The Strategy That Can Defeat Putin

The U.S.-led coalition of liberal-democratic states should pursue three objectives.

Ukrainian soldiers stand ready to defend against Russian forces in Irpin, Ukraine.
Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times / Getty

About the author: Eliot A. Cohen is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and the Arleigh Burke chair in strategy at CSIS. From 2007 to 2009, he was the Counselor of the Department of State. He is the author most recently of The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.

Updated at 6:00 p.m. ET on March 9, 2022.

First came the shock: the sight of missiles and artillery shells slamming into apartment buildings, helicopters pirouetting in flames, refugees streaming across the border, an embattled and unshaven president pleading with anguished political leaders abroad for help, burly uniformed men posing by burned-out tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, Russian police spot-checking cellphones on Moscow streets for dissident conversations. Distress and anger and resolution were natural reactions. But the time has come to think strategically, asking what the West—and specifically the United States—should do in this crisis and beyond.

French Marshal Ferdinand Foch once said that the first task is to answer the question De quoi s’agit-il?, or “What is it all about?” The answer with respect to Ukraine, as with most other strategic problems, is less straightforward than one might think. At the most basic level, a Russian autocrat is working to subjugate by the most brutal means possible a free and independent country, whose independence he has never accepted. But there are broader issues here as well. The other wars of the post–Cold War era could be understood or interpreted as the consequence of civil war and secession or tit-for-tat responses to aggression. Not the Russian attack on Ukraine. This assault was unprovoked, unlimited in its objectives, and unconstrained in its means. It is, therefore, an assault not only on that country but on all international norms of decent behavior.

A broader world order is at stake; so too is a narrower European order. Putin has made no secret of his bitter opposition to NATO and to the independence of former Soviet republics, and it should be expected that after reducing Ukraine, he would attempt something of a similar nature (if with less intensity) in the Baltic states. He has brought war in its starkest form back to a continent that has thrived largely in its absence for nearly three generations. And his war is a threat, too, to the integrity and self-confidence of the world’s liberal democracies, battered as they have been by internal disputes and backsliding abroad.

In short, the stakes are enormous, and with them the dangers. And yet there is good news in the remarkable solidarity and decisiveness of the liberal democracies, in Europe and outside it. The roles of Australia and Japan in responding to the Russian invasion are no less significant than those of Britain or France. In that respect, Ukraine 2022 is not Czechoslovakia 1938, not only because it is fighting ferociously but because the democracies are with it in material as well as moral ways. It differs, too, in that this time the aggressor is not Europe’s most advanced economy but one of its least; its military is not the fearsomely effective Wehrmacht but a badly led, semi-competent, if well-armed, horde better suited for and inclined to the massacre of civilians than a fight against its peers. Russia’s failure to command the air, its stalled armored columns, the smoking ruins of its tanks and armored personnel carriers all testify to the Russian army’s weakness. So too does the continuation in office of the long-serving chief of general staff and defense minister who planned and led this operation, a debacle in the face of every advantage of positioning, timing, and material superiority.

Under these conditions, the U.S.-led coalition of liberal-democratic, chiefly European states should have three objectives. The most obvious aim of Western strategy is the liberation of Ukraine, restoration of its free government and institutions, rebuilding of its economy, and guarantee of its independence by placing it in a position of well-armed security against a similar attack in the future. That will include a welding of this country to the European Union. Ultimately, it may include its incorporation into the NATO alliance that has saved many of its neighbors from a similar fate.

Doing this will require defeating Russian forces, but the objectives vis-à-vis Russia have to go beyond this. Ideally, this conflict will end with the overthrow of Vladimir Putin, who bears singular responsibility for it not only morally but also politically. This was not only a war of choice—it is his war of choice, and he has been dangerous and malevolent in its conduct. His fall from power could come about as a result of elite discontent leading to a coup of some kind, or mass upheaval.

However, neither outcome can be predicted and, for the time being, neither seems imminent. Moreover, although Russian dissenters from the war have shown remarkable courage, the regime is skillfully tapping deep reserves of xenophobia and chauvinism through its complete control of Russian media outlets. In that respect, Russia is in many ways a functioning fascist state, in the grip of a nationalist ideology and an all-powerful leader. For that reason, then, and barring a new Russian revolution, the Western objective must be to leave Russia profoundly weakened and militarily crippled, incapable of renewing such an onslaught, isolated and internally divided until the point that an aging autocrat falls from power. Targeting Putin alone is not enough.

Finally, the West has the opportunity, and faces the necessity, of changing the story of democratic decline and weakness to one of strength and self-confidence. Europe’s remarkable response to the invasion is a long step in this direction, as is the American leadership that has rallied so many to oppose Russia and stand with Ukraine. China is watching the invasion of Ukraine; so, too, are Iran and lesser authoritarian regimes, waiting to see whether such opportunities are available to them, or too perilous to attempt. The Western powers must induce them to take the latter view by the visible successes that they achieve. There are internal audiences as well, particularly in the United States. After a decade of deeply self-critical contemplation of America’s internal divisions, this is the moment to restore confidence in the ideals and beliefs that have made the United States at once powerful and free.

Western strategy should rest on three pillars: vigorous and imaginative military support to Ukrainian regular and irregular forces; sanctions that will hobble the Russian economy; and construction of a militarily powerful European alliance that can secure the border with Russia as long as that country remains a menace.

The means at hand are obvious, even if the manner of their exploitation is not. The most obvious is the armament of Ukraine, which has already begun. It is a moral imperative. When people are willing to fight for their freedom against an enemy whose methods and aims are so clearly evil, the West owes its effectual support to those taking up arms. But it is also a strategic imperative, intended to hamstring the Russian military and weaken Putin’s position.

Support to the Ukrainian military and, should Ukrainian cities fall, to the continuing insurgency has the prospect of exceptional success. A country greater in size than France and only slightly smaller than Texas, with built-up areas, forests, and, in the west, mountains, hundreds of thousands of armed men and women, a potential supply of thousands of foreign veterans, and a will to fight born of patriotism and anger, is virtually unconquerable if adequately armed. The key is to think about that on the right scale.

Michael Vickers, who was the mastermind of the CIA program supporting the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, lays out the lessons of that campaign in his forthcoming memoir, By All Means Available. A well-armed and determined population, Vickers contends, can defeat even a brutal superpower—and Russia is no longer that. The important thing is to move at scale and with urgency in support of such an insurgency. The tide turned in Afghanistan in a relatively short period of time, when the Afghanistan Covert Action Program went from $60 million in fiscal year 1984 to $250 million the next year, a sum doubled by Saudi support. Remarkably, the CIA did not ask for this increase and may have opposed it, but congressional supporters led by the redoubtable Charlie Wilson carried the day. In less than a year, the program went from supplying 10,000 metric tons of weaponry to more than six times as much. Within another year, the sum of money and resources was doubled.

Not just the sheer quantity of support but its breadth made a difference—including man-portable air-defense systems such as Stinger missiles, heavy machine guns, sniper rifles, and secure communications technology. And with it went a change in objective from bleeding the Red Army to defeating it.

The conditions in Ukraine are, if anything, more favorable than in Afghanistan. In Poland and several other frontline states, the West has allies infinitely more reliable than Pakistan was during the Afghan War. Poland’s border with Ukraine alone is 330 miles long and would be impossible for Russia to seal. In Ukraine, the West has a technically sophisticated population that can handle whatever advanced weapons are needed. And in the Russian army of this moment, it faces a force that has already been badly bloodied, proving itself logistically incompetent and poorly motivated. As the Russians conscript civilian vehicles to supply their stranded forces, including the 40-mile “convoy” north of Kyiv, which has been better described as a linear prisoner-of-war camp to which the captors are not obliged to provide rations, the invaders find themselves in logistical difficulties that appear well-nigh insuperable. The resources to equip the Ukrainians are there; the task is to do it on the largest possible scale, and fast. That is the lesson of Afghanistan: scale and urgency.

Carl von Clausewitz famously said that the maximum use of force is by no means incompatible with the simultaneous use of the intellect. That applies to Ukraine. Adapted civilian technologies (suicide drones, for example) and civilian computer-hacker militias have a role to play in its defense. The key is to give full rein to the creative covert operations and military talents that the United States and countries like Britain and Poland have in abundance.

By all accounts the second pillar of Western strategy—sanctions—has already had an effect on the Russian economy, which is only roughly the size of Italy’s. As in the case of material aid to Ukraine, the key is speed and scale, because the purpose is to shake the polity and not just put pressure on it, to cripple the economy and not just squeeze it. The French finance minister said as much and then retracted the remark; he was right the first time. The tools are economic rather than military, but many of the dynamics of war will apply—responses and reactions by the opponent, unforeseen consequences and second- and third-order effects, and collateral damage.

As a number of observers such as Edward Fishman have pointed out, it is possible to apply these sanctions even to Russian energy production, inducing customers to steadily reduce purchases so as to limit the gains Russia gets from short-term increases in the prices of oil and natural gas. Sanctions will also have much wider results, however, as can be seen from the stream of companies exiting Russia, such as Microsoft. Whether from fear of getting on the wrong side of the law, or future sanctions, or pressure from employees and shareholders, Western companies will leave Russia and should be encouraged to do so. Chinese companies, themselves dependent on Western expertise and intellectual capital, will not be able to replace all that the West has provided to Russia; they, too, will not wish to cross a sanctions regime that forces them to choose between Russia’s modest economy and the thriving markets of the United States and Europe. Nor will Russia find a sentimental friend in China: That is a quality unknown in Chinese government or business. Indeed, the Russian people should be constantly reminded of their leaders’ willingness to turn their country into a vassal state of Beijing, even as they become a pariah in the lands they long to visit and whose products and technology they cannot hope to consume.

The final pillar of Western strategy lies in building an impregnable eastern glacis for NATO and, in particular, strengthening frontline allies and those leading the defense of the continent against Russia. Poland is the key state: Its determination to confront Russia is unlimited, its military is competent and accustomed to service alongside the United States, and its willingness to spend on its own defense is evident in its recent decision to increase defense spending to 3 percent of its GDP, rather than the NATO-mandated 2 percent, and to buy 250 American M1 tanks.

The American role here is partly to maintain a visible presence on the front lines. Now is the time to permanently station American armored forces in the Baltic states and Poland—a deterrent, but also part of the price Russia would pay for its aggression. An equally important task is to help quickly arm those countries seeking to defend themselves: Lend Lease 2.0, some have called it, referring to the program of American aid during the Second World War. That means once again turning the United States into an arsenal of democracy, advancing the smaller European states the funds they require to obtain the full panoply of military hardware needed to defend themselves against Russian aggression. Holding as it does large stocks of surplus military hardware, the United States can move to strengthen its European allies.

The rearmament of Europe is an astonishing spectacle, beginning most notably with Germany’s declaration that it will spend the equivalent of two years’ defense budgets to refurbish the decayed forces of the Bundeswehr, once an army more formidable in Europe than that of the United States. Even under the agreements concluded upon German unification, Germany can field an army of more than 300,000, close to the size of the entire United States Army. The United States alone can lead and shape this rearmament as other states finally meet their 2-percent-of-GDP targets, creating forces so powerful that even to an isolated and semi-delusional Russian leadership, an attack against the West would be folly. The U.S. will need to do so, urging Europeans to rebuild their heavy armored forces, construct hardened defenses (e.g., aircraft shelters), while expanding air and missile defense and acquiring long-range missiles to disable Russian air bases and staging areas in the event of war.

Rearmament has an ideological component as well: piercing the information bubble that the Putin regime has constructed in Russia and administering that antidote to nationalist propaganda, truth. That task was well understood during the Cold War, and we created capable institutions to accomplish it, including the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. In the new world of social media, the tools and organizations may be different, but the mission remains the same. John F. Kennedy recruited the legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow to create the United States Information Agency for that aspect of the struggle. Like talents are available for government service in the age of Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram, as well as many individuals and organizations that will fight that battle in tandem with official institutions.

Ultimately, strategy requires a theory of victory—a story line explaining why we think things will turn out the way we wish. The confrontation with Russia will not end with its Western invasion and conquest, and hence not with its reconstruction, as happened with Germany, Italy, and Japan after World War II. The road that the West should seek will lead either to the collapse of Putin’s regime or to a long-term weakening of the Russian state’s capability and appetite for aggressive war. Such outcomes occur the way Ernest Hemingway described going bankrupt—gradually and then suddenly. The trajectory is clear, but we do not know yet just how fragile the Russian army and economy are. The collapse could take weeks, months, or years, so persistence will be necessary in the face of inevitable setbacks and counterstrokes.

If the Russian government does not simply collapse, and possibly even if it does, negotiations will occur. Conceivably, if Moscow is feeling pressure now from sanctions, losses, and the psychological jolt of its initial failures, preliminaries may be under way. At some point the West, with Ukraine, may wish to offer Russia an “off-ramp,” particularly after Putin exits power—but there is no point in doing so now. States, like individuals, accept off-ramps only when they are looking for them, and thus far Russia has offered no indication that Russia is seeking a way out of its predicament. Moreover, it is a Soviet technique of old, for which arms controllers in the United States in particular have always had a fatal weakness, to induce opponents to begin negotiating against themselves. Let the Russians make the first proposals.

For the United States, the decade ahead will require not merely the initial moves made by the Biden administration but a more profound readjustment of strategy. A new defense-strategy document has been in the works for months now; it should be set aside and rewritten for a very different world. There will be no overwhelming shift to focus on China. Rather, the United States will have to be, as it was for most of the 20th century, an ambidextrous power, asserting its strength and managing coalitions in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific. That will, in turn, require larger defense budgets and, no less important, a change in mindset.

More profoundly, American administrations will have to accept the primacy of national-security concerns in a way that they have not for decades. That does not exclude reform at home—the experiences of the Civil War and Vietnam, among others, suggest that doing both simultaneously is possible. But it does mean that national security will have to be at the forefront of American thinking. Americans will have to hear from their leaders why that is so—and because this president is insufficiently eloquent to do so adequately on his own, he will need to recruit surrogates from both parties to aid him. The Republican Party’s political leadership in Congress has rallied to the Ukrainian cause; the Biden administration should take advantage of that.

Many hazards lie ahead, for that is the nature of conflict with an unscrupulous and possibly somewhat deranged opponent. But all the odds are on the West’s side. The valiant Ukrainian population is willing to fight to the end and, for the moment, the West has found the unity and resolve to aid it. The Western economies are far and away the wealthiest, most resilient, and most advanced. The Western militaries deteriorated after the end of the Cold War, to a shocking degree, but their disarmament is not comparable to their desultory state in the 1930s. And the West faces not an ideological challenge comparable to Nazism or Communism but a vicious form of nationalism entrenched in a country that saw a million more deaths than births last year, that is burdened with a corrupt and limited economy, and that is led by an isolated, aging dictator.

Vladimir Putin has one advantage only. As a KGB officer he learned to play head games with his enemies, be they dissidents or foreign powers. Fear is not the consequence of Russian actions but rather their object. It is Moscow’s chief weapon, and Russian leaders are adept in its use. But fear is also susceptible to the remedy applied by the Ukrainians today, and by many others in the past. Courage, as Churchill famously said, is the virtue that makes all other virtues possible. Without courage, the West cannot succeed, but with it, it cannot fail.


This story has been updated to correct the fiscal year in which the Afghanistan Covert Action Program's funding was provided, and the number of tons of weaponry that it supplied.