Vladimir Putin’s history makes it hard to imagine a peace agreement in which an independent Ukraine continues to exist.
Consider the obstacles: Putin views Ukraine as a natural part of greater Russia. To control it, he has at his disposal a military vastly stronger than Ukraine’s. He has also demonstrated — in Chechnya and Syria — that he will kill large numbers of civilians to achieve his aims. In Ukraine, Putin seems willing to spend months if not years fighting a brutal war over a place that matters more to him than to the rest of the world.
But if it is hard to imagine his accepting some version of defeat, it is not impossible. It would probably involve his deciding that the war was becoming too costly — that it threatened the rest of his priorities and perhaps even his position as Russia’s authoritarian leader.
This kind of cost is exactly what the U.S., E.U., Britain and Ukraine’s other allies are trying to impose on Putin. How might they plausibly succeed? Today’s newsletter considers that question, through four main points.
Putin “probably wants all of Ukraine,” Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution has written. “Then again, he may now be appreciating the huge costs he will pay for any such conquest, and be open to settling for lesser objectives.”
1. The goal
Putin has been a destructive force in the world for much of his two decades in power. He annexed the Crimean peninsula and abused Chechnya and Syria. He has used his power to enrich himself. His regime has murdered journalists, human-rights activists and political opponents. In the U.S. and Europe, Putin has used misinformation to influence elections.
For all these reasons, many U.S. and European officials would like to see Putin forced from power. But ending the war in Ukraine — and allowing Ukraine to survive as a nation — does not require regime change in Russia. And if Putin’s ouster is the goal, the chances of success become even smaller.
“There’s loose talk by people now about, well, this will only end if Putin disappears,” Fiona Hill, the Russia expert and former White House official, told our colleague Ezra Klein. “This just feeds into this mentality that Russia is always under siege, its leaders are always under siege, people always want regime change in Russia.”
Putin might at some point be willing to give up Ukraine. He probably will not be willing to give up Russia.
Historically, economic sanctions have often failed to change the behavior of the country that they targeted. But they have not always failed. In the 20th century, sanctions achieved at least part of their aim about one-third of the time, according to Nicholas Mulder, a Cornell University historian. One key is connecting them to clearly defined goals.
The sanctions on Russia are some of the most aggressive ever levied, with the potential to stoke public unhappiness. Russian banks will have a harder time lending money. Russian companies will struggle to import some goods and technologies. Russian consumers will no longer be able to use Mastercard or Visa, buy Coke or Pepsi and shop at McDonald’s, Starbucks or Uniqlo. The ruble has fallen in value, raising the cost of many items.
Crucially, the U.S. and its allies are going after Russian oligarchs with a new seriousness. The measures imposed after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 proved to be ineffectual, as our colleagues Matt Apuzzo and Jane Bradley explain in a new investigative story. “But just as 9/11 forced world leaders to get serious about terrorist money,” Matt and Jane write, “the recent invasion of Ukraine could be a turning point on tackling illicit Russian wealth.”
The oligarchs are among the few Russians who might have some sway over Putin. “We know that Putin relies on people close to him to hide his money,” Tom Keatinge, a financial crime expert, told The Times.
Western Europe and the U.S. have been unwilling to send troops to Ukraine. In part, Western leaders are worried about setting off a larger war, even a nuclear one. In part, the leaders have decided that Ukraine is not worth the deaths of their own citizens (even if they won’t quite say so). Polls suggest that the American public, at least, agrees.
But military help for Ukraine is not simply a yes-or-no question. The U.S. and other countries have already sent weapons and equipment. When Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, speaks to the U.S. Congress by video today, he may ask for fighter jets. (Here’s The Morning’s recent profile of Zelensky.)
The White House announced yesterday that President Biden would attend an impromptu NATO meeting next week in Brussels, where leaders are likely to discuss both economic sanctions on Russia and weapons assistance for Ukraine. Biden is also planning to announce an additional $800 million in military aid to Ukraine.
4. A deal’s framework
Some peace deals would probably be unacceptable to Ukraine — say, a rump state in the western part of the country that does not include Kyiv. Other potential deals are more plausible.
Thomas Friedman, the Times columnist, has laid out the outlines of a possible deal in which Russia acquires a portion of eastern Ukraine where fighting has been going on for years; Ukraine promises not to join NATO (as Zelensky has already hinted); and Russia pays compensation for the damage it has done.
None of this looks likely right now. Russia continues to bombard civilian areas and claims it now controls the entire Kherson region, bordering Crimea in southern Ukraine. But unlikely is not the same thing as impossible. Ukraine’s demise would be so damaging — both for Ukrainians and for the state of democracy — that its allies have good reason to search for alternatives.
A less pessimistic view: “Russia is heading for an outright defeat in Ukraine,” Francis Fukuyama writes in American Purpose. “The army in the field will reach a point where it can neither be supplied nor withdrawn, and morale will vaporize.”
State of the War
The world’s top architect
Growing up as the son of farmers in Burkina Faso, Francis Kéré went to school in classrooms so hot that they made him dream of building cooler buildings.
Kéré eventually won a scholarship to a vocational school for carpentry in Germany, before attending architecture school in Berlin. He then fulfilled his childhood dream by building an elementary school in his hometown, Gando. With an overhanging roof, it stayed cooler and lighter than most local buildings and allowed the school to expand to 700 students, from 120.
Yesterday, Kéré received the most prestigious prize in architecture, the Pritzker Prize. His work spans buildings across West Africa as well as a technology campus in Kenya, a pavilion in Montana and 12 colorful towers for the 2019 Coachella Festival.
Reached by telephone, Kéré told our colleague Robin Pogrebin that he cried when he heard he had won. “I’ve been pushing this work in architecture to bring good quality architecture to my people,” he said.