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Before February 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his fateful decision to attack Ukraine, the core objective of U.S. policy on the brewing crisis was clear. Washington sought to deter an invasion by raising the costs of any military operation that Putin launched and by issuing threats of punishment—largely economic—if Moscow were to proceed. But deterrence clearly failed. Russia rolled into Ukraine and its forces have since killed thousands of civilians and devastated several cities. The United States, together with its allies and partners, took sweeping action in response to Russia’s aggression, imposing unprecedented sanctions, including freezing central bank reserves, and delivering hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of materiel to support the Ukrainian military. But the urgency of countering Putin seems to have clouded the question of what U.S. objectives should be and how best to pursue them.
The horrors of the war, including the leveling of major urban areas such as Kharkiv and Mariupol, the displacement of millions, and the civilian death toll, cannot help but provoke outrage. U.S. President Joe Biden’s unscripted remark in Warsaw on Saturday—speaking of Putin, he said, “For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power”—reflects a fairly widely held sentiment that the United States must prioritize punishing Putin, or even seek his ouster (although the White House has denied that this is U.S. policy). But Washington should be wary of the siren call of regime change, which seems at first to offer a just and effective remedy. Recent U.S. experience in Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere suggests that it almost never produces the desired results.
Instead, policymakers in Washington must wrestle with two distinct kinds of goals. In the near term, U.S. priorities remain denying Putin a battlefield victory, avoiding the escalation of the conflict, and limiting its humanitarian and economic costs. Over the long term, the United States wants to shape Russian behavior in such a way that minimizes risks to U.S. geopolitical interests and international stability and reduces the potential for future regional conflict.
The main challenge today is that Ukraine’s brave resistance—even combined with ever-greater Western pressure on Moscow—is highly unlikely to overcome Russia’s military advantages, let alone topple Putin. Without some kind of deal with the Kremlin, the best outcome is probably a long, arduous war that Russia is likely to win anyway. And such a protracted conflict would cement the current extreme level of hostility between Russia and the West, undermining long-term U.S. interests in regional and global stability.
It will be extremely hard, if not impossible, for the United States to achieve either its short- or long-term objectives if the war drags on for months longer. However distasteful it may be to reach a compromise with Putin after the carnage he has unleashed, the United States should work to secure a negotiated settlement to the conflict sooner rather than later.
Putin has not achieved the quick win he sought. His initial war aim was clearly regime change, and he hoped to accomplish it without significant military effort—just enough shock and awe to convince Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government to flee, to force the Ukrainian military to surrender, and to ensure a swift Russian victory that could be presented to the West as a fait accompli. Putin also assumed that European governments would be reluctant to sever economic ties with Russia and that cracks would emerge in the transatlantic alliance that he could exploit.
On every count, Putin spectacularly misjudged. Much credit for his failure so far goes to the resilience and bravery of the Ukrainians, but U.S. policies—including sending military assistance to Ukraine, rallying the international community, and hitting Russia with punishing sanctions—have certainly played a central role.
But Russia’s initial struggles do not mean that it will lose this war. Putin seems to have shifted from seeking regime change to a strategy of imposing costs; by inflicting ever-greater pain and suffering on Ukraine, he seeks to force Zelensky to accept his terms for peace, including the recognition of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions as independent states. Russia can still snatch victory—defined this way, at least—from the jaws of defeat over the coming weeks and months. It would doubtless be a brutal, bloody, and ultimately Pyrrhic victory, but the Russian military, even after suffering the losses it has suffered, still has the capacity to achieve it.
Russia’s initial struggles do not mean that it will lose this war.
Should Putin attain peace on his terms after a long, bludgeoning campaign, it would constitute a significant strategic setback for the United States. A long war that sees him prevail would also cause dramatically more death and destruction in Ukraine, accelerating mass displacement and emigration that might overwhelm neighboring countries, spark humanitarian disasters, and ignite political crises in the European Union. The risk of the Russia-Ukraine war becoming a direct confrontation between Russia and the United States and its allies, which combined possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, will remain elevated as long as the fighting continues. The regional and global economic consequences of the conflict will multiply, perhaps sparking a major worldwide recession.
To avoid these outcomes, a negotiated end to the war is urgently needed. Ukraine and Russia have made some progress in their bilateral talks, particularly on the possibility of Kyiv’s future nonalignment (Zelensky seems willing to accept permanent neutrality and renounce any ambitions to join NATO), but they seem to have run into some insurmountable barriers. Moscow is insisting on expanding the writ of Russia’s separatist proxies in Donetsk and Luhansk far beyond the prewar line of control and forcing Ukraine to recognize them as independent states. Kyiv will never accept those terms.
Washington could help break this impasse. The United States and its European partners could use the leverage that they have generated through sanctions to compel Russia to drop its maximalist demands, relieving some sanctions in support of a peace agreement that does not cross Kyiv’s red lines. That might be a tough pill for Washington to swallow, because it would mean effectively dialing down some of the pressure exerted on Putin. But the alternative would surely be worse: a grinding war, the destruction of Ukraine’s cities, the flight of millions more of its citizens, a global economic downturn, and the very plausible risk of escalation.
Some observers have welcomed the prospect of a protracted war as an opportunity both to dramatically weaken Russia and to undermine Putin’s regime. But the reality is that Putin has already done astounding damage to his country’s power, prestige, and economic prospects. A long war in Ukraine might push that process of decline and marginalization too far, too fast— turning Russia into a massive version of North Korea—and thus threaten three key long-term U.S. objectives.
First, Washington has an interest in long-term stability and a durable peace in a postwar Ukraine and along Russia’s periphery to reduce the likelihood of a conflict like this in the future. In addition to a massive humanitarian and economic aid effort to stabilize Ukraine, this will require follow-on consultations with all parties concerned—Russia, Ukraine, Russia’s other neighbors, and the West. Talks should be aimed at agreeing on rules of the road that would minimize the risk of a future war involving Russia and its neighbors. This will be a long process, akin to the talks that produced the Helsinki Final Act, the 1975 pan-European agreement that covered a range of security and humanitarian issues. The war in Ukraine has laid bare the reality that the contest for influence in this region has spiraled out of control. A repeat of this war in Ukraine could take place, for example, in Belarus—if a future Belarussian leader seeks to distance the country from Russia’s increasingly tight embrace—or in Georgia, unless there is the security architecture in place to manage geopolitical competition and incentivize the peaceful resolution of disputes. Reaching that agreement would not entail a new détente with Russia, or an end to tense and at times hostile relations. Instead, it would establish a bare minimum of stability among adversaries.
Second, although the United States and its allies should hold Russia accountable for the war, it will be important to avoid transforming the country into a basket case, an incorrigible international spoiler, or both. This will inevitably prove a difficult balancing act. Some of the punitive sanctions and other measures imposed on Russia for its aggression will likely have to remain in place. But a severe enough economic shock could destabilize the country, returning to the nightmare scenario from the 1990s, of a Russia in chaos. At that time, the United States concluded that a weak Russia, unable to control its territory and large nuclear arsenal, would pose a grave threat to U.S. national security. And turmoil in Russia would economically decimate several of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia that remain highly dependent on remittances from and other economic ties to Moscow.
Even if Russia does not transform into an economic basket case, it might well become a rogue actor. Moscow demonstrated many rogue-like tendencies before the war as seen in its 2014 annexation of Crimea and interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. If all incentives for moderation are gone, those tendencies would likely become the norm. And if Russia begins to behave like a determined international spoiler, in the manner of North Korea, it could drag down much of what remains of the multilateral system, including the nuclear nonproliferation regime and the UN Security Council. Further, if the Russian economy is largely severed from the international financial system, Moscow would have little reason to restrain itself from striking back at Western banks, corporations, and other financial institutions with its considerable cyber-capabilities.
Finally, although it is clear that Russia’s aggression will leave it far more dependent on China regardless of what Washington does now, the United States does have a long-term interest in avoiding a new bipolarity. A Russia completely dependent on China—and a China willing to underwrite Putin’s regime—could bring the two into a de facto alliance to counter the United States and its allies. Such an outcome could exacerbate Washington’s challenges in its long-term competition with Beijing.
These three long-term interests—achieving regional stability, discouraging Russia from turning into an international rogue, and precluding a new bipolarity—should not stop U.S. policymakers from imposing costs on Putin and his regime. But they should inform U.S. decision-making. A negotiated peace in the coming weeks that allows for some sanctions relief would be a necessary first step toward pursuing all three. Otherwise, continued regional conflicts, a Russian economic implosion, increased global disorder, and a de facto Moscow-Beijing alliance all become more likely long-term outcomes.
A growing number of analysts and politicians in Washington are calling for the Biden administration to adopt regime change in Russia as the central U.S. objective. This is understandable. Putin and his regime have engaged in truly horrific acts of violence against Ukraine. The sanctions imposed on Russia have shaken the country’s economy, undermining the relative stability and prosperity that served as the core of Putin’s legitimacy. His war on Ukraine has indeed created real risks of domestic instability over the long term, imperiling his own rule.
But an official policy of regime change—or even a tacit endorsement of it—could backfire dramatically for the United States, its allies, Ukraine, and even the Russian people. Russian strategists have long posited that a Western attempt to overthrow the government would combine threats on the periphery, economic warfare, the fomenting of domestic unrest, and eventually direct military attack. If the Kremlin is convinced that U.S. policy is aimed at regime change, it is likely to hit back hard. Putin is unlikely to go down without a fight against domestic or foreign enemies. The Russian state remains capable of significant violent repression at home and even more aggression abroad than it has already demonstrated in the past month.
As Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds on and the humanitarian disaster deepens, Washington may be tempted to focus exclusively on punishing Putin. But that approach might well backfire. In the short term, pursuing a negotiated settlement could head off a come-from-behind Russian win. Over the long term, the United States wants stability and peace in and around Ukraine and to ensure that Moscow pays a cost for its aggression without making it a global pariah. Putin’s murderous gambit has sparked understandable outrage, but cool heads will be necessary to pursue both these short- and long-term U.S. objectives.
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