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Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering economics, finance and politics.
What should the U.S. and Europe be trying to achieve in Ukraine? It’s clear enough what they would like to happen. They’d like Ukraine to crush Russia’s forces, the West’s sanctions to cripple Russia’s economy, and Vladimir Putin to fail so obviously and completely that he gets driven from power.
The idea that Ukraine can defeat Putin’s army is a lot more plausible than it was three weeks ago. Even so, given the enormous imbalance of military resources and Putin’s proven ruthlessness, it remains unlikely.
Ukraine’s resistance has been remarkably brave and skillful. The incompetence of the Russian military has been almost as surprising. Ukraine’s fighters, it seems, might be capable of not just blocking Russia’s advances but reversing them. All they need, it’s argued, is more and better weapons, together with ever stronger sanctions on Putin’s regime.
Keep in mind, however, that this is a bet on Putin’s capacity for restraint — and the odds aren’t favorable. Forced to choose between overt defeat and further escalation, the record suggests he’ll pick the latter. The death of innocents doesn’t trouble him, as his conduct in Ukraine (and Syria and Chechnya) makes clear. He has the means to escalate, not just with conventional bombardment of Ukraine’s cities but with chemical and nuclear weapons. If he feels he has nothing left to lose, then gambling on resurrection, even at the risk of destroying everything around him, might be his preferred exit.
Escalation might not lead all the way to nuclear war — an outcome more thinkable now than it has been for decades — but it would certainly mean more death and destruction in Ukraine. This makes aiming for Putin’s outright defeat very dangerous. The immediate goal should be to pause the conflict by allowing Putin something he can call success. Punishing and subsequently defeating him is vital — but that should be a longer-term project, best not pursued over more dead bodies in Ukraine.
The fact that the war has gone badly for Putin makes a cease-fire and temporary settlement possible. The main components could be as follows. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government remains in place. Ukraine agrees with NATO that it won’t join the Atlantic alliance. (Zelenskyy has said he’s willing to accept this.) Russia withdraws from the north, but its gains in the east and south of Ukraine are frozen, their status to be determined in due course. A security conference of NATO, Ukraine and Russia devises guarantees of Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty. The West starts to roll back its sanctions.
All these components involve complications, but something along these lines seems feasible. It would be a fragile and unjust peace — as many such settlements are — and much less than a “win” for Ukraine. Putin could call it vindication, which is precisely why he might go for it. But, in the short term, it would leave the West and (especially) Ukraine better off than they would be under the most plausible alternative: further escalation. The allies should be working toward this short-term goal.
Beyond the short term, the calculation changes. Even if Putin is allowed to deny it, he has been humiliated by Ukraine’s resistance and his army’s poor performance, and this will serve as one check on his future actions. Nonetheless, the accommodation needed to stop the war would weaken NATO if nothing further happened. The West will have flinched under duress. (Indeed it already has by failing to provide direct military support. To avoid greater harm, it believed it had no choice.) Looking farther ahead, recognizing this setback and repairing the damage would demand a fundamental rethink of the allies’ approach to Russia.
Business as usual should be off the table for as long as Putin or somebody like him is in charge, and regardless of whether a temporary peace in Ukraine holds. The allies should strengthen their eastern members — not loudly to make a point, but resolutely, as though a wider war could actually happen, as indeed it could. (NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg announced the deployment of new battle groups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia last week — a start, at least.) Defense spending and planning need to be comprehensively re-examined in this brutal new light.
Relying on Russia for energy or anything else should be out of the question. (Again, the U.S. and Europe have taken a first small step by boosting American supplies of gas, but there’s much more to do.) Removal of some sanctions would be part of the short-term deal, but not with a view to eventually restoring normal trade relations. The longer-term policy should be Cold War 2, with no more illusions about drawing Putin’s Russia into an amicable partnership of any kind.
Settling this score and containing Putin’s criminality is the work of many years. Starting from here, given the mistakes already made and the allies’ reluctance to broaden the conflict, victory for Ukraine is a reckless ambition. Better to help Putin step back — then, in the fullness of time, make him repent.