Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
As Russia’s all-out war of aggression in Ukraine drags on for a fourth consecutive month, calls for dangerous deals are getting louder. As fatigue grows and attention wanders, more and more Kremlin-leaning commentators are proposing to sell out Ukraine for the sake of peace and economic stability in their own countries. Although they may pose as pacifists or realists, they are better understood as enablers of Russian imperialism and war crimes.
It is only natural that people and governments lose interest in conflicts as they drag on. It’s a process that has played out many times throughout history. The world stopped paying attention to the war in Libya after former leader Muammar al-Qaddafi was toppled from power, in 2011. It disengaged from Syria, Yemen, and other ongoing conflicts that once generated front-page news. And as I know well, the rest of the world lost interest in Ukraine after 2015, even as we continued to fight Russian forces for control over the eastern part of the country.
But Russia’s current invasion is graver than its past one, and the world cannot afford to turn away. That’s because Russian President Vladimir Putin does not simply want to take more Ukrainian territory. His ambitions don’t even stop at seizing control of the entire country. He wants to eviscerate Ukrainian nationhood and wipe our people off the map, both by slaughtering us and by destroying the hallmarks of our identity. He is, in other words, engaged in a campaign of genocide.
To avoid growing weary of the war and falling for misleading narratives, the West needs to understand exactly how Ukraine can win, and then support us accordingly. This war is existential, and we are motivated to fight. Properly armed, our forces can stretch Putin’s troops—which are already exhausted—past the breaking point. We can counterattack Russian forces in both Ukraine’s south and Ukraine’s east, pressuring Putin to decide which of his gains to protect. To succeed, however, the United States and its European allies must swiftly supply our country with appropriate numbers of advanced heavy weapons. They must also maintain and increase sanctions against Russia. And, critically, they need to ignore calls for diplomatic settlements that would help Putin before he makes serious concessions.
Compromising with Russia may seem tempting to some abroad, especially as the costs of the war grow, but bowing to Putin’s aggression will help him destroy more of our nation, embolden his government to carry out attacks elsewhere in the world, and allow him to rewrite the rules of the global order. His approach to talks could change; if we succeed in pushing back Russian troops far enough, Putin may be compelled to come to the table and deal in good faith. But getting there will require that the West exercise patient dedication to one outcome: a complete and total Ukrainian victory.
From the minute Russian forces poured across Ukraine’s borders, some Western commentators have called for a compromise with Moscow. We are used to these kinds of suggestions and heard them many times between 2014 and 2022. But today’s war is different from the war that raged before February, and in recent weeks these calls have started coming from prominent foreign policy elites. In early June, French President Emmanuel Macron told journalists that the West “must not humiliate Russia” so that it can “build an exit ramp” for the country to end the war. Speaking to the World Economic Forum in May, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger went further, arguing that Ukraine should cede territory to Russia in exchange for peace.
These declarations are premised on the idea that Ukrainians, no matter how well they fight, cannot defeat Moscow’s forces. But that notion is wrong. Ukraine has proved its mettle by achieving important victories in the battles of Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Sumy, causing Putin’s blitzkrieg to fail spectacularly. Winning these fights has come at a huge price for Ukrainians, but we understood that the price of losing them would have been far, far higher. We know what Russian victory means for our villages and towns. Look no further than Bucha, where hundreds of Ukrainians were brutally slaughtered by occupying Russian troops in March.
Unfortunately, Putin’s sick imperialism means that Moscow also remains committed to the war despite the shockingly high costs. Russia has already lost three times as many soldiers as the Soviet Union did during ten years in Afghanistan, but it is continuing to sacrifice its troops in an attempt to seize the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk (together known as the Donbas) and to maintain control over the south of Ukraine. The death count may soon extend beyond just Russia, Ukraine, and even Europe. By blockading Ukrainian grain to try to force sanctions relief, Putin could provoke famines across the developing world.
Ukraine urgently needs more heavy weapons to turn the tide.
Despite the carnage, Russia’s president appears to be in a good mood. According to leaders who have recently spoken to Putin, he is sure that his “special operation” will, as we heard he told one European leader, “achieve its goals.” It isn’t hard to see why: Russian invaders have been able to crawl forward in the Donbas by resorting to total artillery terror. Putin has begun comparing himself to Peter the Great—perhaps the Russian empire’s most famous conqueror. It’s an ominous declaration, one that suggests that Putin will not settle for control over the Donbas or for control over Ukraine as a whole.
The most effective way to end Putin’s expansionism, of course, is to stop it in eastern Ukraine, before he can go further, and to kick his occupying forces out of southern Ukraine, which he plans to annex. This fact requires helping Ukraine defeat Putin on its own battlefield. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has made some groundbreaking decisions that can help us accomplish this task, including a historic new lend-lease program that makes it easier for the United States to supply Ukraine with weapons. Answering Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call, the United States decided in May to also provide us with four multiple-launch rocket systems. My counterpart and friend U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been closely engaged in crafting these steps, and Ukraine’s military leaders have been in active contact with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has also been very supportive of our cause.
This assistance has been a crucial first step, for which we are grateful. Yet we wish it had been provided much earlier, and it is still too little. Now it is time to turn political decisions into real game-changing actions. Russian artillery outguns ours by one to 15 at the most crucial parts of the frontline, so a few U.S. rocket systems will not be nearly enough for us to gain the upper hand. We urgently need more heavy weapons from various sources to turn the tide in our favor and save lives. Our most pressing needs are for hundreds of multiple-launch rocket systems and various 155-mm artillery pieces. These weapons would allow us to suppress Russia’s artillery barrage. But stopping artillery is not Ukraine’s only concern. We also need antiship missiles, tanks, armored vehicles, air defense, and combat aircraft to be able to launch effective counterattacks.
In short, we need weapons that prove that the West is committed to helping us actually win—rather than to just not letting us lose.
Since the invasion began, Ukraine has repeatedly tried to find a diplomatic settlement with Russia. But Putin has rejected any meaningful talks because he expects that Western support for Ukraine will wane as the war grinds on. It’s natural to feel worn out by months of full-scale war. But Russia’s war is driven by genocidal intent, and so Ukraine and the whole of the West simply cannot agree to Russia’s demands. As Putin declared two days before the invasion, Ukraine’s very existence is a mistake—the Soviet Union, he said, “created” Ukraine by casually drawing boundaries on a map—and our country must be erased. In his view, Ukrainians can either become Russians or die.
Putin has made good on this promise. After taking territory, Russian forces have looked through kill lists drawn up by the Federal Security Service and knocked on doors. They have tortured and executed people who teach Ukraine’s language and history, civil society activists, human rights defenders, former Ukrainian soldiers, local authorities, and plenty of others. They have changed road signs from Ukrainian to Russian, destroyed Ukrainian monuments, banned Ukrainian television, and prohibited the Ukrainian language from being used in schools.
In Putin’s view, Ukrainians can either become Russians or be killed.
We in Ukraine are not surprised by this brutal campaign. We have a deep knowledge of Russia and have watched for centuries as Russian intellectuals and state-controlled media incited hatred toward our nation. We have also seen how Moscow’s animosity extends beyond our borders. Russian media routinely condemns other neighboring states, the West more broadly, and a variety of minority groups—including Jews and LGBTQ people. The Russian political elite has a generalized, deep-seated loathing of others.
This hatred is yet another reason why the West cannot afford to wave the white flag. A Russian military victory would not just enable the torture, rape, and murder of many more thousands of innocent Ukrainians. It would undermine liberal values. It would free up Russia to menace central Europe. Indeed, it would allow Russia to threaten the Western world at large. There is nothing more dangerous for the European Union and NATO than having an emboldened Russia or pro-Russian proxy across more of its eastern borders.
Thankfully for Europe and the United States, Ukraine is fighting this dark force, and it is motivated to keep doing so until it wins. But we cannot succeed alone, and the West must understand the stakes and consequences of our failure. If we lose, there will not just be no more Ukraine; there will be no prosperity or security in Europe.
It is unrealistic to suggest that Ukraine sacrifice its people, territory, and sovereignty in exchange for nominal peace, and these recent calls for compromise are merely a byproduct of a growing fatigue. I have spoken with a number of decision-makers in African, Arab, and Asian states. Some of them started our conversations by affirming their support for our cause before making a hard pivot, politely proposing that we simply stop resisting. It’s an unthinkable proposition, but their reasoning is simple: they want the grain trapped in our ports by Russia’s naval blockade, and they are willing to sacrifice Ukrainian independence to get it. Other policymakers peddling concessions have expressed concerns about similar Russian-provoked economic crises, including spiraling inflation and energy prices.
But although rising food and energy costs are serious problems, giving in to Moscow is no solution—and not only because of what it will mean for Ukrainians. Russia is a revanchist country bent on remaking the entire world through force. It actively works to destabilize African, Arab, and Asian states both through its own military and through proxies. These conflicts have created their own humanitarian crises, and if Ukraine loses they will only grow worse. In victory, Putin would be emboldened to stir up more unrest and create more disasters across the developing world.
The West must cut off Russian access to the international maritime shipping industry.
Putin’s increased aggression wouldn’t be limited to the developing world. He would meddle with more vigor in U.S. and European politics. If he succeeds in conquering Ukraine’s south, he may march deeper into the continent by invading Moldova, where Russian proxies already control a slice of territory. He could even trigger a new war in the western Balkans, where increasingly antagonistic Serbian elites have looked to Russia for inspiration and support.
The West must therefore not suggest peace initiatives with unacceptable terms and instead help Ukraine win. That means not just providing Ukraine with the heavy weaponry it needs to fight off Moscow’s forces; it also means maintaining and increasing sanctions against Russia. Critically, the West must kill Russian exports by imposing a full energy embargo and cutting off Russian access to the international maritime shipping industry. The latter step may seem difficult to carry out, but it is, in fact, highly achievable: Russia’s export-oriented economy relies heavily on foreign fleets to deliver its goods abroad, and the fleets could stop serving the country.
These economic measures are key. Sanctions have undermined the Russian economy and impeded its ability to continue the war. But Moscow still feels confident about its decision, and so the West cannot afford any sanctions fatigue—regardless of the broader economic costs.
Despite Ukraine’s early successes, it may be hard for Western policymakers to envision how we can defeat Russia’s larger and better-equipped forces. But we have a pathway to victory. With sufficient support, Ukraine can both halt Russia’s advance and take back more of its territories.
In the east, Ukraine can gain the upper hand with more advanced heavy weapons, allowing us to gradually stall Moscow’s crumbling invasion in the Donbas. (The Kremlin’s gains in this region may make headlines, but it is important to remember that they are limited and have resulted in extremely high Russian casualties.) The pivotal moment will come when our armed forces use Western-provided multiple launch rocket systems to destroy Russia’s artillery, turning the tide in Ukraine’s favor along the entire frontline. Afterward, our troops will aim to take back pieces of land, forcing Russians to retreat here and there.
On the battlefront in the south, the Armed Forces of Ukraine are already carrying out counterattacks, and we will use advanced weapons to further cut through enemy defenses. We will aim to put the Russians on the edge of needing to abandon Kherson—a city that is key to the strategic stability of Ukraine. If we advance in both the south and the east, we can force Putin to choose between abandoning southern cities, including Kherson and Melitopol, in order to cling onto the Donbas, and abandoning newly occupied territories in Donetsk and Luhansk so he can hold the south.
When we reach this moment, Putin will likely become more serious about cease-fire negotiations. Our goal will still be to get Russian forces out of Ukraine, and keeping up the pressure may push Putin to accept a negotiated solution that entails Russian troops withdrawing from all occupied territories. Putin, after all, pulled Russian troops from the areas around Kyiv after encountering enough setbacks at the hands of our forces. If our military grows stronger and more successful, he will have good reasons to do so again. For example, it will be easier to present a retreat as an act of goodwill before further negotiations, instead of as an act of embarrassing necessity, if it is organized rather than hasty. Putin could even claim that the “special operation” has successfully achieved its goals of demilitarizing and denazifying Ukraine, whatever this means for him. By publishing images of destroyed Ukrainian units and equipment, Putin’s propaganda machine will reinforce a message of success. Propaganda can also help Putin present the withdrawal as a sign of his humane treatment of Russian soldiers and as a wise step toward peace in general.
But if Putin remains intransigent, Ukraine can proceed farther into Luhansk and Donetsk until he is willing to negotiate in good faith or until our army reaches and secures Ukraine’s internationally recognized border. And whether Russian troops choose to retreat or are forced to, Ukraine will be able to speak with Russia from a position of strength. We can seek a fair diplomatic settlement with a weakened and more constructive Russia. It ultimately means that Putin will be forced to accept Ukrainian terms, even if he denies it publicly.
Some Western decision-makers are also wary of doing too much to help Ukraine because they are scared of what Putin might do if he is roundly defeated on the battlefield. In their view, an angry, isolated Russian president might start new campaigns of international aggression. They worry that he will generally become more dangerous and difficult to deal with. Some fear that he might even use his country’s formidable nuclear arsenal.
But Putin is not suicidal; a Ukrainian victory will not lead to nuclear warfare. Such fears may be deliberately fueled by the Kremlin itself for strategic purposes. Putin is a master of gaslighting, and I am sure that Russians themselves are peddling worries of a cornered Putin in order to weaken Western support for Ukraine.
The United States and Europe shouldn’t fall for it. Actual experience shows that whenever Putin faces a failure he opts to downplay and conceal it, not to double down. Finland and Sweden’s applications for NATO membership, for example, were a clear political defeat for Putin, who claimed that he launched his invasion of Ukraine to prevent further NATO enlargement. But it wasn’t followed by any escalation. Instead, Russian propaganda minimized its significance. The Kremlin claimed that the withdrawal from Kyiv, another clear failure, was a gesture of “goodwill” to facilitate negotiations. The same pattern will apply to a broader battleground defeat. (The strength of his propaganda apparatus will help minimize the domestic backlash Putin faces for losing in Ukraine.)
We can force Putin to choose between abandoning southern cities and abandoning the Donbas.
Instead of focusing on Putin’s feelings, the United States and Europe should focus on practical steps to help Ukraine prevail. They should remember that a Ukrainian victory would make the world more secure. It would deplete Russian forces, making it harder for Moscow to meddle in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the western Balkans. It would promote global stability more broadly by strengthening international law and demonstrating to other would-be aggressors that barbarism ends poorly. The West, then, must give Kyiv what it needs to push Russian invaders back.
Committing to Ukraine’s victory will have one final advantage: it will eliminate the uncertainty in the long-term strategies of the United States and Europe toward Russia, girding them for the long haul and helping them no longer be plagued by war fatigue. They will see that our mission—substantially weakening Russia—will enable them, and the rest of the world, to seriously negotiate with a humbled and more constructive Moscow.
We look forward to this day; any war ends with diplomacy. But that moment has not yet come. Right now, it is clear that Putin’s path to the negotiating table lies solely through battleground defeats.