September 24, 2022

Since the beginning of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the key question has not changed: can Vladimir Putin be defeated at an acceptable cost? Despite everything we now know about Russia’s military incompetence and the courage and skill of Ukrainian forces, the answer is still uncertain.

This leads to an uncomfortable conclusion, one that President Joe Biden showed not a shred of understanding in his speech to the United Nations on Wednesday: planning to end this conflict must weigh outcomes that are disappointing, even embarrassing, against outcomes that are catastrophic.

The idea of ​​going off the ramp for Putin seems abhorrent to many – and now, for good measure, completely unnecessary. Ukraine wins! Why help Russia snatch even a partial victory from the jaws of defeat?

The chorus of “Ukraine must win” never makes clear what defeating Russia really entails. Perhaps this means that Russia was pushed beyond its borders before 2014 and then simply put up with it. Or perhaps Putin’s humiliation caused domestic opposition to explode and he was ousted; his successor is someone the West can do business with; Russia’s claims to superpower status are collapsing; and his demotion to second-level status was acknowledged and accepted.

All good things, of course, and nothing is impossible. But, to put it mildly, these futures are not guaranteed.

As the governments gathered for a UN meeting, Putin announced his intention to extend the war with a “partial mobilization” that would deploy 300,000 more troops in due course. And he underlined his threat to use nuclear weapons: “Russia will use all the instruments at its disposal to counter the threat to its territorial integrity. This is not a bluff.” Soon, that notion of territorial integrity could include areas that Russia currently occupies and intends to annex.

I keep reading that you should be aware of Putin’s nuclear threats, but not afraid of them. Call me a coward, but it’s hard for me to think about Armageddon without cringing a little — and that’s what I ask of my political leaders. If at all possible, it is better to avoid than invite mass death and destruction. Of course, only surrender in the face of such threats would ensure defeat – but one can be rationally intimidated and respond accordingly, without surrender. That should mean mutually assured destruction.

Am I exaggerating the danger? Will Putin not be deterred from using nuclear weapons if he is threatened with a proportionally drastic response? Again, maybe – but what exactly is deterrence? It is hard to imagine how the sanctions could be significantly tightened, not least because they are already causing a lot of damage outside of Russia. Having gone so far as to support Ukraine without putting any of its own forces at risk, can the US credibly threaten (as some advise) to attack Russia in response to a tactical nuclear strike – let alone credibly threaten a nuclear response?

Assuming threats and counter-threats develop in that direction, note the troubling dissonance in much of the analysis of Putin’s calculations. His attack on Ukraine was assessed as not only deplorable, but also reckless. However, he is expected to analyze the pros and cons of “escalation to de-escalation” as prudence requires. What could go wrong?

Ukraine’s extraordinary successes on the battlefield create the possibility of ending the war without exposing itself to these extraordinary risks. What is needed now is a settlement that will allow Putin to achieve a victory that everyone else understands to be a defeat. This could result from negotiations in various forms. But imagine, for starters, a cease-fire that set borders along the current battle lines, with the longer-term outcome ceding some territory to Russia while much of present-day Ukraine was admitted to NATO.

Until recently, Putin would have found this unacceptable. It might not seem so bad now.

Of course, both Ukraine and its most ardent supporters would hate it. Rewarding Russian hostility with territory and keeping Putin in power seems unconscionable. But it was a serious mistake for the US and its friends to defer as much as they have to Ukraine’s assessment of what is at stake and what the risk is. Ukrainian interests and calculations of justified sacrifice are aligned with the interests of the West, but not identical to them.

Most of the world would see the outcome of the negotiations not as Ukraine, but as the salutary defeat of Russia. The suggestion that Putin would simply pause, gather strength, and then resume his wars of expansion in pursuit of a Greater Russia is far-fetched. The course of the war drew the limits of Russian power, tested the patience of its allies, and strengthened the West’s capacity to challenge its actions. A total humiliation of Putin, or his removal from power, is not necessary to drive this home.

Accepting this deeply unsatisfactory result would reduce the risk of a catastrophic wider conflict. That’s a price worth paying.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• If Putin Goes Nuclear, Biden Faces Decision Tree: Andreas Kluth

• Why Putin can’t use fascism’s greatest resource: Leonid Bershidsky

• Biden’s sharp rebuke of Putin was short: Bobby Ghosh

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial team or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering economics. He was previously deputy editor of the Economist magazine and chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times.

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