The War Won’t End Until Putin Loses
Offering the Russian president a face-saving compromise will only enable future aggression.
The expression off-ramp has a pleasing physicality, evoking a thing that can be constructed out of concrete and steel. But at the moment, anyone talking about an off-ramp in Ukraine—and many people are doing so, in governments, on radio stations, in a million private arguments—is using the term metaphorically, referring to a deal that could persuade Vladimir Putin to halt his invasion. Some believe that such an off-ramp could easily be built if only diplomats were willing to make the effort, or if only the White House weren’t so bellicose. It’s a nice idea. Unfortunately, the assumptions that underlie that belief are wrong.
The first assumption is that Russia’s president wants to end the war, that he needs an off-ramp, and that he is actually searching for a way to save face and to avoid, in French President Emmanuel Macron’s words, further “humiliation.” It is true that Putin’s army has performed badly, that Russian troops unexpectedly retreated from northern Ukraine, and that they have, at least temporarily, given up the idea of destroying the Ukrainian state. They suffered far greater casualties than anyone expected, lost impressive quantities of equipment, and demonstrated more logistical incompetence than most experts thought possible. But they have now regrouped in eastern and southern Ukraine, where their goals remain audacious: They seek to wear down Ukrainian troops, wear out Ukraine’s international partners, and exhaust the Ukrainian economy, which may already have contracted by as much as half.
Buoyed by oil and gas revenues, the Russian economy is experiencing a much less severe recession than Ukraine. Unconcerned by public opinion, the Russian army seems not to care how many of its soldiers die. For all of those reasons, Putin may well believe that a long-term war of attrition is his to win, not just in southern and eastern Ukraine but eventually in Kyiv and beyond. Certainly that’s what Kremlin propagandists are still telling the Russian people. On state television, the Russian army is triumphant, Russian soldiers are protecting civilians, and only Ukrainians commit atrocities. With a few minor exceptions, no one has prepared the Russian public to expect anything except total victory.
The second assumption made by those advocating off-ramps is that Russia, even if it were to begin negotiating, would stick to the agreements it signed. Even an ordinary cease-fire has to involve concessions on both sides, and anything more substantive would require a longer list of pledges and promises. But brazen dishonesty is now a normal part of Russian foreign policy as well as domestic propaganda. In the run-up to the war, senior Russian officials repeatedly denied that they intended to invade Ukraine, Russian state television mocked the Western warnings of invasion as “hysterical,” and Putin personally promised the French president that no war was coming. None of that was true. No future promises made by the Russian state, so long as it is controlled by Putin, can be believed either.
Nor does Russia seem to be interested in adhering to multiple treaties it is theoretically obligated to follow, among them the Geneva Convention and the United Nations’ Genocide Convention. Russian troops’ behavior in this war demonstrates that there is no international agreement that Putin can be counted on to respect. Regardless of what he might promise during peace negotiations, Western officials would have to assume that any Ukrainian populations handed over to Russia would be subject to arrests, terror, mass theft, and rape on an unprecedented scale; that Ukrainian cities would be incorporated into Russia against the will of the public; and that, as in 2014, when Russian proxies in the Donbas agreed to a truce, any cease-fire would be temporary, lasting only as long as it would take for the Russian army to regroup, rearm, and start again. Putin has made clear that destroying Ukraine is, for him, an essential, even existential, goal. Where is the evidence that he has abandoned it?
The third assumption is that this Ukrainian government, or any Ukrainian government, is politically able to swap territory for peace. To do so would be to reward Russia for invading, and to accept that Russia has the right to kidnap leaders, murder civilians, rape women, and deport anybody it chooses from Ukrainian territory. What Ukrainian president or prime minister can agree to that deal and expect to stay in office? Russian cruelty also means that any territory that is temporarily ceded will, sooner or later, become the source of an insurgency, because no Ukrainian population can promise to endure that kind of torture indefinitely. Already, guerrillas in the city of Melitopol, occupied since the first days of the war, claim to have killed several Russian officers and carried out acts of sabotage. An underground is emerging in occupied Kherson and will appear in other places too. To concede territory for a deal now will simply set up another conflict later on. The end of one kind of violence will lead to other kinds of violence.
This does not mean that the war can or should go on forever, or that diplomacy has no place at all. Nor does it mean that Americans and Europeans should be blind to the real challenges that a long conflict will pose to Ukraine. The Western coalition backing Kyiv could certainly fray; the wave of adrenaline that has so far propelled the Ukrainian army and leadership could crash. Ukraine’s economy could grow worse, making the fight much harder or even impossible to sustain.
But even so, off-ramp remains the wrong metaphor and the wrong goal. The West should not aim to offer Putin an off-ramp; our goal, our endgame, should be defeat. In fact, the only solution that offers some hope of long-term stability in Europe is rapid defeat, or even, to borrow Macron’s phrase, humiliation. In truth, the Russian president not only has to stop fighting the war; he has to conclude that the war was a terrible mistake, one that can never be repeated. More to the point, the people around him—leaders of the army, the security services, the business community—have to conclude exactly the same thing. The Russian public must eventually come to agree too.
Defeat could take several forms. It might be military: The White House should now increase not just the level but the speed of its assistance to Ukraine; it should provide the long-range weapons needed to take back occupied territory and perhaps also assistance with quicker distribution of those weapons. Defeat could be economic, taking the form of a temporary gas-and-oil embargo that finally cuts Russia off from the source of its income, lasting at least until the war ends. Defeat could involve the creation of a new security architecture, one based on new kinds of security guarantees for Ukraine, or even some type of NATO membership for Ukraine. Whatever form that takes, it has to be substantially different from the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine was offered security “assurances” that meant nothing at all.
Defeat could also include broader sanctions, not just on a few select billionaires but on the entire Russian political class. The Anti-Corruption Foundation led by the jailed Russian dissident Alexei Navalny has drawn up a list of 6,000 “bribe-takers and warmongers”—that is, politicians and bureaucrats who have enabled the war and the regime. The European Parliament has already called for sanctions on that group. If others follow, maybe some in the ruling elite will finally be persuaded to start looking for new jobs, or at least start talking about how to make changes.
Although saying so is considered undiplomatic, the American administration clearly knows that the defeat, sidelining, or removal of Putin is the only outcome that offers any long-term stability in Ukraine and the rest of Europe. “Putin,” said Joe Biden in March, “cannot remain in power.” In April, Lloyd Austin said that he hoped “to see Russia weakened to the degree it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Both of these statements by the American president and his defense secretary were treated as gaffes or as policy mistakes—thoughtless remarks that might irritate the Russians. In truth, they were half-articulated acknowledgments of an ugly reality that no one wants to confront: Any cease-fire that allows Putin to experience any kind of victory will be inherently unstable, because it will encourage him to try again. Victory in Crimea did not satisfy the Kremlin. Victory in Kherson will not satisfy the Kremlin either.
I understand those who fear that, confronted with an impending loss, Putin will seek to use chemical or nuclear weapons; I worried the same at the start of the war. But the retreats from Kyiv and Kharkiv indicate that Putin is not irrational after all. He understands perfectly well that NATO is a defensive alliance, because he has accepted the Swedish and Finnish applications without quibbling. His generals make calculations and weigh costs. They were perfectly capable of understanding that the price of Russia’s early advances was too high. The price of using tactical nuclear weapons would be far higher: They would achieve no military impact but would destroy all of Russia’s remaining relationships with India, China, and the rest of the world. There is no indication right now that the nuclear threats so frequently mentioned by Russian propagandists, going back many years, are real.
By contrast, a true defeat could force the reckoning that should have happened in the 1990s, the moment when the Soviet Union broke up but Russia retained all of the trappings and baubles of the Soviet empire—its UN seat, embassies, diplomatic service—at the expense of the other ex-Soviet republics. The year 1991 was the moment when Russians should have realized the folly of Moscow’s imperial overreach, when they should have figured out why so many of their neighbors hate and fear them. But the Russian public learned no such lesson. Within a decade, Putin, brimming with grievances, had convinced many of them that the West and the rest of the world owed them something, and that further conquests were justified.
Military loss could create a real opening for national self-examination or for a major change, as it so often has done in Russia’s past. Only failure can persuade the Russians themselves to question the sense and purpose of a colonial ideology that has repeatedly impoverished and ruined their own economy and society, as well as those of their neighbors, for decades. Yet another frozen conflict, yet another temporary holding pattern, yet another face-saving compromise will not end the pattern of Russian aggression or bring permanent peace.