March 21, 2023

Since the beginning of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the crucial question has not changed: Can Vladimir Putin be defeated at an acceptable price? Although we now know about Russia’s military incompetence and the courage and skill of Ukraine’s forces, the answer is still uncertain.

That leads to an uncomfortable conclusion, one that President Joe Biden showed no sign of understanding in his speech to the United Nations on Wednesday: plans to end this conflict need to weigh the consequences to avoid disappointing, even dishonorable, consequences. Those are disasters.

The idea of ​​an off-ramp for Putin strikes many as abhorrent — and now, for good measure, completely unnecessary. Ukraine is winning! Why would Russia help to wrest partial victory from the jaws of defeat?

The chorus of “Ukraine must win” never clearly defines what is actually involved in Russia’s defeat. Perhaps this means Russia pushes back on its pre-2014 borders and then comes to terms with it. Or maybe Putin’s humiliation caused domestic opposition to explode and oust him; His successors are the ones Westerners can do business with; Russia’s demand for superpower status decline; and its relegation to second class status is acknowledged and acknowledged.

All good things, to be sure, and nothing impossible. But, to put it mildly, these futures are far from certain.

As governments gathered for a UN meeting, Putin announced his intention to prolong the war with a “partial mobilization” that would see 300,000 more troops on the ground in due course. And he reiterated his threat to use nuclear weapons: “Russia will use all the tools at its disposal to counter threats against its territorial integrity. This is not a bluff.” Soon this concept of territorial integrity may include territories that Russia currently occupies and wants to annex.

I keep reading that Putin should be aware of nuclear threats but not intimidated by them. Call me a coward, but I find it hard to think about Armageddon without getting a little scared – and I ask the same of my political leaders. If possible, it is better to avoid mass death and destruction than to invite it. Of course, simply surrendering in the face of such a threat would ensure defeat — but one could reasonably be intimidated, and respond accordingly without surrendering. This is what mutual assured destruction means.

Am I exaggerating the danger? Will Putin refrain from using nuclear weapons if threatened with a proportionately harsher response? Again, maybe — but what are the odds, exactly? It is hard to see how the sanctions could be tightened further, not least because they are already causing major damage beyond Russia. By going to such extremes to support Ukraine without putting any of its own forces at risk, could the United States credibly threaten to attack Russia in response to a strategic nuclear strike (some suggest)—let alone credibly threaten a nuclear response?

Assuming threats and counter-threats are evolving in that direction, note an alarming inconsistency in most analyzes of Putin’s calculations. His attack on Ukraine was judged not only despicable but reckless. Yet he is expected to analyze the pros and cons of “escalate to de-escalate” as prudence demands. What could be the possible mistakes?

Ukraine’s extraordinary battlefield success creates an opening to end the war without this extraordinary risk. What is needed now is a settlement that allows Putin to claim a victory that everyone else perceives as defeat. It can come out of different kinds of discussions. But imagine, for starters, a cease-fire that demarcates borders along current battle lines, with a long-term result that cedes some territory to Russia while admitting today’s Ukraine to NATO.

Until recently, Putin considered this unacceptable. Now it might not look so bad.

Of course, Ukraine and its most ardent supporters will hate it too. Rewarding Russia’s hostility over territory and keeping Putin in power seems absurd. But it has been a serious mistake for the US and its allies to judge what is at stake in Ukraine and how much risk they must run. Ukraine’s interests and calculation of sufficient sacrifices are aligned with, but not identical to, those of the West.

Much of the world would see a negotiated outcome as a salutary defeat for Russia, not Ukraine. The suggestion that Putin will simply pause in his pursuit of a greater Russia, gather strength, and then renew his wars of expansion is a stretch. The course of the war underlined the limits of Russia’s power, tested the patience of its allies and cemented its ability to challenge the West’s actions. A complete humiliation of Putin, or his removal from power, is not necessary to run this house.

Accepting this deeply unsatisfactory outcome would reduce the risk of a catastrophic wider conflict. It is worth paying a price.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• If Putin Goes Nuclear, Biden Faces a Decision Tree: Andreas Kluth

• Why Putin Can’t Tap Fascism’s Greatest Asset: Leonid Bershidsky

• Putin’s scathing rebuke of Biden in brief: Bobby Ghosh

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

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and a member of the Economics editorial board. Prior to that, he was deputy editor of The Economist and chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times.

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