Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to change the course of history. But his plan – a war against Ukraine aimed at partly redressing the Soviet Union’s dissolution, which he called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” – is doomed to fail.
Even if Russia manages to revive its failing military campaign, whatever gains it makes will amount to a Pyrrhic victory that will do little to support Putin’s claims of Russian greatness.
Russian troops are prevailing in Mariupol, but winning a battle does not mean winning the war. Putin, given his interest in Russian history, should know that military victories do not always lead to geopolitical triumphs. The Soviet Union’s invasions of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981, were relatively small battles won by a power that was losing the Cold War against the West’s far more resilient social and economic model.
Putin is not winning the battles he expected to in Ukraine, and is far from being able to wage the war of occupation that would be required to deny Ukraine its existence as an independent state. The recent sinking of the Russian warship Moskva is the most visible and humiliating proof of this to date.
Since Putin launched his invasion on 24 February, 10 Russian generals have died in combat. Whereas exact casualty figures are contested and unclear, this rate of attrition has not been seen since World War II. Putin’s dream of declaring another Victory Day on 9 May, the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, seems unlikely to be fulfilled.
The Ukraine conflict is a product of Putin’s mind, but it is a problem that concerns the entire international community. H R McMaster, who served as United States (US) President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, has rightly said that the West must convince Putin that he cannot accomplish his goals by force. The question, for which I have no simple answer, is how to do it.
Putin’s mindset reflects the excessively territorial and military conception of power to which Russian foreign-policy elites and much of the Russian public cling. But in the 21st century, a country’s geopolitical status does not depend on the extent of its territory or sphere of influence, but on its economy, technological capabilities, and human capital. China understands this much better than Russia.
Despite his mindset, Putin was clearly caught off-guard by the strength and unity of the transatlantic response to Russia’s invasion. Western condemnation has been virtually unanimous, and the European Union (EU) has implemented unprecedented sanctions. The political goal is to force Putin to the negotiating table.
After all, a negotiated solution is the only sort that will be accepted internationally. In this regard, it is worth remembering that the countries that abstained from voting on the United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine represent more than half of the world’s population.
Rarely in modern history have political conflicts been resolved through military means alone. One could mention the victory over Nazism. But after WWII, building peace in a European continent exhausted by war required embracing a radical idea: international cooperation and political and economic integration.
Regime change in Russia also is not a viable option to resolve the Ukraine conflict. US President Joe Biden’s recent statement that “this man [Putin] cannot remain in power” was surely a semantic slip, yet, for Putin, it reaffirmed his paranoid idea that “the West” is seeking to remove him from the Kremlin. Moral condemnation of Russian actions in Ukraine is of course necessary, but no one should expect Putin’s downfall.
Sooner or later, the West will have to negotiate with Putin. While a ceasefire will fall far short of resolving national grievances on both sides, it is the only realistic way to alleviate the suffering of those most affected by the war and to allow parties to explore what options are available for a negotiated solution to the conflict.
A few weeks ago, ceasefire talks between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul seemed to be making some headway, but diplomacy is by its nature paradoxical – sometimes cruelly so. The more we learn about the course of negotiations, the slower their progress tends to be. During a war of seemingly limitless brutality, ignorance about possible advances at the negotiating table is a price worth paying.
To be clear, the negotiations will not resolve a secular conflict, centuries of mutual suspicion between Russia and the countries that today constitute the West, or the irrational turn that Putin’s foreign policy has taken. But they are the only option to avoid a conflict between nuclear powers.
Faced with the possibility of a repetition of “the great seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century, as the US diplomat George F Kennan described World War I, Europeans must be mindful of the difficulty of handling, not to mention resolving, a conflict with such historical depth.
But this awareness should not lead us to abandon the idea of pursuing the one path that, however tortuous and complicated, can lessen the suffering of those paying the price for Putin’s delusions. Ukrainians need a cessation of hostilities. To address the real threats of our time, so do the rest of us.