By ALEXANDER J. MOTYL
The conventional wisdom has it that Vladimir Putin must not be humiliated, lest he do something crazy. The conventional wisdom is wrong. Putin requires no humiliation to do something unhinged, and his humiliation is the only way to end the Russo-Ukrainian War and give Russia a chance of returning to civilization.
Humiliation is not about insulting Putin, nor is it about exposing his personal peccadilloes. Humiliation is about handing Putin a complete and total defeat on the battlefield, one that will not enable him to “save face” and make a semi-plausible case for some form of Russian victory. Anything short of such a defeat will save Putin’s regime — as well as Putin himself — from collapse, persuade Russians that their faith in Putin was justified and their responsibility for war crimes is nil, and guarantee the war’s continuation. Putin must be humiliated for there to be a lasting and durable peace — and for Russia to begin its long slog back to humanity.
The genocidal war against Ukrainians is Putin’s war, but it wasn’t just a matter of his personal choice. Putin sits in the royal core of a highly centralized political system that, like Adolf Hitler’s, thrives on and needs violence, both to maintain law and order at home and to intimidate neighbors, acquire territory, power and influence, and justify its fascist constitution and policies with its domestic supporters among the elites and masses.
Putin announced the start of the “special military operation” on Feb. 24, but it is the fascist, imperialist Russian state that is waging hostilities, committing genocide and destroying Ukraine — all with the approval, sometimes enthusiastic and sometimes tacit, of most Russians.
Given these circumstances, if Putin manages to escape the consequences of Russia’s bellicosity by saving face and avoiding humiliation, the political and social system of which he is the core will continue to exist and its violent policy preferences will continue to determine Russia’s behavior internally and externally. Putin will remain in power and the fascist system that he has built so assiduously for over two decades will survive. The Russo-Ukrainian War may enjoy a hiatus for a few months or even years — and that will give the Russian military the opportunity to lick its wounds and revive — but it inevitably will resume as soon as Putin, his system, and its supporters feel the time is right.
A comparison with Hitler is apposite. The Allies understood that Nazi Germany had to be defeated, completely and totally — that Hitler had to suffer humiliation and not be given the opportunity to save face. Anything short of a complete and total defeat would have meant a continuation of the Hitler state, the Hitler society, and Hitler himself. It was only after Hitler committed suicide and Nazi Germany capitulated that German society could be de-Nazified, albeit incompletely, and Germany be transformed into a decent society.
Does that mean invading Russia and reducing its cities to rubble? Of course not. A complete and total defeat would entail liberating the Ukrainian territory seized by Russia in 2014 and in 2022; even driving the Russian troops to the pre-invasion borders would suffice to humiliate Putin. In either case, his legitimacy with elites and masses would be undermined, the forces of coercion that underpin fascist Russia would be severely weakened, fascist elites would reimagine themselves as democrats-in-hiding, and the Russian people would be faced with the arduous task of shedding their love affair with power, war, strongmen and violence.
Won’t a humiliated Putin incapable of saving face resort to some deranged action such as employing a nuclear weapon? Putin has amply demonstrated already that he is delusional and willing to act on his delusions. It was delusional to think he could conquer Ukraine in three days. And yet he tried. It is delusional to think that he is winning the war. And yet he does. It is delusional to think that Russia’s economy can survive the sanctions intact. And yet he does. It was crazy to permit Russian soldiers to dig trenches in the radioactive ground near the Chernobyl reactor. It is crazy to toy with the safety of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest. It is, finally, crazy to embark openly and gleefully on genocide.
But the good news is that a humiliated, defeated and delegitimized Putin is far less likely to do something crazily destructive than a proud Putin who hasn’t lost face. The Russian führer may, in the depths of his bunker, desperately want to press the nuclear button, but his manifest humiliation will deter the generals who need to endorse his folly from doing so. Why follow a has-been into hell when acknowledging defeat can lead to more fortuitous outcomes for them and for Russia?
A leader who dwells amid delusional fantasies and delights in atrocities cannot be permitted to save face. His army must be defeated, his regime must be dismantled, and he must be humiliated — completely and totally — for some Russians to come to their senses and for peace to have a chance.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-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, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”