Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
With Russia’s war against Ukraine having passed the 100-day mark, calls for the conflict to be brought to an end are multiplying in the United States and Europe. Italy has put forward a detailed peace plan, French President Emmanuel Macron has emphasized the importance of giving Russia an off-ramp, and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has suggested that Ukraine ought to consider ceding territory to Russia in exchange for peace.
But wars end in only one of two ways: when one side imposes its will on the other, first on the battlefield, then at the negotiating table, or when both sides embrace a compromise they deem preferable to fighting. In Ukraine, neither scenario is likely to materialize anytime soon. The conflict has become a war of attrition, with Russian and Ukrainian forces now concentrated against each other in a relatively confined area. Diplomatically, the Ukrainians have little interest in accepting Russian occupation of large swaths of their territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, has little interest in agreeing to anything that could be judged at home to constitute defeat. The inescapable conclusion, then, is that this war will go on—and on.
With victory and compromise both off the table for the foreseeable future, the United States and Europe need a strategy for managing an open-ended conflict. “Managing,” not “solving,” is the operative word here, because a solution almost certainly would require a fundamental change in Moscow’s behavior, caused either by widespread popular protest in Russia stemming from economic collapse or massive casualties or by Chinese pressure. No solution is likely to happen; it is more probable that one will have to await the emergence of a new Russian leader who is prepared to accept a truly sovereign Ukraine, and that, unfortunately, is beyond the West’s ability to bring about. What the West can do, however, is maintain and selectively ramp up its support to Ukraine, abide by the limits on its own direct military involvement, and increase the economic pressure on Russia. That would amount to a policy designed to deal with, rather than end, the war.
With regime change in Kyiv unattainable, Putin has reduced his ambitions, focusing on controlling a slice of the south and east of Ukraine in an effort to enlarge and connect the territories he took in 2014. What he has not given up, however, is his belief that Ukraine does not deserve to be a sovereign entity. As a result, it is difficult to imagine Putin ending the conflict. If Russian forces fare poorly in their ongoing offensive in the Donbas, he will be loath to accept what many might view as a defeat in a war he started. Doing so could render him vulnerable to internal challenge and could come to define his legacy. If, on the other hand, Russian forces gain the upper hand, Putin will see no reason to agree to a cessation of fighting.
Further dimming the prospects of peace is the unlikelihood that any of the developments that could change Putin’s calculus will materialize. Take, for instance, criticism within Russia of the war. Ukraine claims that 30,000 Russian soldiers have already been killed in battle, whereas other assessments suggest that the number is half as high. Whatever the precise figure, it is surely larger than the Kremlin had imagined. In a normal society, that would sap support for the war. But because the government can so effectively control information and crack down against its opponents, domestic criticism of the war has been relatively muted so far.
What if the economic pressure mounts? For now, the sanctions are nowhere near the point of threatening to bring down Putin. Higher oil prices and the emergence of buyers such as India have helped offset reduced sales to the West. Europe, for its part, continues to import Russian gas. If it stopped doing so, Russia would be hard-pressed to sell the gas to others, but Europe is likely to keep buying. Worried about their economies, European countries will resist cutting off imports until they can be assured of either alternative supplies of gas or substitute energy sources—all of which will take years to materialize.
Then there is the prospect of pressure from China, which has so far stood by Russia. If the West persuaded Beijing to distance itself from Moscow, then Putin might realize that his invasion was costing him a vital partner. The United States and Europe should do what they can to drive apart the two powers, including offering incentives to China while also warning it that continued support for Russia would lead to a further deterioration of U.S.-Chinese relations. But even if they tried, their efforts still might fail, as Chinese President Xi Jinping would be extremely reluctant to do anything that would lead to Russia’s defeat or that would suggest that he erred in associating China so closely with Russia.
Kyiv’s calculations are more complicated. Like any attacked country, Ukraine has been forced to set its war aims on the fly. Its government does not speak with a single voice, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself has shifted his stance. At times, he has suggested that he would accept nothing less than the status quo that prevailed from 1991, when Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union, to 2014. At other times, he has hinted that Ukraine could live with a return to a different status quo ante, the one that prevailed after 2014 but before the 2022 invasion, which would leave Russia in control of Crimea and some of the Donbas.
In determining whether to sue for peace, Ukraine has to consider a number of factors. The most pressing is the direct cost of war. So far, according to the UN, the country has suffered more than 3,000 civilian casualties and, according to Zelensky, is losing up to 100 soldiers a day. The Ukrainian economy is expected to shrink by 45 percent this year. More than 6.5 million Ukrainians out of a population of 44 million have fled the country since the war began. More than seven million are internally displaced. Such enormous costs are difficult to sustain.
Ukraine will probably not be able to restore the status quo that prevailed before this February.
Another factor for Ukraine to consider is the possibility that the military tide could turn. Although its forces have fared far better than expected, it cannot assume they will continue to do so. As Russia has concentrated its forces and firepower in a smaller part of the country, it has seen its fortunes improve. Scenarios in which Ukraine pushed Russian forces back to the border, a possibility that could prompt a desperate Putin to contemplate using weapons of mass destruction, seem much less likely than they did a month ago.
Further complicating Ukraine’s decision-making calculus is the uncertain staying power of the West. In the United States, bipartisan support for arming Ukraine is showing some fraying. The Republican Party is exhibiting classic signs of isolationism, with 11 Republican senators and 57 Republican members of the House of Representatives voting against the $40 billion aid package that was passed in May. Other leading Republicans, including former President Donald Trump and J. D. Vance, the Republican Senate candidate in Ohio, have argued that domestic needs should take precedence over helping Ukraine. On the Democratic side, higher gas prices, in part the result of the war, pose a serious political problem for the Biden administration. Other issues are crowding out Ukraine, with abortion, gun control, inflation, border security, and urban crime all competing for Americans’ attention. In Europe, there is growing concern about the long-term economic and security implications of isolating Russia, the potential that NATO could come into direct conflict with Russia if Putin widened the war, the influx of Ukrainian refugees, and rising energy prices.
Yet despite these considerations, Ukraine will almost certainly hold out. It will, for good and understandable reasons, resist giving up any territory. Ukrainians are confident in the strength of their military and its superior morale, and they believe that territorial compromise would merely feed Putin’s appetite. The brutality of the war has hardened public and elite opinion. Zelensky appears confident that he can maintain U.S. and European support. All of this strongly suggests Ukraine will persevere and refuse to accept peace at any price.
It is not surprising that the desire to end the war is increasing as its human, economic, and diplomatic costs mount. The most common proposed settlement is for Ukraine to cede some of the territory Russia currently occupies in exchange for Moscow agreeing to end hostilities. This “land for peace” approach has informed much of the diplomacy of the Middle East, ever since the 1967 Six-Day War, when the UN Security Council proposed that Israel give up territory it conquered in the war in return for peace with its Arab neighbors.
This framework has worked in several instances—nowhere more so than in the peace treaties Israel signed with Egypt and Jordan—but it is a bad fit for Ukraine. Whereas Israel relinquished territory that it had gained through war, Ukraine would be asked to cede territory it had lost in an unprovoked war against it. The power differential is also backward. It is one thing for a strong protagonist to cede land to gain peace, as was the case with Israel, but it is another thing for the weaker party to offer territory to the stronger party in the hope that the latter will at last be satisfied. That was the approach taken in Munich in 1938, when Adolf Hitler was given the Sudetenland, then part of Czechoslovakia, and it has been rightfully discredited ever since.
U.S. officials should frame the war in Ukraine in terms of order, not democracy.
Still, any participant in a conflict must constantly weigh the costs and benefits of continuing to wage war against those of laying down arms. Ceding territory for peace may or may not be an attractive option for Ukraine; the answer depends on which and how much territory, whether that territory might eventually be regained, and other features of the peace, including its permanence—all of which are hard to predict. The bottom line, however, is that it is nearly impossible to imagine Ukraine agreeing even temporarily to an outcome that left Russia in control of significantly more territory than it occupied before February. True, Ukraine has at times signaled its readiness to give up its ambitions of joining NATO and pledge its neutrality. But if the country did that, it would also insist that this be a well-armed neutrality, which would require continued Western military support—something that Russia would likely not accept. Nor is Russia likely to accept Ukrainian membership in the EU, a priority for Zelensky. It is also hard to imagine the two governments could agree on external security guarantees for Ukraine or the presence of troops from third countries, because such arrangements would lock in territorial arrangements that one side or the other might wish to revise.
The United States, for its part, has said that it is up to Ukraine to decide what it wants in a settlement. That stance is difficult to justify, given that Washington has far broader interests at stake than does Kyiv. The Biden administration has further muddied the waters by suggesting a range of different goals, from weakening Russia to achieving regime change. At the end of May, U.S. President Joe Biden sought to clarify his intentions, writing in a New York Times op-ed, “We want to see a democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous Ukraine with the means to deter and defend itself against further aggression.”
This statement helps, but it does not end the confusion. The Biden administration has been reluctant to admit the uncomfortable truth that there is a trade-off at play in Ukraine. The United States has an interest in enforcing the norm that countries do not alter borders with force, but that interest conflicts with another: the desire to avoid a direct fight with a nuclear-armed great power. That is why the United States has refused to put boots on the ground, ruled out a no-fly zone over Ukraine, and declined to break Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports. Such restraint is wise, but what it adds up to is the reality that Ukraine will have to keep doing its own fighting—and that even with Western help, Ukraine will probably not be able to restore the status quo that prevailed before this February, to say nothing of the one that existed before 2014.
The West thus needs a strategy for the long haul. Such a strategy would reflect an understanding that policy to date has largely succeeded and that many of its features ought to be extended, but also that going forward, new elements will be required. While avoiding direct military involvement, the United States and Europe should keep providing Ukraine with the arms it needs (along with associated intelligence and training) so that it can frustrate Russian military actions and regain control of more of its territory. They should back Ukraine’s goal of restoring its full territorial integrity through an open-ended policy of sanctions and diplomacy while holding fast in their refusal to recognize any territory that Putin attempts to make part of Russia. They should welcome Finland and Sweden into NATO, either formally as full members or as de facto members covered by side assurances if Turkey continues its opposition. They should do all this because they must uphold a critical international norm: that borders cannot be altered by force.
Sanctions against Russia remain critical. None would be more effective than an eventual European cutoff of Russian gas. European countries must make it a priority to accelerate the development of alternative energy supplies. But in the meantime, they can apply tariffs to Russian oil and gas to reduce demand. European countries should also ready contingency plans for the possibility that Russia cuts gas exports to Europe in an effort to curtail arms shipments to Ukraine or weaken support for sanctions. The United States, Europe, and their partners in Asia, such as Australia, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, should continue to provide Ukraine with financial support. Funds would help make up for the severe economic disruption the country has experienced and aid the millions of people displaced by the war.
Ultimately, what is probably required to end the war is a change not in Washington but in Moscow.
The West should also attempt to restore grain exports from Ukraine, which are central to the world’s food security. If logistical constraints and Russian attacks limit what Ukraine can transport via rail and road to ports in Romania, then the United States and its European allies should consider providing Ukraine with enhanced means (most likely aircraft) to attack Russian naval vessels in the Black Sea. Putting together an international coalition to escort merchant ships as they leave Ukrainian ports is attractive in principle, but in practice it would likely prove impossible to organize and too risky to undertake.
Publicly, U.S. officials should frame the war in Ukraine in terms of order, not democracy. Many of the world’s governments are not democratic, but they can relate to the importance of not being invaded. The model should be the Gulf War, when the United States garnered widespread international support for restoring Kuwait’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, not the 2003 Iraq war, when efforts to transform Iraq left the United States mostly isolated. At home and abroad, Biden should regularly make the case for why Ukraine matters: namely, that if grisly, unprovoked invasions became commonplace, the world would be less safe, less prosperous, and less able to contend with global challenges that affect everyone.
Ultimately, what is probably required to end the war is a change not in Washington but in Moscow. In all likelihood, given Putin’s deep investment in the war, it will require someone other than him to take steps that would end Russia’s pariah status, economic crisis, and military quagmire. The West should make clear that it is ready to reward a new Russian leader prepared to take such steps even as it keeps up the pressure on the current one.
Victory in the War Would Not End the Conflict With Russia