May 3, 2022
After weeks of uncertainty, Western policy has now become clear. As U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it while in Kyiv, “[w]e are here to say to you, we are with you till this fight is over. We are here until victory is won.” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was almost as emphatic: “Together with our partners in the EU and NATO, we are completely unanimous in the opinion that Russia should not win.” Which is an oblique way of saying that Ukraine should win.
Not that there should have been any doubts about Western resolve. The historic meeting of 40 ministers of defense in Ramstein on April 26 should have dispelled those. During that meeting, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin noted that “we’re going to keep moving heaven and earth so that we can meet” Ukraine’s security needs.
The West’s determination to defeat Russia has not gone without criticism. Harvard University’s Graham Allison provides a pithy statement of that view: “If Putin is forced to choose between losing on the one hand in Ukraine and escalating the level of destruction, there’s every reason to believe he’ll escalate the level of destruction.”
The problem with this line of thinking is that Putin has already escalated twice – without being in any way provoked by Ukraine or the West. It was Putin who attacked Ukraine on Feb. 24, and it was Putin who adopted a scorched-earth policy of genocide a few weeks later.
Putin will or will not escalate regardless of what the West or Ukraine does. His war of annihilation against Ukraine stems from his own ideological beliefs about Ukraine’s illegitimacy, and from the nature of the regime he has constructed in Russia. In Putin’s eyes, Ukraine and Ukrainians must not exist, and he is obviously willing to resort to mass killings in order to achieve that goal. Meanwhile, Putin’s regime is openly fascist, and his own legitimacy and power rest on his ability to enable Russia and Russians to demonstrate greatness by slaughtering their neighbors.
Public opinion polls show that Russians overwhelmingly support Putin and his war. There is every reason to suppose that such a leader, sitting atop such a regime, will escalate hostilities if Ukraine falls. Russia will attack other countries in the former Soviet bloc.
At War’s End
Imagine now that the war is over. Either Ukraine has won, or Russia has. A Ukrainian victory at the very least entails Russia’s withdrawal from the territories it has occupied since Feb. 24. At most, Russia could be forced to withdraw from Crimea and the Donbas.
A Russian victory is harder to pin down – even an occupation and change of government in Kyiv would only shift the fighting to Ukrainian partisans, who are likely to make Russia’s stay in Ukraine unbearable.
Neither scenario will change the West’s policy toward Putin’s regime. Its support of Ukraine will remain equally unchanged. Putin will still be a war criminal, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will still be an anti-Semite, and Putin’s minions will still be collaborators who helped perpetrate genocide.
As a contemporary equivalent of Nazi Germany, Putinist Russia will perforce be shunned and sanctioned. The United States, the countries of NATO, and Ukraine – which might even be eligible to join NATO by then – will appreciate that Putin could easily start a new war at any time. Perhaps that war would again be against Ukraine, or maybe Russia will attack one of the Baltic states, or Kazakhstan, or Poland. As the West will not wish to engage Russia in a war, its only remaining option will be to contain Russia by setting up a cordon sanitaire consisting of the post-Soviet states – and then hoping for, and promoting, internally-driven regime change.
Russia Without Putin
If, on the other hand, Putin does not manage to survive – this is highly likely if Russia loses the war or if Putin attracts the blame for landing his country in an endless military quagmire – then the West may be able to soften its policy toward Russia while continuing to support Ukraine.
Everything would depend on the exact circumstances of his removal and its aftermath. If his successor is just another Putin-type figure, then we are back to the first scenario. If, as Russia’s history suggests, his successor proves to be more reasonable, or if a power struggle erupts, that might create enough political space for the United States and its allies to reach some sort of modus vivendi with Moscow. And if the post-Putin turmoil is so great as to enable the democratic opposition to enter the government and try to reverse Russia’s rush toward oblivion, the chances of genuine détente would increase significantly.
Whatever the outcome, the West should do what it is doing: Support Ukraine, and aim for a Russian defeat. The alternative – to accept Ukraine’s defeat and thereby promote a Russian victory – would only lead to catastrophe for the West, and possibly for the world.
Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”