Give Putin a Way Out of This
A drawn-out war in Europe that grows increasingly brutal each day is not in anyone’s interest—including Moscow’s.
The West’s response so far to Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has been beyond expectations—certainly beyond what the Russian leader had anticipated. This is especially true for Europe, whose transformation into a geopolitical power has happened all at once. Amid Putin’s brutal invasion and the bravery of Ukrainian resistance, what failed to materialize over decades did so in a weekend: upping the ante on sanctions, arming Ukraine through the European Peace Facility, and providing refuge for Ukrainians. The most profound shift has occurred in the EU’s largest member state—Germany—and its energy, fiscal, and security policies.
But now is not a moment for patting ourselves on the back. While better than never at all, collective action is coming late. And mustering this new-found will to act is not the same as acting successfully. The peril facing Ukraine, and the prospect of escalation between NATO and Russia, is more dire than before. Among other things, Putin has already hinted about his nuclear arsenal. It is therefore critical for the West to clarify its strategic goals and next steps.
First, Europe—together with the U.S.—must be clear about the stated objectives of the policies it is pursuing. One pillar of this is about helping Ukraine to defend itself and strengthening Ukraine’s position for negotiations with Russia. This goes hand in hand with military support to weaken Russia’s on-the-ground reality and economic punishment to pressure Moscow to seek compromise. Given Putin's maximalist war aims, this seems unlikely to have an immediate effect. But a drawn-out war in Europe that grows increasingly brutal each day is not in anyone’s interest, including Moscow’s. Ultimately, the aim should be to create political options to end the war through pressure, diplomatic means, and off-ramps.
Another instrument to incentivize Moscow to seek compromise could be to make the newest sanctions, especially the toughest ones—such as on Russia’s central bank—conditional and linked to political aims, such as a ceasefire and a withdrawal of Russian troops. Central bank sanctions are the strongest sword the West has drawn so far—this is the life insurance of the Russian economy. Explaining under which conditions these can be lifted while keeping up the threat of further sanctions on the Central Bank could create political space for maneuver and counter Putin’s narrative of the West’s crusade against Russia. This was also the approach pursued in 2015 when sanctions over Crimea and Eastern Ukraine were linked to Minsk agreements. Obviously Minsk failed, but it kept Russia engaged diplomatically.
Europe and the U.S. should also be careful not to create the impression that it is out to remove Vladimir Putin as its explicit goal. Putin's greatest fear is the deposition of a leader—the fate of Gaddafi looms large in his thinking, together with his own interpretations of the color revolutions. Fears he might meet the same end will reinforce the existential nature of this conflict for him. This has consequences for various escalation scenarios. While there is little anyone can do to alleviate Putin’s paranoia that the West wants to destroy him personally and Russia broadly, providing clearly stated aims of Western policy will also help to influence the opinion among Russian elites and the Russian public. This is particularly important as the cost of dissent and repression will only grow inside Russia if Putin believes protests are not about stopping the war, but a Western attempt to remove him.
European leaders have also stated repeatedly that their actions are directed at the Russian leadership, not the Russian population. But there will be massive collateral economic damage. The messaging from European capitals here about their ultimate target and purpose must be put in no uncertain terms. And it needs to be better at reaching out to Russians. Completely closing airspace prevents not only oligarchs, but also Russian activists and the liberal part of society who want to leave the country out of fear of economic collapse and repression. Instead, there need to be options for those people to leave, without the administrative hurdles of COVID-19 regulations. The decision to ban “Russia Today” is also understandable—but Europe will need to grapple with the fact that countersanctions on Western media in Russia will deprive Russians from few remaining sources of information that aren't curated and censored by the Russian state.
Lastly, Europe and the U.S. need to be constantly vigilant and one step ahead in thinking through Russian counteractions and sanctions, which we still might well underestimate. Especially for Europe, which is quite new to these geopolitical military power games. Putin is not. He has a lot of experience from Syria to Eastern Ukraine, and he acts increasingly reckless. Europe and the U.S. need to move carefully in this strategic environment. Imprudent public messaging—such as Borrell’s statement on potential fighter jets for Ukraine—can do more harm than good. The stakes are extremely high, and this will likely be a long war for Ukraine. Europe and the U.S. need to prepare accordingly. A clear-eyed soberness is the need of the hour.