To stay in power with declining living standards, Vladimir Putin must invent a foreign enemy (the United States), which has overthrown the legitimate government of Ukraine, props up a puppet government with a “foreign legion,” and plans a sneak attack on Russia. In Putin’s “alternative world” narrative, Russia’s actions in Eastern Ukraine are purely defensive and humanitarian. His requirement for “peace” is veto power over Ukrainian policy for his puppet “people’s republic” of Eastern Ukraine, e.g. the de facto end of an independent Ukraine.
Putin’s peace conditions are not acceptable to the “New Ukraine.” Nevertheless, the United States and Europe pay lip service to striking a peace agreement that cannot be. The only possible resolutions are either Ukrainian capitulation (which would be welcomed in many European capitals) or raising the cost to Putin to such a level that he must seek a face-saving way out.
I suggest the following measures that, if applied correctly and consistently, can bring Russia’s war against Ukraine to a satisfactory conclusion:
Continue and strengthen sanctions over the long run
International sanctions have taken a deep bite of the Russian one-commodity economy, especially in combination with collapsing energy prices. They must be preserved, and Western leaders who understand their importance must maintain European resolve in the face of the reservations of countries like Hungary, Greece, and even France. Notably, the American economic recovery works in favor of sanctions resolve. It is better to be friends with the growing U.S. than the collapsing Russia. Note that Russia’s crisis deprives Putin of the financial wherewithal to wage war and acquire more territory by depleting rainy day funds, diverting money from pension reserves, and lacking resources for the humanitarian crises in Russian-controlled territories of Ukraine.
The West has yet to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine to match the troops and equipment flowing in from Russia across open borders. Barring such weapons, Ukraine cannot inflict real harm on Russia’s forces as the fighting heats up. A strong Ukraine places Putin under severe pressure. Russian deaths on the Ukrainian field of battle already number in the thousands—a fact the Putin regime has tried to conceal. The Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia has mobilized against the war, and the Russian people oppose sending their sons to fight in Ukraine. Despite Congressional authorization, President Obama will likely choose not to send weapons for fear of angering Russia. This is wrong. A muscular Ukraine means less danger from Russia for Europe, NATO, and the United States. Obama must understand that the U.S. will remain enemy number one in Putin’s propaganda war whether he authorizes weapons or not.
Give Ukraine the financial resources to build the New Ukraine
Europe and the United States must pitch in financially to make Ukraine’s turn to the West a success. Ukrainians revolted on Maidan Square one year ago because they were tired of corruption and lawlessness. Ukraine wants to be Europe not Russia. Those who oppose generous financing must consider that Ukraine has lost some 20 percent of its territory in a hot war and must rebuild its military and an intelligence agency infiltrated by Russian spies. Without a Ukrainian Marshall Plan that recognizes these special conditions and the New Ukraine’s resolve to reform, the Ukraine experiment will fail, and Putin will have won without lifting a finger. A successful, reformed Ukraine would reveal that it is Putin’s Russia that is flawed and in need of reform, not Ukraine, as Putin claims.
Destroy Russia’s natural gas weapon
Europe must finalize its united energy policy, which liberalizes the free flow of gas among European countries. If Russia withholds deliveries from one country, other countries will simply transfer gas to them. Europe must dismiss Russia’s latest threat to divert deliveries from Ukraine to Turkey, and require Europe to pay for the new infrastructure. Any infrastructure investments should go for LNG terminals and non-Russian sources of supply. Europe’s anti-monopoly commission must declare the obvious—that Gazprom’s monopoly must be broken up into production and transportation companies. Russia’s use of the natural gas weapon in the course of the Ukrainian standoff has been a major strategic mistake. It has convinced Europe it cannot rely on Russia. Without the gas weapon, Russia will have lost its leverage over Europe. This will be Russia’s major loss from its Ukraine adventure.
Engage in the propaganda war
The West must seriously counter Putin’s “alternative world propaganda” that his Russian audience accepts. Putin employs a vast army of propagandists to promote the Putin story both at home and throughout the Western world, which absorbs the blows without responding. Europe must open its planned Russian broadcast station, and the U.S. must upgrade Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to broadcast straight news to Russia and Ukraine. Fighting back is essential in the new era of hybrid warfare in which propaganda plays an outsized role.
Putin bases his legitimacy on his high favorability ratings, which requires that the Russian people believe a rather incredible fairy tale of the world. Non-stop bombardment with this fable has had its toll, but there is no reason to believe that it cannot be rolled back by honest reporting that reaches the Russian-speaking world.
Understand Putin and his kleptocracy
We live in the “civilized world” of norms and accepted behavior that cannot conceive of an entire nation run as a criminal enterprise, by kleptocrats whose concern is their power and wealth. We accept instead the convenient image that Putin presents to the outside world—a true Russian nationalist bereaved by the loss of an empire, encircled by NATO enemies planning a sneak attack. Western apologists argue he has no choice but to strike back, and we must be sensitive to his fears, find face-saving solutions, and live in peace. That is the naïve view of the world that Putin must propagate in order to survive.
Russian kleptocrats, Putin chief among them, understand that they have constructed an illegitimate regime that has no rule of law, other than the whim of the ruling circle, and they live in fear of a Euro-Maidan demonstration on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square. They tremble at the prospect of a prosperous Europeanized Ukraine on their border. How long would it be before their people learn from the Ukrainian experience and rise up to overthrow them?
We cannot predict the future because it depends on whether the West uses its levers to tame Putin. If it does, the outcome is not in doubt. The biggest question of all is whether Europe and the United States are willing to deploy the vast array of instruments at their disposal to defang Putin and his regime.