What Does It Mean to Defeat Putin?

What do U.S. and European leaders see as the endgame in Ukraine? If they’re thinking about it, they’re giving little sign.

What Does It Mean to Defeat Putin?
Vladimir Putin, Russia's President, arrives for his annual news conference in Moscow. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

What do U.S. and European leaders see as the endgame in Ukraine? If they’re thinking about it, they’re giving little sign. And if their answer is defeating Vladimir Putin, they need to ask themselves another question: What does that mean?

Moved, as they should be, by the astonishing bravery of Ukraine’s people — and by their own voters’ outrage at Russia’s aggression — American and European leaders are intent for now on denouncing the Russian president, broadening their sanctions and enforcing the ones they’ve already deployed. There’s a note of celebration in their expressions of unity and economic power, which seem to have taken them by surprise.

Still, there remains enormous uncertainty about how events might unfold, and the question of what it means to defeat Putin needs to be asked. It’s now thinkable that Putin’s evident misjudgment — of Ukraine’s resolve, of the will of the U.S. and Europe to push back, and of Russian public sentiment about the war — might lead to his overthrow at the hands of Russians. So perhaps “defeat” means regime change.

It’s an alluring prospect, and it would be satisfying if Putin met this fate. But for the U.S and Europe to work explicitly to that end would be extraordinarily risky. Putin is reportedly erratic and under enormous pressure. For the moment at least, he commands the biggest nuclear stockpile in the world, and he’s already threatened to use it. The notion that he’s bluffing, or that his generals wouldn’t let him launch a strike, is hardly comforting.

The U.S. and its allies are alert to this danger even as they escalate their economic warfare. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, fighting for his country’s freedom by any means necessary, has called for the U.S. to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine (drawing the U.S. into direct combat with Russian forces) and the EU to admit Ukraine as a member immediately (which would make it a formal defense partner).

For the moment, both have been ruled out. Yet if the allies really were willing to pay any price to rescue Ukraine and repel Russia’s invasion, these escalations might actually make sense.

They aren’t willing yet. Depending on what Russia does next, however, they might change their minds. For now, the allies are purporting to make a distinction: They will impose drastic economic measures avowedly intended to destroy the Russian economy and (maybe) lead to the overthrow of its government. But they will not engage in actual fighting or commit to making Ukraine a formal ally.

If the regime-change scenario happens, this tension will be applauded as a necessary part of a brilliant strategy. If it doesn’t, the allies might regret failing to offer Putin an off-ramp.

The basic form of that off-ramp is clear, but getting it in place won’t be easy. A plausible settlement might look like this: a withdrawal of Russian forces, a commitment by Ukraine to stay out of NATO and remain non-aligned, the ceding of the Eastern separatist statelets to Russia, and security guarantees to assure Ukraine of its independence from Russia.

Supposing for the moment that Putin would go along, the big political objection is obvious: He could present this as victory. It’s what he wanted from the outset, he could say. It’s what the allies refused to discuss — and it took Russian arms to bring Ukraine and its friends to their senses. For Ukraine, it would feel like defeat: Our sacrifice was for this? And for Western politicians, it would be a hard thing to explain.

But they and Ukraine’s government need to weigh the alternatives. Are they sufficiently confident that Putin can be overthrown, or made to yield unconditionally, without a wider war, perhaps involving nuclear weapons? Is drawn-out low-level warfare confined to Ukraine really in Ukrainians’ best interests? Is the outright subjection of Ukraine, if Putin prevails despite everything, better than Finlandization? And how long can the allies maintain their sanctions once the toll on their own economies and financial systems becomes more apparent?

Of course, if Putin were offered an off-ramp and chose to use it, he’d claim victory. But he and everybody else would know the score: Provoking disgust all across the free world turns out to carry enormous strategic costs. Economic warfare can be far more powerful than previously believed. Freedom-loving people can’t easily be cowed by threats. Autocrats have to worry about retaining domestic support.

If an off-ramp had been offered and taken before Putin chose war, these lessons — all of which work to the advantage of the U.S., Europe and Ukraine — would not have been learned. Putin might plausibly have pocketed the concessions and started planning his next move. If a climbdown is offered and accepted now, that’s much less likely. Putin might not admit it, but he’d be chastened. And Russians would know it.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering economics, finance and politics. A former chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, he has been an editor for the Economist and the Atlantic.

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