An Off-Ramp for Putin Is Repugnant But Necessary
The idea of an outlet for Putin disgusts many – and now, in good terms, is completely unnecessary. Ukraine wins! Why help Russia take part of its victory from defeat?
The “Ukraine must win” chorus never makes it clear what Russia’s defeat really involves. Maybe that means Russia was pushed back to its pre-2014 borders and then embraced it. Or maybe Putin’s humiliation caused the domestic opposition to explode and he was removed; his successor was someone the West could do business with; Russia’s claim to superpower status collapsed; and its relegation to second-class status was recognized and accepted.
To be sure, with all good things, nothing is impossible. But, to put it mildly, these futures are uncertain.
As governments gathered for a United Nations meeting, Putin announced his intention to prolong the war by “partial mobilization”, when another 300,000 soldiers would be sent. He emphasized his threat to use nuclear weapons: “Russia will use all the tools at its disposal to counter threats to its territorial integrity. This is not bluff.” Soon, the concept of territorial integrity could include areas that Russia currently occupies and intends to annex.
I keep reading that people should be aware of Putin’s nuclear threats but not be intimidated by them. Call me a coward, but I find it hard to think about the end of the world without being intimidated – and I do the same with my political leaders. If possible, it is better to avoid rather than incur mass death and destruction. Of course, in the face of such a threat, simply surrendering is bound to fail – but a person can be reasonably intimidated, and respond accordingly, without surrendering. This is what Mutual Assured Destruction means.
Am I exaggerating the danger? Wouldn’t Putin be prevented from using nuclear weapons if he was threatened with a correspondingly harsh response? Again, maybe – but what exactly is a deterrent? It’s hard to see how sanctions could get tougher, especially since they’ve already wreaked havoc outside Russia. With the U.S. doing its best to support Ukraine without endangering any of its own forces, can the U.S. credibly threaten (as some have suggested) attacking Russia in response to a tactical nuclear strike — let alone a nuclear response?
Assuming threats and counter-threats move in this direction, note a worrying inconsistency in much of the analysis of Putin’s calculations. His attack on Ukraine was considered not only pathetic but reckless. However, he is expected to analyse the pros and cons of “upgrade to downgrade” on a cautious basis. What could go wrong?
Ukraine’s extraordinary achievements on the battlefield created an opportunity to end the war without taking these extraordinary risks. What is needed now is a solution that allows Putin to claim a victory that everyone else understands as a defeat. This can arise through various forms of negotiation. But imagine, first of all, a ceasefire delineating borders along current fronts, the long-term result of ceding parts of territory to Russia, while bringing much of what is today Ukraine into NATO.
Until recently, Putin would have considered this unacceptable. Now it might not look so bad.
Of course, Ukraine and its most ardent supporters will also hate it. It seems unconscionable to reward Russian hostility with territory and keep Putin in power. But throughout, it has been a grave mistake for the United States and its allies to listen as much as possible to Ukraine’s judgment of what is at stake and how much to risk. Ukraine’s interests and consideration of legitimate sacrifices are aligned with those of the West, but not identical.
Most of the world will not see the outcome of the negotiations as Ukraine, but a useful defeat for Russia. The suggestion that Putin would simply stop, gather strength, and restart his expansionary war in pursuit of greater Russia is an exaggeration. The course of the war has highlighted the limits of Russia’s power, tested the patience of its allies, and consolidated the West’s ability to challenge its actions. Putin’s total humiliation, or his removal from power, was not necessary for the drive home.
Accepting this deeply unsatisfactory outcome would reduce the risk of a catastrophic wider conflict. It’s a price worth paying.
More from Bloomberg Views:
• Biden faces decision tree if Putin nuclearizes: Andreas Kluth
• Why Putin Can’t Use Fascism’s Greatest Resource: Leonid Bershidsky
• Biden’s harsh condemnation of Putin falls through: Bobby Ghosh
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member for Economics. Previously, he was associate editor of The Economist and chief Washington commentator of the Financial Times.
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