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Diplomats are trying to find an off ramp to Putin's war in Ukraine

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ideally, the world leaders who keep talking with Russia's president would offer some diplomatic off-ramp - some way that Russia could give up its attack on Ukraine without too much humiliation. Failing that, could Russia at least find a way to let civilians escape the cities that Russian troops are shelling? French President Emmanuel Macron is trying, and so is Israel's prime minister, Naftali Bennett. The United States says it offered off-ramps before the invasion and now must focus on sanctions and pressure. NPR's Michele Kelemen has been tracking the work of diplomats.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Biden administration says Vladimir Putin miscalculated with his war in Ukraine, and he had another path. The U.S. offered talks on European security and arms control, but Washington never agreed to talk about core Russian demands, including neutrality for Ukraine, says Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

ANATOL LIEVEN: Given that we never intended to fight for Ukraine and haven't fought for Ukraine - you know, the administration has just turned down a no-fly zone - I think people in the future will be extremely bewildered about why we couldn't offer a treaty of neutrality.

KELEMEN: Lieven still thinks the only way out of this war is for Ukraine to give up its ambitions to join NATO, since that has long been a Russian red line. But Angela Stent of the Brookings Institution says this is about much more than NATO.

ANGELA STENT: This is about Russia wanting to restore a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, and particularly about Putin wanting Russia to reabsorb Ukraine. And I'm not sure whether, you know, if Ukraine had said it was going to be neutral, that really would have made any difference because these have been Putin's designs for a number of years.

KELEMEN: And she doesn't think Putin can be talked out of that. So her advice is keep imposing sanctions and reinforce NATO's eastern flank to make sure Russia doesn't go further and provoke a larger conflict. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited three Baltic states this week, calling for an end to, as he puts it, Russia's war of choice in Ukraine.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: And what we don't want to do is to widen it and to widen it to our own countries, to our own territory.

KELEMEN: In Riga, he met with Israel's foreign minister to talk about that country's efforts to end the war in Ukraine. Blinken says he supports this diplomacy.

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BLINKEN: Consistent, of course, with the principles that we've all established, starting with the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people who must have their sovereignty, their independence and their territorial integrity.

KELEMEN: But the war has changed the game on the ground, says Sergey Radchenko, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Russia doesn't just want a neutral Ukraine. It's also demanding that Ukraine formally give up Crimea and parts of the Donbas.

SERGEY RADCHENKO: In cases like this, the negotiated middle ground looks extremely ugly and extremely inelegant. And I think what we'll ultimately arrive at is something that satisfies no one but at least is better than a hot war.

KELEMEN: Particularly given Russia's recent history. When Putin first came to power, his forces leveled the Chechen capital, Grozny, in order to recapture it. And more recently, Russian forces helped the Syrian government besiege cities and towns, a strategy now playing out in Ukraine. The war has sparked some protests inside of Russia, but Radchenko doesn't expect a popular uprising in a country that is reimposing an Iron Curtain. Plus, he says, many Russians buy into Putin's propaganda.

RADCHENKO: People cannot accept that their country can actually be involved in the hideous criminal war against neighboring country. This is such a difficult thought to square. I have actually spoken to people in Russia, including my own relatives, and I have had a hard time convincing them that Russia is actually invading Ukraine.

KELEMEN: He's also having a hard time imagining any of Putin's advisers toppling the Kremlin leader, as some in Washington are suggesting. Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute says regime change in Russia is not a realistic policy goal for the U.S.

LIEVEN: If the Washington discourse is, you know, now about how we must change the regime in Russia and do our utmost to weaken the Russian state, you cannot do that and claim that you are actually acting in the interest of the Ukrainian people because you're not. You are condemning them to an endless war for U.S. geopolitical purposes. There is nothing moral about that - nothing.

KELEMEN: If America's goal is to get Russian troops out of Ukraine and end this conflict, he says that's something that needs to be negotiated. And it would be better for Ukrainians if that happened soon.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF THRUPENCE'S "FOREST ON THE SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.