When Ukraine wins the war, Putin will build his own
Some observers of the Russo-Ukrainian war seem to think that its greatest danger is that Ukraine will win, or win too quickly, and that this will be uncomfortable for Putin, and that we should care.
This is a deeply perverse way of seeing things. Putin has chosen to fight a war of aggression and destruction in Ukraine. Wherever Russia controls Ukrainian territory, Russians commit genocidal crimes against citizens of Ukraine, including mass rape, mass killing, and mass deportation. A democracy is defending itself against an autocracy, and the fate of democracies hangs in the balance. The Russian hydrocarbon oligarchy is giving us a foretaste of cataclysm that awaits if we do not free ourselves from oil and gas. Russia blockades the Black Sea and halts food exports, threatening to spread death by starvation to tens of millions of people this year. Those are the kinds of things we should be worrying about, not Putin’s self-image.
Yet there is an even more basic problem with this reasoning, which arises from a false understanding of how power in Russia works.
The Russian media and political system is designed to keep Putin in power regardless of what happens in the outside world. Russian politics takes place within a closed information environment which Putin himself designed and which Putin himself runs. He does not need our help in the real world to craft reassuring fictions for Russians. He has been doing this for twenty years without our help.
Ukrainians understand this, which is one reason that they become irritated when we suggest that they concede territory or victory to Russia because of a concern about Putin’s internal state. They know that this is not only unjust but pointless. What matters in Russian politics is not Putin’s feelings nor battlefield realities but the ability of the Putin regime to change the story for Russian media consumers. It is senseless, as the Ukrainians understand, to sentence real people of real territories to suffer and die for the sake of Russian narratives that do not even depend upon the real world.
What happens if Putin decides that he is losing in Ukraine? He will act to protect himself by declaring victory and changing the subject. He does not need an off ramp in the real world, because that is not where his power rests. All he needs to do is change the story in Russia’s virtual world, as he has been doing for decades. This is just a matter of setting the agenda in a meeting. In virtual reality there is always an escape route, and for this reason Putin cannot be “cornered.” (Neither, for that matter, can the actual Russian army in actual Ukraine. When Russian units are defeated, they just cross back into Russia).
Putin’s power is coterminous with his ability to change the subject on Russian television. He does this all the time. Think about how the war began. Until late February of this year, the entire Russian media was clamoring that an invasion of Ukraine was unthinkable and that all the evidence was just warmongering by the CIA. Russians believed that, or pretended to. Then, once Russia did in fact invade Ukraine, war was presented as inevitable and righteous. Now Russians believe this, or pretend to. In 2015, when Russia’s last invasion of Ukraine failed to meet all of its objectives, the Russian media changed the subject from one day to the next from Ukraine to Syria. This is simply how Russia is ruled: invasions and storytelling about invasions. If the invasion doesn’t work out, the story changes.
If defeated in reality, Putin will declare victory on television, and the Russians will believe him, or pretend that they believe him. He will find a new subject on which to fasten their attention. This is the Kremlin’s problem, not ours. These are internal Russian mechanisms in which outside actors are essentially irrelevant. It makes no sense to create an “off-ramp” in the real world, when all Putin needs is an “off-ramp” in his virtual world. It will be built by propagandists from pixels, and we are not needed for that. Indeed, there is something more than a little humiliating in Western leaders offering themselves as unpaid and unneeded interns for Russian television channels.
The odd thing is that Western leaders know all of this, or should. Given plenty of time to reflect after Russia’s last invasion of Ukraine in 2014, we have become aware of the primary role that political fiction plays in Russian life. Everyone who matters in public discussions ought to be aware that Putin governs in media rather than reality. Just three months ago, we all just watched as Putin changed the story from “war unthinkable” to “war inevitable.” And yet, for some reason, some Western leaders ignore this basic structural fact of Russian politics when they advocate appeasement.
To be sure, Putin might err in this war or in some other one. He might wait too long to declare victory in the virtual world. In that case he loses power, and someone else takes over the television networks. We cannot save him from such a misjudgment. It will happen sooner or later. It is possible that power in Russia will change hands during this war; we will know that has happened when the Russian media landscape changes. Regardless of whether Putin falls during this war or later, his power over media will be complete until the moment when it ceases. There is no interval where our actions in the real world will be decisive.
Now let’s think of what we are asking of the Ukrainians when we speak of conceding Ukrainian territory for the sake of giving Putin an “off-ramp.” We are asking the people who are the victims of a genocidal war to comfort the perpetrator. We are expecting Ukrainians, who know that Russian politics is all about fiction, to make sacrifices in the world where their families and friends live and die. We are asking Ukrainians to sentence their own people to ethnic cleansing in order to make life slightly easier for Russian television producers whose genocidal hate speech is one cause of the atrocities.
As Ukrainians keep trying to tell us, clichés of “cornering” and “off-ramps” will make the war last longer, by distracting from the simple necessity of Russian defeat.
When we start the story from Putin’s psychic needs and run it through our own misunderstanding of Russian politics, we push Ukrainian democracy to the side. Rather than acting like allied democracies, we behave like amateur therapists for a dictator. We are no good at that. We are directing our empathy towards a dictator who will only exploit it to continue a war, and away from a people who must win that war to end it.
Appeasement of Russia distracts us from the people who really are cornered: the Ukrainians. They are facing extermination as a people, and that is why they fight. President Volodymyr Zelensky actually does need a way to end this war, because he does not govern by fiction, because he is an elected leader, and because he feels responsible for his people. Unlike Putin, Zelensky cannot simply change the subject. He has to bring his people along. At this point, Ukrainians by huge majorities believe that the war has to be won, and are unwilling to concede territory. Unlike Putin, Zelensky will have to make a case, referring to what is actually happening on the ground. He therefore really does need help, both to win the war as quickly as possible, and in giving Ukrainians a sense of a post-war future.
All reasonable people want this war to end. That means thinking more about the Ukrainian people, and worrying less about problems that Putin does not in fact have.