Putin Needs an Off-Ramp

The question for world leaders is how to ensure the Russian president is defeated while nevertheless providing him with a route out of the crisis.

Vladimir Putin scratches his head.
Takuro Yabe / Pool / AFP; Getty

Across the West there is a sense that Vladimir Putin not only must be stopped from colonizing Ukraine but should be punished for his barbarism as well. It is a question of natural justice. But Western leaders also face a second imperative. The frightening reality is that we are closer to nuclear war than at any time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. And in some ways, the risk of the current crisis spiraling out of control is even greater than that faced by John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. Unlike in 1962, a hot war is already raging over territory that one side considers important to its national interest, and the other knows is necessary to its national survival. The war, in other words, has become a zero-sum conflict, even though on no reasonable basis can Putin’s belief in Ukraine as a threat to Russia’s security be seen as valid.

What makes this situation even more dangerous is that Ukraine is (legitimately and sensibly) being armed and supplied by the very military alliance Russia most fears, NATO. Meanwhile, Russia is being squeezed by an ever-tightening economic blockade designed to force its defeat. On top of all this are credible claims that if this campaign ends in humiliating defeat for Russia, it will prove terminal for not only the country’s national prestige and power, but Putin’s regime itself.

When a gambler has already lost so much that he will go bankrupt unless he can turn it around, the logical thing for him to do is to continue upping the stakes. This is the desperate opponent the West may now face. Worse: This is the opponent whose bloodstained debts the West may have to to write off.

Britain’s defense secretary has said that Putin “is a spent force in the world.” His French counterpart has declared, “Ukraine will win.” A consensus is building in Western capitals that Russia’s calamitous handling of the conflict means it may already have lost—indeed, that its political goals may never have been realizable in the first place, given the size of Ukraine and the opposition of its people to Russian control.

These statements, however, exhibit a dangerous combination of escalation, wish fulfillment, and, most worrying of all, truth.

In Western capitals, there has been an escalation both in the official response to Russia’s invasion—the scale of the sanctions and military support, for example—and in the rhetorical denouncement of the regime. This is understandable and long overdue. Putin appears to preside over something like a Mafia state: corrupt, kleptocratic, and violent, based on networks of loyalty and territorial claims that have nothing to do with popular will and that must be opposed.

But Western leaders should also recognize the dangers of talking themselves into an even worse situation than already exists, and must be clear about their goals. Do they seek a way to end the conflict, or Russia’s defeat? Perhaps these are now one and the same, but the difference may well become important.

Boris Johnson, for example, has said that Putin’s act of aggression “must fail and be seen to fail.” This is both true and problematic. It is important for Western security that the aspiring Putins of this world understand that if they try something akin to invading Ukraine, they will be crushed and humiliated, as is happening to Russia. The conundrum, however, is that it would also be easier for Putin to retreat if he has a way of claiming he has not failed. Analysts and diplomats whom I spoke with said it is possible to defeat Putin while finding a message that Putin can tout as a victory at home. But the fact that the West might need to give him something to sell weakens its ability to sell its own victory.

Another problem is that wars change things. The only realistic diplomatic solution is some kind of reassertion of the status quo that existed before the war, coupled with diplomatic assurances for both sides. But why should Ukraine accept the status quo given what it has been through, and how could Putin do likewise given the price he has already paid? Ukraine has now applied for European Union membership and is even more legitimate in its desire to join NATO. Its population appears to have united in adversity, to have found its voice as a European nation-state. The status quo that Putin found so intolerable before may not be possible to resuscitate—because he killed it.

The second element of the Western response that risks making peace even harder to achieve is wish fulfillment. Western officials are strengthening their rhetoric and support for Ukraine out of moral and geopolitical solidarity, but also because of Ukraine’s early success in resisting the Russian attack. The longer Ukraine holds out, the more the West might believe that something greater than the status quo is possible: that Putin and his regime might not survive the crisis they have brought about. If the West begins to see a future that is better than the status quo, or realizes that public opinion at home will not allow a return to “normal” relations with Russia, it will limit options for a diplomatic solution.

There is a danger, however, in translating Russian difficulties in the early stages of the war into wider assumptions about the state’s sclerosis—that Moscow’s military is not up to the job, that its struggles in Ukraine reveal a system riddled with corruption, that Putin is a paper tiger, that the regime in Moscow will soon fall. Chinese authoritarianism survived Tiananmen Square, Iranian theocracy survived years of Western sanctions, and, most recently, Bashar al-Assad survived the Syrian civil war.

But what is potentially even more frightening than misplaced wishful thinking is the third element: truth. It is possible that Putin’s regime really is as weak as people suggest. Some longtime Russia analysts not prone to hyperbole believe it might collapse as a result of this crisis. “For the first time in 20 years looking at this regime, I’m really questioning [it],” Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at the CNA think tank, told the War on the Rocks podcast. This must be a good thing, right? Not necessarily. Kofman was also worried about what might come next if Putin’s regime does fall. “I’m not saying it’s going to be replaced by something better,” he said. “If you don’t like the authoritarian system now, you may not like the authoritarian system that comes later.”

More than that, though, the very fact of Russia’s weakness creates its own set of dangers. First, the West might become overconfident about how far it can push the Russian state. Second, the prospect of defeat in Ukraine raises the chance that Putin will escalate the conflict. The Russian president might calculate that he simply cannot lose, increasing the odds that he will deploy nuclear or biological weapons to change the facts on the ground and expose the West’s apparent reticence to retaliate. The nature of his regime means that not only is his power at stake, but potentially his wealth and even his life. “I think he’s going to follow through, and this is what worries me,” Kofman said, warning that people should not assume Putin will blanch at leveling Kyiv—he has already shown he is willing to do so, first in Grozny, Chechnya, and then in Aleppo, when Russian airpower supported Assad.

The danger, then, is that escalating Western support for Ukraine—fueled by Putin’s barbarism, Ukrainian success, and Western optimism—will combine with the regime’s growing weakness to create the conditions for miscalculation born of desperation. And the longer the crisis lasts, the greater this danger.

The question for Western leaders is how to ensure Putin is defeated while nevertheless providing him with a route out of the crisis and avoiding any missteps that could lead to a wider conflagration. The path along the cliff edge is precarious.

According to diplomats and experts I spoke with, the way forward involves a number of elements. First, the West must ensure that however much support it gives to Kyiv, the conflict remains one between Ukraine and Russia. That way, peace negotiations remain between the two countries, and not Russia and the West more widely. Washington, Paris, London, and Berlin cannot allow talks to become what Putin wants them to be: a negotiation about spheres of influence in which Ukraine and other states can be bargained away. This, in effect, would be a victory for Putin and his tactics of nuclear brinkmanship, leading to a more dangerous world in which other dictators take the lesson that bullying and intimidation work.

Second, the West must not close off potential compromises that the Ukrainians themselves would be willing to negotiate. If Putin is to accept a negotiated defeat, he will require a fig leaf to hide the reality that he has failed to subdue Ukraine. There has been speculation, for example, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky might be prepared to formally renounce his pursuit of NATO membership, one of a number of pledges that could be made to serve as a pretext for Russian de-escalation. Zelensky could also promise not to send troops into the Donbas, for example, or seek to retake Crimea—or even to seek nuclear weapons, or allow them to be stationed on Ukrainian territory. In other words, he could use Russia’s absurd propaganda to his advantage by formally pledging not to do things that he or any of his successors would have considered doing anyway.

The difficulty comes with compromises that are not fair. Why should Ukraine not seek EU or NATO membership? Or why should it accept the annexation of Crimea, a part of its sovereign territory? Here diplomatic skills must come to the fore.

Ultimately, diplomacy will have to get each side to agree to a deal that allows each to save its dignity—even though one side does not deserve to have its dignity saved.

The Cuban missile crisis ended with Russian missiles turning back while the Americans agreed not to invade Cuba, and to remove their missiles from Turkey. Historians disagree over whether this maintained the status quo in terms of the overall balance of power between the two sides, or left Russia slightly better off than when the crisis began. Either way, it ended without catastrophic miscalculation and with a compromise balanced enough that both sides were able to save face.

The situation today is not the same as it was then. Unlike Khrushchev, Putin has not simply walked up to a line, but crossed it, unleashing a terror for which he should be held accountable. The horrible reality, though, is that the best option for the West might involve finding a way for him to not be held as accountable as he should be—but then to never forget what he has done.