under control.
    – convert
    Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 11:23

One possibility is Russia could claim that:

the task of demilitarizing Ukraine has been completed

This may or may not be factually accurate (Ukraine may have become more militarised since Feb 2022, especially if measured by available weapons systems and personnel). In any case, it could provide a plausible rationale for a withdrawal or increased desire for peace talks without as much embarrassment internationally or domestically within Russia.


The seven African leaders — the presidents of Comoros, Senegal, South Africa and Zambia, as well as Egypt's prime minister and top envoys from the Republic of Congo and Uganda - have proposed a 10 item confidence building plan (source).

Unfortunately this has been rejected by Russia so far, with V.Putin interrupting they opening remarks. I think the plan should have been good enough to negotiate for Ukraine if includes respect for internationally recognized borders, the only condition from V. Zelenskyy I see in the sources. It is still some plan intended to be balanced, even Russia says so. At least not a surrender of one of the sides.

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