On the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, two outcomes seemed most likely: either an outright Russian victory or a stalemate, ending in a negotiated settlement of some kind. Seven months later, neither seems even possible, let alone likely. Russia cannot achieve the first and Ukraine cannot accept the second.
Nor should it: Any concession of territory to Russian occupation, experience has proved, means torture, enslavement and death to those within. Worse, it would leave Russian forces massed on the redrawn border, poised to resume the attack whenever the time was right – a permanent existential threat, rooted in the deranged ideology of Greater Russianism and the ambitions of the dictator in its grip. Neither would rewarding Russian aggression in this way be any more tolerable for the broader West. Not only Russia, but other would-be aggressors would draw the appropriate lessons.
Instead, two other outcomes now seem the most likely: escalation, possibly to nuclear, or the end of Vladimir Putin’s regime. These are not mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible we could see some combination of the two. But it is hard to see how this ends without at least one such seismic event. Which makes the period we are now entering the most dangerous, with the most potential for catastrophe, in at least 60 years.
Mr. Putin seems determined to give himself no way out, and with good reason: To admit defeat, after so much bloodshed, with such devastation of Russia’s economy, to so vainglorious an end, would almost certainly bring about his fall. If nothing else, it would puncture his air of invincibility.
To Ukraine’s stunning recent advances, then, he has responded in two ways: by invoking mass conscription (“mobilization”), and by vague threats to use nuclear weapons. The first does not alter the situation much. There is even less will to fight in Russia’s people than there is in its professional army.
Word on Russian casualties in Ukraine – as many as half of the original invasion force of 190,000 are estimated to have been killed, wounded or captured – appears to have gotten out. Vast numbers of draft-age Russian men are accordingly getting out of the country, or otherwise disappearing. Those who do turn out – unfit, unwilling and almost entirely untrained – face even higher odds of death or injury, against Ukraine’s confident, battle-tested and supremely motivated troops. The best they can do is buy Mr. Putin some time.
It is the second option – nuclearization – that holds the most potential to destabilize the situation. Until now Mr. Putin and the NATO powers have observed a curious kind of truce amid the carnage: NATO has not intervened directly, and Mr. Putin has not used weapons of mass destruction. Should there be a breach on either side, the consequences are incalculable.
Yet that is where things appear to be headed. The sham referendums in Ukraine’s four eastern regions, purporting to justify their annexation by Russia, are plainly intended to establish a legal pretext for Russia to escalate to nuclear: Ukrainian soldiers defending their homeland suddenly become “invaders” on Russian soil. It’s an outlandish argument, but it is not intended for Western consumption.
Short of using nukes, the defeat of Russian forces seems only a matter of time. Having made the threat, what is more, it is hard to see how Mr. Putin can fail to follow through on it: if not by wiping out a Ukrainian city, then at least by means of a battlefield nuke, or at the very least by testing something somewhere as a show of force. Any of these would plunge us into a terrifying new world, worse by far than the Cuban Missile Crisis.
And yet it is equally hard to see what this will accomplish. Does Mr. Putin imagine that Ukraine, in the face of such threats, will simply capitulate? Or that the West will take fright, and impose a settlement upon it?
The Ukrainians have said they do not think he is bluffing, or at any rate they think he’s serious. Yet they seem determined to press on, regardless. Again, they have no choice: The alternative is, first, submission to nuclear blackmail, and second, submission to genocide.
This is the strange paradox of this conflict, or perhaps any conflict: The people who have the most to fear are the least in fear. When you have no choice you stop worrying about choices; when your back is against the wall it stiffens. Whatever happens, you have already been liberated.
But the same is true of the West. We, too, have no choice. Mr. Putin is not the only nuclear-armed madman in this world. Were we to concede in the face of a nuclear threat – were we to fail to respond commensurately, should he deliver on it – the message would be clear: Blackmail works. Threats can be made, or even carried out, without consequence. That would simply set the stage for another Ukraine crisis, and another, and another.
If it is hard to see what Mr. Putin accomplishes by bluffing, that does not mean it is impossible that he is: Mr. Putin has demonstrated a serial inability to think ahead to the next step, or to understand his adversaries. He does not appear, however, to be suicidal. If we cannot be sure he would not use nuclear weapons, neither can he be sure the West would not respond in kind. And if that were not enough to persuade him, it would those around him. Russian soldiers do not want to die for Ukraine; neither do Russian generals.
Whatever else might be uncertain in all of this, what is certain is that there can be no end to this war that leaves Mr. Putin in power. That was clear the minute Russian forces crossed the border into Ukraine, but it was crystal clear once he started waving the nuclear threat around.
A leader who imagines he can attack and invade a neighbouring country, not because it poses any threat but purely for the purpose of imperial conquest, is a threat to the security of the region. A leader who, in support of such an attack, so much as hints at using nuclear weapons is a threat to the world.
The West’s war aims at the start were limited to raising the cost of Russian aggression, or perhaps containing its advance. Our aim must now be, not just victory in Ukraine, but regime change in Russia. That is not something we can bring about on our own – Russians will have to do that for themselves. And the consequences are potentially hazardous: violence, a power struggle, even civil war, with no guarantee that whoever emerges at the top is any better than Mr. Putin.
But that must nevertheless be our aim, whether we say it out loud or not. This is not the old Soviet Union, menacing but methodical. This is a personal dictatorship, as unrestrained by the institutions of lawful government as by concern for human life or even prudent assessment of risk: Hitler with nukes. So long as Mr. Putin is in power the world is not safe. Therefore, he must be removed from power. It cannot end otherwise.