Israel’s Prime Minister has offered a new diplomatic back-channel to Vladimir Putin. Could it work?

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Two weeks ago when Russian military forces moved into the Ukraine, it was a new rubicon crossed in the modern age. For the first time in a long time, though hardly long enough, the world is again nervously considering the prospect of war.

When one sovereign nation invades another, anything might happen. No nation, entering into the global conflicts of the last century knew where that conflict might lead.

The murder of an Archduke, however revered, seems in retrospect such an unlikely cause to launch a global conflict. Of course historians have the benefit of hindsight, of knowing how the first and second world wars turned out. Decision-makers at the time, in every nation impacted by the escalating conflict had no idea then where it all might lead.

Engaging in the major conflicts of the 20th century might have ended with mutually assured destruction, with two major superpowers losing a very tenuous grip on peace and allowing the worldwide conflict to wax hot once again.

Cooler and saner heads, since the beginning of this particular conflict, have advocated everything from sanctions, to mediation, to a light censorious slap on the wrist. The less circumspect have championed strategies like military escalation and enforcing no-fly zones. The truly unhinged have advocated the outright assassination of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

When it comes to the Ukraine and Russia, the world is near-united in support of the underdog, which in this case is unquestionably the Ukraine.

Plenty of foreign policy experts are surprised Ukrainian forces have managed to hold out for so long against the Russian military. The international community is equally stymied as to how to help support the Ukraine and prevent a humanitarian crisis without escalating the conflict.

No one seems to know what Vladimir Putin is thinking.

A Greek chorus of voices has been proclaiming him a madman of the deepest dye since Russia first invaded- unhinged and mindless in his lust for conquest and domination. An equally vociferous group has been defending him against those charges, if no others. Putin, this other group insists, is neither mad nor unhinged. He is instead thought by many to be a coldly calculating would-be conquerer with a nostalgia to be back in the USSR and a penchant for biding his time.

Putin, as the Ukrainian government has been reminding the world since long before this conflict began, has been conducting a slow-scale invasion of the Ukraine since at least 2014, and probably before.

2014 was the year Putin forcibly annexed the Crimea. Russia has been conducting other types of warfare against the nation ever since; information warfare campaigns meant to undermine the Ukraine’s reputation abroad and Ukrainian President Zelensky’s reputation at home, hacking attacks, economic warfare, and other types of nefarious interference.

With the world distracted by COVID19, and still reeling from the economic and mental impacts of two years of pandemic life, Putin might have seen 2022 as his best chance to slip quietly into the Ukraine.

There is even a rumor in the international community that Putin coldly waited, at the behest of Xi Jinping, until after the Beijing olympic games to launch his invasion.

Whatever the case, it is possible that Putin miscalculated. It might also be true that he expected to be done by now; he might have anticipated a little less bad publicity for his invasion, on par with what he withstood in 2014.

Putin can’t be completely ignorant of this fact, but the world is far more connected, not to mention more surveilled than it was even in 2014, which is hardly the ancient past. Nevertheless, Putin faced a different world in 2014 than the one he must navigate today.

Millions of people with cell phones and social media are live-streaming, live-tweeting and otherwise sending constant dispatches from the conflict zone. There are so many satellites circling the globe today, every spot on earth is visible at least twice. Satellites could read the date on a dollar bill from space five years ago.

One shudders to think how good satellite photography is today.

Whatever Putin thought he might get away with, it is very doubtful that this conflict is going the way he wanted or expected. Perhaps the global outcry is worse than he anticipated; perhaps the Ukrainians resisted far harder than expected. It is even possible that the unexpected strength of sanctions, and the unusually united response to Putin’s aggression, have put a monkey-wrench into Russia’s war plans.

Is Vladimir Putin looking for a way out of the conflict?

He will unquestionably want to save face if he does. Just yesterday the Russian government released four conditions under which Putin would cease the conflict.

“Russia claims it will stop the war immediately if Ukraine agrees to: — cease military action — change constitution to enshrine neutrality — recognize Crimea as Russian territory — recognize the Russian-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states,” the Kyiv Independent posted to Twitter yesterday.

Whether Vladimir Putin would keep his promise, should those conditions be met, is anyone’s guess. The Russian President has lied repeatedly to the international press and world leaders throughout this conflict.

Still, the very fact that some overture has been made toward a ceasefire, however feeble, is encouraging. There may be other encouraging signs as well

The Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, traveled to Moscow to conduct a clandestine meeting with Russian officials and others this week. Bennett spoke with Putin, as well as other world leaders like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“A thorough exchange of views was continued on the situation in connection with Russia’s special military operation to protect Donbas, including taking into account Naftali Bennett’s most recent contacts with the leaders of a number of states,” read a statement from Moscow about the meeting.

“I went there in order to assist the dialogue between the parties, of course with the blessing and encouragement of all the players,” PM Bennett posted to Twitter after returning from his trip. “As we all know, the situation on the ground is not good. The human suffering is great and may become much greater if things continue on the current trajectory.”

Bennett’s recently opened diplomatic channel is well outside the usual journey a cease-fire agreement might take, but it is an opportunity for Vladimir Putin to prevent Russia from losing all its friends in the international community.

By extending the olive branch, Naftali Bennett proves he understands the conflict better than most and is prepared to offer Putin help finding the off-ramp if there is the slightest chance Russia might consider it.

Not everyone is optimistic, however.

“The Russians are entangled in Ukraine, that is already clear,” , quoting an anonymous Israeli diplomatic source. “As of now, we share French President Emmanuel Macron’s impression that the worst is yet to come. Putin’s terms are draconian and he shows no inclination to compromise or any signs of regret or weakness.”

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)