Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
As Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its fourth month, calls are growing in Western Europe and the United States for a diplomatic push to end the war. In late May, Italy proposed a four-point peace plan for Ukraine that would culminate in sanctions relief for Russia. Not long after, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, speaking at Davos, called on Ukraine to cede territory to Russia and to begin negotiations immediately. And at the beginning of June, French President Emmanuel Macron repeated his call to not “humiliate” Russia. In the halls of power, a consensus seems to be emerging: give Moscow land in exchange for peace.
In Ukraine, however, the opposite view has taken hold. Speaking directly to Kissinger’s comments, President Volodymyr Zelensky retorted that “those who advise Ukraine to give away something to Russia . . . are always unwilling to see ordinary people.” He is joined in this view by most Ukrainians—82 percent of whom, according to a May poll, oppose any territorial concessions. Not surprisingly, a population attacked so brutally and unjustly is decidedly uninterested in rewarding the bully with pieces of its homeland.
Zelensky and the Ukrainian people are right: pressuring Ukraine into a negotiated settlement with territorial concessions would not lead to long-term peace and stability in Europe. Rather, it would reward Russian military aggression in the short term, create a new swath of instability in the heart of Europe, and effectively condone Russian war crimes. A peaceful settlement sounds reasonable in theory. But in practice—in this war, at this moment—it would yield no lasting peace.
For starters, proposals that Ukraine give up territory to Russian control create a moral hazard. The war in Ukraine is not akin to an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century conflict in which a province might be handed from one country to another without catastrophic consequences for most of the people who live there. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war is a war of national extermination. He has made no secret of his aim to destroy Ukraine’s cultural and national identity. In the parts of Ukraine they occupy, Russian forces have established “filtration camps” where they question Ukrainians and deport them against their will to Russia. They have committed mass killings and rapes. They have destroyed Ukrainian culture, targeting historical sites, looting museums, and burning books. These tactics are reminiscent of the Stalinist methods employed against Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1940, when the Soviets occupied the Baltic states and sought to erase national identity through mass deportations and forced Russification. Russia’s crimes in Ukraine today are not excesses of war committed in the heat of battle but expressions of national policy.
Those who call on Ukraine to give up territory therefore need to own up to the consequences. Millions of people would never return to their homes. Thousands of civilians would be killed, tortured, and raped. Children would be taken from their parents. The Ukrainians remaining under Russian occupation would be stripped of their national identity and placed under permanent, hostile submission. Professors, teachers, writers, journalists, civic leaders, local activists, and anyone else with what Putin has termed a “Nazi” (read: Ukrainian) identity would probably be harassed and perhaps imprisoned or deported. Accepting further Russian occupation of Ukraine would mean accepting these inevitable moral and ethical consequences. The atrocities would not stop if the fighting ended. To the contrary, surrendering territory to achieve a peace dictated by Moscow would vindicate such tactics and lock in their consequences forever.
Advocates of a diplomatic settlement are also unrealistic about its long-term implications for European peace, security, and deterrence. Underlying their proposals is the assumption that a negotiated settlement now would lead to a permanent solution in which Ukraine gives up the territory now under Russian occupation—namely, Crimea, Luhansk, Donetsk, and perhaps Kherson and other territories—and an independent rump state would develop freely to pursue its ambitions of European integration. The idea is to emulate past settlements in which territory was partitioned and stability ensued, such as the division of Germany in 1945 and the Korean armistice of 1953.
But Ukraine is a profoundly different case. Since his February 24 speech that launched the war, Putin has made explicit in word and deed that he intends to destroy Ukrainian independence writ large. A settlement that surrenders some Ukrainian territory to Russia is unlikely to end Russia’s desires to deny Ukraine true nationhood. The Soviet Union accepted West Germany as a sovereign country during the Cold War, but Putin would never do the same for Ukraine, which he fundamentally does not see as an independent nation.
The Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, for their part, would in no way resemble East Germany. The Soviets sought to make that country the beacon of state socialism. They wanted it to be communist and under their control, not eliminated or Russified. Even if Russia wanted to rebuild the Donbas or any other part of Ukraine it occupies, it doesn’t have the resources to do so. If ceded to Russia, these territories—already leveled to the ground—would remain no man’s lands: zones of lawlessness and human rights abuses.
A divided Ukraine would not resemble the Korean armistice, either. In that case, on the northern side of the 38th parallel, millions of people suffer under a totalitarian dictatorship while to the south, 50 million South Koreans enjoy freedom, well-being, and a measure of security. But as long as Russia occupies parts of Ukraine, it will seek to undermine any independent Ukrainian government through force, political subversion, and economic pressure.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war is a war of national extermination.
Another important difference: to the extent that both the German and Korean solutions worked, they did so thanks to U.S. security guarantees and U.S. troops. West Germany was made a member of NATO, South Korea signed a U.S. defense treaty, and both countries hosted tens of thousands of U.S. troops. In the case of Ukraine, extending NATO membership to the country could in theory back up a territorial settlement. Absent NATO membership, one could imagine a different set of reassurances that could also provide the security underpinnings for long-term stability for a sort of West Ukraine. The United States might, for example, station troops in Ukraine on a long-term basis, and it (and perhaps other countries, as well) might offer a security guarantee on the level of NATO’s Article 5 or the U.S.–South Korean bilateral defense arrangements. But such guarantees remain unlikely.
Western Europe seems no more willing to provide Article 5 guarantees to Ukraine than it did at the 2008 Bucharest summit, where members settled on Ukrainian NATO membership as a long-term objective but laid out no meaningful path to achieve it. Based on our conversations with officials in the Biden administration, even the United States does not seem ready to offer Ukraine security guarantees akin to what it offered West Germany or what it offers South Korea; instead, it is planning to continue to offer only arms and intelligence. Moreover, the Kremlin is likely to insist that any settlement with Ukraine include Ukrainian commitments to give up NATO membership in favor of some sort of neutrality, along with a pledge not to base foreign troops. In any case, those urging Ukraine to surrender territory seldom back up their preferred settlement by insisting that the country be welcomed into NATO or given hard security guarantees by the United States. These omissions inspire little confidence that such proposals are realistic.
At best, Russian-occupied Ukraine would be the site of another so-called frozen conflict, but even that concept is a misnomer and illusion. Frozen conflicts imply a stable permanency, but they are anything but that. As was the case with Luhansk and Donetsk, where the invasion began, gray zones often become launching pads for greater aggression. Moscow’s occupation of Crimea, another so-called frozen conflict, has allowed Russian forces to impose an economic blockade, cutting off vital agricultural exports from Ukraine and igniting a global food crisis. Creating more such gray zones in Ukraine might produce a tenuous short-term stop to the fighting, but as recent history has shown, they would also enable the Kremlin to use these territories to destabilize Ukraine and Europe and rebuild its strength.
The diplomatic solution proposed by Italy, to its credit, does not insist on a unilateral Ukrainian surrender of territory. The four-part framework includes a cease-fire and demilitarization; Ukrainian neutrality plus security guarantees; autonomy for Crimea and the Donbas, with both remaining as part of Ukraine; and withdrawal of Russian forces combined with lifting of sanctions. Judging by its public statements in the early weeks of the war, Ukraine might accept something like these terms if they could be realized.
But they are not likely to be. For one thing, in 2013, the Kremlin already had a good deal in Ukraine: the country was officially neutral, its security relations with the West were minimal, and Putin’s man, Viktor Yanukovych, was its president. Evidently, that wasn’t good enough for Putin: he forced Yanukovych to reject a modest trade agreement with the European Union and thus precipitated a democratic uprising. In the years since, Putin’s appetite has only grown. Predictably, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has already dismissed the Italian proposal.
Even if the Kremlin announced tomorrow that it accepted a diplomatic framework as the basis for negotiation, there would be good reason to remain skeptical of its chances. The Italian deal, for example, is similar to the now defunct Minsk agreements, which started with a cease-fire, included local control for the Donbas, and ended with restoration of Ukraine’s eastern international boundary. Russia did not take Minsk seriously as anything but a platform to escalate demands. It is unlikely to treat a diplomatic proposal any better today.
Anyone who still has faith in Moscow’s intention to take such frameworks seriously should study its behavior in Syria, where the Russians treated every arrangement as an opportunity to advance its position on the ground. For any negotiations to work, all parties at the table must want a solution, be sincerely engaged in the process, and abide by the ultimate compromise. Putin has shown an inclination to do none of that so far, and he is unlikely to change his behavior as long as he sees any pathway to a win in Ukraine.
Western policymakers must accept a harsh truth in Ukraine: the war is likely to grind on for some time. At this point in the conflict, the West should think less about what Ukraine should give to Russia and how to avoid humiliating Putin and more about what it can do to put Ukraine in the best possible position. The ultimate argument of those who wish Ukraine to unilaterally surrender land is that the country cannot prevail in the war—that as The New York Times editorial board put it, regaining territory “is not a realistic goal.”
But those who doubt Ukraine’s capabilities should consider how much the country has accomplished so far. Just as initial assumptions of a quick Russian victory were wrong, current assumptions of a slow but unstoppable Russian advance may be off, too. Ukrainian offensives to regain territory in the south and east of the country may prove difficult. But Russia, with its limited forces, may not be able to hold all the territory it has taken. Nobody knows what the fortunes of war may bring. In private conversations with the two of us, senior U.S. military and civilian officials have shared mixed views of how the battle is likely to go and acknowledged that they are uncertain themselves. Uncertainty is a questionable basis on which to make weighty decisions that have baleful consequences for millions of people—decisions such as urging Ukraine to give up territory or pressuring it to stop fighting. At this stage, there is no basis to allow Putin to win at the negotiating table what he has failed to achieve on the battlefield.
The goal for the West is not to convince or pressure Ukraine to give up.
Ukrainian military success is not inevitable. But it is possible. Putin will not be impressed by firm speeches from Western leaders. What he may well respect, however, is a defeat on the ground, which could convince him to negotiate a settlement that he could portray through his propaganda machine as a victory. Putin is counting on the West to lose patience in a long war and capitulate as energy and food prices rise. And although the Russian people are famed for their ability to endure hardship, they were promised a quick “special military operation”—not years of conflict that make it difficult to live normal lives. Their patience will wear thinner if Russia loses on the battlefield.
The United States, Europe, and Ukraine’s other friends have a responsibility to help Ukraine prevail commensurate with that possibility. The goal now for the West is to thwart an adversary—not to convince or pressure Ukraine to give up. That means sending more arms to Ukraine and putting more economic pressure on Russia.
Such a plan does not rule out negotiations. Zelensky and his government have not done so. In fact, they showed more commitment to negotiations in the early weeks of the war than the Kremlin did. The time for negotiations may come—which is why the job now is to put Ukraine in the most favorable position possible in anticipation of that moment so that it has the best options available.
As long as Ukrainians are willing to fight for their homeland and all of Europe, it is the West’s duty to support them. Peace may sound like an appealing talking point, but Ukrainians know that it cannot come at any price. Western policymakers should listen.
Victory in the War Would Not End the Conflict With Russia