Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
The twentieth century’s two world wars are an endless source of precedents and analogies. The lead-up to World War II produced the Munich analogy, an allusion to the 1938 British and French decision to permit Nazi Germany to annex part of Czechoslovakia. “Munich” has become shorthand for “appeasement.” The aftermath of the war produced the Nuremberg analogy, a reference to the public trials of the surviving leaders of the utterly defeated Nazi regime. “Nuremberg” now stands for “unconditional surrender.”
By contrast, the conclusion of World War I had been unclear and incomplete. Berlin did not fall in November 1918. Instead, the government waging the war dissolved; Kaiser Wilhelm went into exile. The harsh terms of the peace—the reparations and the attribution of guilt to Germany—became the preconditions for Adolf Hitler’s rise and for the outbreak of World War II. This is the story of “Versailles”: shorthand for a peace agreement that begets further war.
The question now is what kind of ending Europe’s first major twenty-first-century war will feature. The Roman statesman and scholar Cicero argued that an unjust peace is better than a just war. Ongoing negotiations between Ukraine and Russia will put that proposition to the test.
The Ukrainians’ brave resistance has halted the Russian advance. In ordering an invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin acted impulsively. Were he now to think strategically, he would cut his losses and look for a way to finish the war. His larger political aims are already out of reach. He cannot control Ukraine and will struggle to partition a country opposed to Russian occupation. Moscow has only an expensive and forbidding military path ahead of it, which together with sanctions will place sizable burdens on Putin’s regime. But whatever happens in Ukraine, Russia will still be a nuclear power, and it will retain Europe’s largest conventional military.
In this war, there will be no Munich, no Nuremberg, and no Versailles.
Ukraine has mounted a formidable defense, but it cannot reverse Russia’s overall military dominance or stop its shelling and bombing of civilians and of military targets. Ukraine’s diplomatic balancing act—between retaining its sovereignty and terminating a cruel war—will be exceptionally difficult. Weapons from the United States and its European allies will strengthen Ukraine’s negotiation position. But without their direct involvement in the war, which is not going to materialize, Ukraine will not enjoy an outright victory and Russia will not suffer an outright defeat.
If they reach a negotiated deal, Ukraine and Russia will both have to settle for partial and fragile gains. In this war, there will be no Munich, no Nuremberg, and no Versailles.
Recent history provides another (not very encouraging) analogy for the parties: the Minsk analogy, which alludes to the agreements negotiated in that Belarusian city in 2014 and 2015 in a bid to end fighting between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists that was the prequel to the current war. Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine proved the inadequacy of the Minsk agreements, which represented a form of crisis management that irritated everyone and satisfied no one, deferring and perhaps even exacerbating Ukraine’s fundamental problems.
The United States and Europe are not at war with Russia and cannot apply either the Nuremberg or the Versailles models to this particular European conflict. Their mission, thus, is to do better than Minsk. Western sanctions on Russia and military assistance for Ukraine provide genuine leverage. Washington and its European allies should use and expand this leverage in proportion to Russia’s continuing violations of Ukrainian sovereignty. The transatlantic alliance can dictate nothing to Putin. It can only assist Ukraine in navigating its way to a probably unsatisfactory peace. This humbling reality must be the starting point for policy and diplomacy.
Through the Minsk negotiations, Putin was hoping to ensure Ukrainian neutrality on Russian terms and to compromise Ukrainian sovereignty by creating a semiautonomous zone in the country’s east. Instead, after the Minsk agreements were hammered out, Ukraine forged closer and closer ties with the United States, NATO, and western European countries. A line of contact formed in the country’s east between Ukraine proper and a netherland under Russian control. At considerable cost, Russia had acquired territory that gave it no real leverage over Ukraine’s geopolitical future.
Meanwhile, the United States and European countries imposed sanctions on Russia, pledging not to lift them until Russia withdrew its military from eastern Ukraine and ended the war, even though Russia remained unvanquished on the battlefield. Putin could not normalize relations with the United States and its allies unless he implemented the Minsk accords on their terms, which he had no intention of doing. But the sanctions were not destabilizing for Russia, and were not powerful enough to coerce Moscow accept the West’s terms.
Minsk’s failure has many authors. The signatories to the agreements were France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine. Paris and Berlin were rhetorically committed to the deal but did little to enforce it, and the effect of sanctions weakened with each passing year. Washington was equally complacent and lazy. U.S. military assistance flowed into Ukraine when the administration of President Donald Trump agreed to provide lethal military aid—with enough strings attached for Trump to get impeached for his manipulative relations with Ukraine. Yet despite earlier promises, Ukraine was never given the opportunity to join NATO or any other alliance: no treaty commitment from the United States or from another major outside power ever emerged.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February was driven by a revanchist vision of Ukraine’s historical ties to Russia and from his self-appointed mission to terminate Ukrainian statehood. But the invasion was also inspired by Putin’s more practical frustration with Minsk. Although the Russian military had won its battles in 2014 and 2015, the Kremlin was losing the war for Ukraine’s future. Putin believed that swiftly toppling the government in Kyiv would transform this state of affairs and pull Ukraine back toward Russia, punishing Kyiv’s European and U.S. partners. As he saw it, an invasion would not result in a wider war because Europe and the United States were only superficially committed to Ukraine. Had they been truly committed, they would not have let Minsk lapse into irrelevance.
Ukraine’s surprise success has made the Kremlin rethink its war aims. Putin began the invasion with the maximalist goal of toppling the Ukrainian government. The point of the war was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, in Putin’s bizarre parlance, which meant regime change. Given Russia’s immense battlefield losses, taking Kyiv may have become impossible for Russian forces, and by scaling back talk of the de-Nazification, Putin has signaled that he might accept Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government as a legitimate counterpart in negotiations. But this may also be a trap for Kyiv, a pause before Russia returns to an escalatory set of demands. Putin will at any rate use whatever territory that Russian forces have occupied in recent weeks as a bargaining chip.
Putin likely has three core aims at this point. One is to formalize Crimea’s incorporation into Russia, a signature achievement of his presidency in Putin’s eyes. Perhaps the annexation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, only a part of which were occupied before the 2022 invasion, will get folded into this demand. Relatedly, Russia may also push for a land bridge from Moldova to Mariupol, depending on how the war goes.
A second aim is to establish Ukraine’s neutrality, which could mean either its inability to join NATO and to enter into the treaty alliances of its choosing or its “demilitarization,” as Putin has put it, presumably the elimination of its military capacity. Indeed, Putin might seek both of those outcomes. In a less drastic scenario, neutrality could also mean limitations on certain weapons systems and the prohibition of foreign bases in Ukraine. Finally, Putin will want to constrain or to block Ukraine’s integration into European institutions, especially those tied to the European Union.
Zelensky will have to measure an unjust peace against a just but devastating war.
For his part, Zelensky wants to secure his country’s full sovereignty and autonomy. In theory, this would entail the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine, the return of Crimea to Ukraine, and the freedom to deepen economic relationships with the United States and Europe. Those outcomes, however, would require Russia to lose the war. Whereas Putin cannot be trusted to honor the documents he signs and should not be given concessions for his criminal war, he cannot be removed from the negotiations. Russia has at its disposal the threat of chemical and biological weapons and tactical nuclear weapons, not to mention the application of further conventional military force. Under this dark shadow, Zelensky must determine the degree of compromise he can condone and that Ukrainian citizens will accept. He will have to measure the imperatives of an unjust peace against those of a just but devastating war.
Zelensky has some leeway on Crimea and NATO membership. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was an illegal violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. Yet Russia, and not just Putin’s Russia, is unlikely to ever return it to Ukraine. Also, Crimea may matter less to Ukrainians than other parts of the country currently under Russia’s partial control, which could make a de facto acceptance of Russian control easier. And although NATO may decide to accept Sweden or Finland as members, it will not accept Ukraine—despite prior promises to do so. Zelensky has indicated his willingness to consider alternatives besides NATO membership, and has asked the West for security guarantees—that is, promises to enforce any potential agreement with Russia, ensuring that any deal would not amount to empty words.
For Kyiv, legally binding security guarantees—involving the United States, Russia, European countries, and potentially Turkey, as well—are crucial. Such guarantees would be the equivalent of extending NATO’s Article 5 to Ukraine: committing to go to war if Ukraine’s sovereignty or the terms of any potential agreement between Ukraine and Russia were violated. Such a pledge would certainly be a dramatic and precedent-defying step for the United States and its allies, which have tried to avoid being dragged into the war. Putin may not agree to it—or he may not agree to it in good faith. But binding guarantees—in contrast to the unenforced Budapest memorandum of 1994, which Russia first violated in 2014 by seizing Crimea—would furnish all sides with a solution to the essential problem of Ukraine’s security. Real bilateral or multilateral security guarantees would be better than NATO’s policy of having an open door in general but a closed door for Ukraine. Putin could sell this solution—the foreclosure of any chance that Ukraine would ever join NATO—as a win. At the same time, a U.S.-backed security guarantee to Ukraine could deter Russia from attacking Ukraine again.
Perhaps the parties will strike a grand bargain favorable to Ukraine, if Russia continues significant battlefield losses. More likely, however, this war will admit no easily sustainable peace. If Russia yields, it will probably yield to a provisional peace. Putin does not seem capable of learning from his mistakes. Yet a provisional peace that preserves Zelensky’s government, brings about a lasting cease-fire, and does not permanently infringe on Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and autonomy (as Kyiv defines the terms) may be attainable. As unjust as it would be, it is preferable to all the actual alternatives.
The war has rendered Russia’s foreign policy untenable. Putin is pursuing ambitions that the Russian economy and the Russian polity will not be able to realize. Although Putin will not fundamentally recalibrate, Russia cannot escape the fact that its ends outstrip its means. At some point, Putin will meet his political Waterloo as a result of this war. And when the consequences of his overreach descend on Moscow and the dictator departs, Ukraine’s chance for a peace that is more than provisional may at long last come into view.
A Kremlin-Controlled Ukraine Would Transform Europe