How to Get a Breakthrough in Ukraine
The Case Against Incrementalism
The regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin is living on borrowed time. The tide of history is turning, and everything from Ukraine’s advances on the battlefield to the West’s enduring unity and resolve in the face of Putin’s aggression points to 2023 being a decisive year. If the West holds firm, Putin’s regime will likely collapse in the near future.
Yet some of Ukraine’s key partners continue to resist supplying Kyiv with the weapons it needs to deliver the knockout punch. The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden in particular seems afraid of the chaos that could accompany a decisive Kremlin defeat. It has declined to send the tanks, long-range missile systems, and drones that would allow Ukrainian forces to take the fight to their attackers, reclaim their territory, and end the war. The end of Putin’s tyrannical rule will indeed radically change Russia (and the rest of the world)—but not in the way the White House thinks. Rather than destabilizing Russia and its neighbors, a Ukrainian victory would eliminate a powerful revanchist force and boost the cause of democracy worldwide.
Pro-democracy Russians who reject the totalitarian Putin regime—a group to which the authors belong—are doing what they can to help Ukraine liberate all occupied territories and restore its territorial integrity in accordance with the internationally recognized borders of 1991. We are also planning for the day after Putin. The Russian Action Committee, a coalition of opposition groups in exile that we co-founded in May 2022, aims to ensure that Ukraine is justly compensated for the damage caused by Putin’s aggression, that all war criminals are held accountable, and that Russia is transformed from a rogue dictatorship into a parliamentary federal republic. The looming end of Putin’s reign need not be feared, in other words; it should be welcomed with open arms.
Putin’s effort to restore Russia’s lost empire is destined to fail. The moment is therefore ripe for a transition to democracy and a devolution of power to the regional levels. But for such a political transformation to take place, Putin must be defeated militarily in Ukraine. A decisive loss on the battlefield would pierce Putin’s aura of invincibility and expose him as the architect of a failing state, making his regime vulnerable to challenge from within.
The West, and above all the United States, is capable of providing the military and financial support to hasten the inevitable and propel Ukraine to a speedy victory. But the Biden administration still hasn’t coalesced around a clear endgame for the war, and some U.S. officials have suggested that Kyiv should consider giving up part of its territory in pursuit of peace—suggestions that are not reassuring. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made it clear that the Ukrainian people will never accept such a deal. Any territorial concessions made to Putin will inevitably lead to another war down the road.
At the root of Washington’s unwillingness to supply the necessary weapons lies a fear of the potential consequences of decisively defeating Russia in Ukraine. Many in the Biden administration believe that Putin’s downfall could trigger the collapse of Russia, plunging the nuclear-armed state into chaos and potentially strengthening China.
Putin’s aggression has exposed the inherent instability of his model of government.
But such fears are overstated. The risk of a Russian collapse is, of course, real. But it is greater with Putin in office—pushing the country in an ever more centralized and militarized direction—than it would be under a democratic, federal regime. The longer the current regime remains in power, the greater the risk of an unpredictable rupture. Putin’s aggression has exposed the inherent instability of his model of government, which is built on the need to confront foreign enemies. The Kremlin Mafia, having turned Russia into a staging ground for its military plans, has already threatened to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. It is not the collapse of Putin’s regime that Washington should fear, therefore, but its continued survival.
For nearly two decades, some Western pundits have claimed that the Russian people will never accept democracy and that Russia is doomed to revanchism. Indeed, Putin’s propaganda has managed to instill in a sizable segment of Russian society the view that Western values are entirely alien to Russia. But economic integration with the West has enabled other countries to overcome a fascist heritage. And deeper integration with Europe, coupled with the conditional easing of Western sanctions, could help Russia do the same.
In the aftermath of Putin’s military defeat, Russia would have to choose: either become a vassal of China or begin reintegrating with Europe (having first justly compensated Ukraine for the damage inflicted during the war and punished those guilty of war crimes). For the majority of Russians, the choice in favor of peace, freedom, and flourishing would be obvious—and made even more so by the rapid reconstruction of Ukraine.
Putin’s military defeat would help catalyze a political transformation in Russia, making it possible for those seeking a brighter future to dismantle the old regime and forge a new political reality. The Russian Action Committee has laid out a blueprint for this transformation, aiming to reestablish the Russian state “on the principles of the rule of law, federalism, parliamentarism, a clear separation of powers and prioritizing human rights and freedoms over abstract ‘state interests.’ ” Our vision is for Russia to become a parliamentary republic and a federal state with only limited centralized powers (those necessary to conduct foreign and defense policy and protect citizens’ rights) and much stronger regional governments.
Getting there will take time. Within two years of the dissolution of Putin’s regime, Russians would elect a constituent assembly to adopt a new constitution and determine a new system of regional bodies. But in the short term, before that assembly could be seated, a transitional state council with legislative powers would be needed to oversee a temporary technocratic government. Its nucleus would be composed of Russians committed to the rule of law, those who have publicly disavowed Putin’s war and his illegitimate regime. Most have been forced into exile, where we have been free to organize and create a virtual civil society in absentia. Such preparations will enable us to act swiftly and work with the Western powers whose cooperation the new Russian government will need to stabilize the economy.
Immediately after assuming power, the state council would conclude a peace agreement with Ukraine, recognizing the country’s 1991 borders and justly compensating it for the damage caused by Putin’s war. The state council would also formally reject the imperial policies of the Putin regime, both within Russia and abroad, including by ceasing all formal and informal support for pro-Russian entities in the countries of the former Soviet Union. And it would end Russia’s long-running confrontation with the West, transitioning instead to a foreign policy based on peace, partnership, and integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions.
The United States cannot let its fears stand in the way of Ukraine’s hopes.
On the home front, the state council would begin to demilitarize Russia, reducing the size of the armed forces and by extension the cost of their maintenance. It would also dissolve the organs of Putin’s police state, including the repressive Federal Security Service and Center for Combating Extremism, and repeal all repressive laws adopted during Putin’s rule. All political prisoners would be released and fully rehabilitated, and a broader amnesty program would be adopted to reduce the overall number of prisoners in Russia.
At the federal level, the state council would pursue lustration, conducting open and thorough investigations of former officials to disqualify those responsible for the prior regime’s abuses. In addition, it would liquidate all political parties and public organizations that supported the invasion of Ukraine, so that they cannot interfere with the construction of a new Russia. At the same time, the council would liberalize electoral laws, simplify the process for registering political parties, and scrap Putin-era restrictions on rallies, strikes, and demonstrations.
The state council would also begin the process of decentralizing the country, transferring broad powers to the regions, including in the budgetary sphere. Such reforms would weaken Russia’s all-powerful imperial center: if the federal government does not have total control over state finances, then it won’t have the means to wage military adventures.
Finally, the council would ensure that war criminals and senior officials from Putin’s regime were held accountable. Those responsible for the worst war crimes would be tried in an international tribunal, and Russia itself would try the rest. To do so, it would need to draw a clear line between war criminals and former regime operatives—offering various forms of compromise with the latter to better assure a peaceful transition.
This is a make-or-break moment for Ukraine. Biden can turn the tide in Kyiv’s favor by backing up his declarations of support with the delivery of tanks and long-range weaponry. He can also hasten the demise of Putin’s regime, opening up the possibility of a democratic future for Russia and demonstrating to the world the folly of military aggression. The United States cannot let its fears stand in the way of Ukraine’s hopes.