The free world – the “West”, but also democracies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America – must prepare for a future without Putin, a future where Russia justly loses its war of choice and aggression. Eventually, this world will be a better place than a world where Russia tries to implement its imperial phantasms at the expense of other peoples.
While G7 leaders have rightly pledged to support Ukraine “as long as it takes”, some politicians, experts and opinion leaders never stopped urging Western governments to force Ukraine to “exchange territory for peace”. Such an exchange is neither possible nor desirable because it will lead to an escalation of the war, more violence and more economic turmoil. Most importantly, the Ukrainians themselves do not want to make such a sacrifice. They know all too well what happens to people in territories occupied by Russia. The terrible past of the 20th century has returned to Europe. The only outcome that will stop the war and bring lasting peace to Europe is a military defeat of Russia. Since Russia is much weaker than previously thought, its defeat is also far more likely than has been previously appreciated.
Yet, it appears that in some European capitals policy makers are unable to even contemplate Putin’s defeat, or imagine a world where Russia is not the partner they hoped it would be. It betrays a certain lack of imagination, and a lack of ability to adapt to a changing world.
A blow to the world order
Indeed, many politicians and civil servants seem to long for the idealistic world of the 1990’s, when Russia was a promising partner and not a threat; the potential of “Wandel durch Handel” (change through trade), as conceived by the German establishment. The world where Russia is part of a free and democratic Europe never truly existed, but its very possibility was voided in word by Putin in February of 2007 at the Munich Security Conference, in deed in August of 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia, and finally in February of 2014, when Russian military forces invaded Crimea and annexed the Ukrainian peninsula, shattering the post-Cold War European security architecture, and putting the stability of the entire continent at risk.
With the 2014 invasion Russia also violated several key international treaties, including the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which provided Ukraine with security guarantees from Russia, the U.S. and the U.K. in exchange for its surrender of nuclear weapons (this was to date the only major peaceful denuclearization in history; the implications of the Russian invasion for future voluntary denuclearizations are obvious), and the 1997 Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and Russia (the so-called “big treaty”), a cornerstone of which was mutual respect of territorial integrity and restraint from the use of force. The joint Putin-Xi statement on international relations from February 4, 2022 reinforced their commitment to break the principles of peace and a rule-based international order.
Corruption of Western elites
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that Russia has long been using its windfall profits from high fossil fuel prices to corrupt Western elites. The cases of Gerhardt Schröder (former Chancellor of Germany who has been working for Russian state-owned fossil fuel companies after his tenure), Karin Kneissl (former Foreign Minister of Austria who also worked for a Russian oil company), François Fillon (former Prime Minister of France who served on the board of directors of a major Russian petrochemical company), and of course, Donald Trump, are some of the more prominent examples; the Ibiza Affair in Austria and the winged word “Londongrad” further illustrate the broad and persistent reach of Russian influence operations.
There exists a veritable “revolving door” between the cabinets of power in Western European capitals and cushy sinecures in Russian state-owned enterprises. It would indeed be correct to talk about elite capture in many Western societies. In the case of Hungary one may even talk about “state capture”. Such elites don’t reflect the will of their constituents. Thus, whoever captures the elites can make them act against the interests of their constituents – for example, by pursuing fossil fuels at the expense of renewables, or by destabilizing the political sphere via exploiting existing grievances and empowering both the far right and the far left. All of these elements combine to produce a severely anti-democratic effect of engagement with Russia for Europe.
Russia’s war highlighted this long-existing gap between European elites and European citizens. While citizens are providing unprecedented support to Ukraine, including offering their homes to refugees, donating money, and joining Ukrainians in rallies throughout the world, political elites have been sometimes slow to respond, perhaps wishing the problem would just go away, and that they would not have to make any difficult but obviously necessary decisions. The attempts by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to push Lithuania – an EU member state – to roll back enforcement of sanctions on Russia imposed by the EU itself illustrate this.
For better or for worse, but there will be no return to “business is usual” with Russia. Either Russia will be defeated and Europe will return to its founding principles – democracy, freedom and human rights – or Europe will be defeated, and as a result, there will be a world-scale “might makes right” law with stronger autocracies wantonly attacking their weaker democratic neighbours. Russia’s defeat will, in fact, make Europe more democratic and free its politics from corrupt Russian money, leading to more tolerant, peaceful, prosperous societies and less acrimony across Europe and the rest of the world.
Russia’s war on Ukraine revealed that increasing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, and Germany eschewing nuclear power in favor of fossil fuels was a terrible mistake. For years, Ukrainians, and other Eastern and Northern Europeans, warned Western governments that as soon as the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline was completed, Putin would be free to launch a full-scale war. Unfortunately, these warnings were dismissed with “this is a pure business” argument. The partial energy embargo introduced by the EU has thankfully accelerated the “green” transition for the EU. If European governments recognize that nuclear power can be a component in a transition to renewable energy too, Europe will become self-sufficient in terms of energy even faster.
Sometimes Europeans ask Ukrainians: how will you live with Russia after the war – since it will still be your neighbour? After all, one cannot change geography. We believe that a more relevant question is – how will Europe live with 40 million of Ukrainians, and with itself, if Europe stands by as Russia destroys Ukraine? How will Europe respond to an unprecedented food crisis in developing nations if Ukrainian ports remain blocked? And finally, is Europe ready and capable of fighting Russia when it invades other European countries if Russia is not defeated decisively in Ukraine? European elites should think of Ukraine as an EU candidate state, a democratic state with agency, rather a “post-Soviet” part of a Russian “sphere of influence” – an anti-democratic concept that belongs in the history books. As President of the European Commission justly pointed out, “Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective. We want them to live the European dream.” Her words reflect the reality that Ukrainians were, and are, willing to fight – and die – for European ideals, under the flag of a united Europe.
Nuclear blackmail is not credible
An argument is sometimes made that if Russia is defeated, Putin will resort to the use of nuclear weapons, and (presumably) therefore Russia must not lose. We believe this argument is poorly thought out and thus deeply incorrect. Let us consider it for a moment. First, one can rule out nuclear weapon use against a NATO member state. This would lead to automatic devastating retaliation against Russia itself, an element that Russian propaganda always neglects to mention when engaging in jingoistic saber-rattling. Thus, only use of nuclear weapons against non-NATO members is possible, which also explains Ukraine’s NATO membership aspirations. Commentators sometimes neglect the fact that NATO was not “expanded” by Western fiat, it was expanded because Eastern European nations were banging on the door, eager to protect themselves from the very thing Ukraine is experiencing today. Setting aside use of nuclear weapons against members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the only remaining alternative target is Ukraine itself.
Using a tactical nuclear weapon against Ukraine would backfire severely. Russia is already a pariah in the West, nuclear weapon use would make it a pariah in the rest of the world. It would amount to admitting defeat and acknowledge the falsity of Russia’s narrative about Ukraine.
This will severely damage Ukraine. But we believe that even in this extreme scenario Ukraine will not stop resisting. Ukrainians know all too well that Russian rule means countless dead in “filtration” camps, mass deportations to Russia (by now, more than a million people, of them more than 200,000 children, who’ve been separated from their parents), and cultural annihilation. It’s a genocide, and whether it is done with nuclear or with conventional weapons (like Mariupol or Severodonetsk) doesn’t make much difference; Ukrainians will continue their resistance in the wake of a nuclear strike just like they resist in the wake of conventional strikes.
Moreover, no single individual may unilaterally launch a nuclear strike. And even if Putin does resort to this unthinkable evil, we believe that Russian officers will not carry out such an order, if only because they are likely to have substantial amounts of money and real estate to enjoy after retirement. To be clear: Russia’s nuclear threat is not credible.
Russia backs down when it faces resistance
Thus, rather than thinking about Russia and trying to “understand Putin” (which, if one does, one will come to appreciate that he lives in an extremely limited, evil, pathological, zero-sum world), European leaders should think about understanding and doing right by their own people, contemplating the future of Europe and the new security architecture for the world. And while they are thinking, they must send more weapons to Ukraine.
In fact, when Russia is defeated militarily (as was the case in the Battle of Kyiv in February-April of 2022 or at the Snake Island in May-June 2022), or humiliated (such as when a Russian military plane was shot down in Turkish airspace), the tightly controlled Russian media sphere simply pivots away from the incident, minimizes discussion, and focuses on another issue. After being defeated around Kyiv, the Russian forces withdrew, and announced progressively more narrow goals in Ukraine. Russian media described leaving the Snake Island as a “goodwill gesture”. After the military plane shootdown the Kremlin issued strongly worded statements, and applied some trade restrictions, but relations were then quietly restored. When, in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden announced their intention to seek NATO membership, the Kremlin simply acquiesced. Thus, when Russia is solidly and decisively defeated, its current leadership does not choose the path of confrontation, but rather “changes the subject.”
It’s not enough for Ukraine to not lose. Ukraine must win – and Russia lose – decisively. Russia’s defeat will imply a more sustainable future for Europe and the world, a future without reliance on fossil fuels, and the attendant gratuitous power this grants to autocrats throughout the world.
Russia may yet be a partner for Europe – but before it becomes such, it must face the unspeakable horror of its own colonial and imperial history, deal with the crimes of past and current generations, and experience a moral reckoning analogous to the reckoning Germany underwent after WWII. Any engagement with Russia before such meaningful and comprehensive reckoning is doomed to failure, the cost of which is human life.
Just because something seems unthinkable does not mean it is impossible. A land war in Europe or the collapse of the Soviet Union were unthinkable at certain points in time; shortly afterwards they became possible, and then came to pass. The same is true of Putin’s rule. The free world must think about a future without Putin and prepare for it.
The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations