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Russia must be offered a way out

Many in the West are championing a Ukrainian victory but the stakes are too high to subject Putin to a humiliating defeat.

By Robert Colls

Vladimir Putin is right about one thing. Nato is fighting a – call it what you will – proxy war against Russia. In an extremely telling speech in Poland on 25 April, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said they were looking for a Ukrainian victory, and Lloyd Austin, the defense secretary, promised to deliver it. In other words, close to when the UN secretary-general António Guterres was visiting Kyiv talking peace, the Americans were talking war. Someone else talking war that day was the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. “War is war,” he said on Russian state TV, and we all knew he wasn’t kidding; Moscow is not going to accept defeat. 

Andrew Marr in these pages has warned about the possibility of all sides sliding into nuclear conflict but, right from the start of this war, there were other voices emoting for a Ukrainian victory – Volodymyr Zelensky, of course, but also gung-ho news editors and foreign correspondents championing no-fly zones. Then there were the tabloids, and retired brigadiers and former deputy general secretaries, joining in bit by bit, Russian atrocity on Russian atrocity – a victory-for-Ukraine lobby stretching from the German Greens to Capitol Hill to the British Foreign Secretary on manoeuvres. While US and British serving chiefs of staff remain distinctly reticent, heavy weapons are being sent east and one British defence minister, at least, sees them being used inside Russia. 

But what do they mean by a Ukrainian victory? Do they think that the Russian army will crawl away and die? Do they think nationalist Russia will forget its brutal victories over Napoleon and Hitler in order to swallow defeat by Zelensky? Do they see him taking a victory parade in Kyiv? This is all fantasy. Putin will not tolerate defeat in what he sees as his own land and, by promising victory in Ukraine, Nato is in effect calling for a fight to his finish. 

It is possible, of course, that the US is playing an advanced game of double bluff whereby it raises the stakes at one point in order to bring them down at another. Yet for that to be feasible, they must know, or think they know, something the rest of the world does not – special inside intelligence of the sort that has not been evident in recent years. Recall Colin Powell’s UN slide show purporting to prove the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, claims that proved to be incorrect. US intelligence wasn’t any better in Afghanistan last year when any old woman in a Kabul market could have told them that the Taliban were coming because there was no Afghan army to stop them. Its intelligence wasn’t any better earlier this year when it assumed a lightning Russian victory in Kyiv. It might be that the CIA and the Pentagon are grand masters of geo-military strategy, but somehow – looking all the way back to Vietnam – I doubt it.

In any case, this is a game of Russian roulette not chess, and because it could go nuclear, it’s a game you can only get wrong once. Let’s hope the situation room in the White House isn’t thinking of getting it wrong once with us in Europe.

Both Putin and Zelensky find themselves in a war in which nothing but surrender or outright retreat can count as victory, and that isn’t going to happen. In 1965, the American strategic theorist Herman Kahn wrote about the 44 rungs in the ladder of nuclear escalation. They go down as well as up, and Putin has got to be shown a way down. This has nothing to do with moral judgements. War crime commissions will come later. This is about a very edgy present, and how a scabrous little war in one corner of Europe can be prevented from spreading into a great big nuclear catastrophe across the whole continent.  

[See also: Paul Dorfman: Nuclear is already well past its sell-by date]

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In other words, it’s a deal we all need because the stakes could not be higher. But what sort of deal? Because Ukraine remains a sovereign power with military capability that has fought the Russians almost to a standstill – for now – it’s possible to see the contours of a peace in the current situation. From Zelensky’s side, not joining Nato is already a given, but moves to join the EU are already under consideration, as is the promise of Western investment once the war is over (or as the US House speaker Nancy Pelosi puts it, once victory is won). For his part, Putin has changed the face of Europe by taking control of those eastern and southern corridors he considers vital to Russian security.

Russia has been expressing its hostility to Nato’s eastward expansion since at least 1999, and specifically and especially to a Nato expansion that includes Ukraine since 2008. Now that Sweden and Finland have applied to join the alliance, the expansion problem has just got worse. Finland has an 800-mile border with Russia, and the propensity for a clearly incompetent Russian army to accidentally “move on an inch” of Joe Biden’s “Nato territory” just got 800 miles bigger. This disgusting war is down to the Russians, but it’s not as if a “sprawling and aimless” Nato, as Adam Tooze recently wrote, was not warned about the consequences of expansion. Great powers don’t want hostile nuclear alliances on their doorstep.

The more immediate problem concerns Russian occupation of eastern Ukraine. Given the ethnic composition of these border regions, and the dirty little separatist war that has been going on there since 2014, it could be argued that Ukraine is well rid of the hellish confusion and ambiguity they bring. See Sergei Loznitsa’s film Donbass (2018), in which we see a land with no natural boundaries and no established borders struggling to identify the difference between comers and goers, patriots and insurgents. This is the “most demographically damaged state in Europe”, according to David Coleman, professor of demography at Oxford; identifying the ethnic loyalties of a region subjected to Stalinist demographic engineering, involving the death or displacement of more than 20 million people in the last century and more than a quarter of its population in this, is not going to be easy. Any deal would have to involve investigations and plebiscites into national identities, and any refusal to do so could be taken as bad faith. Perhaps the UN Security Council could show some point to its existence and get involved?

Finally, the lifting of sanctions on Russia in exchange for defence guarantees for Ukraine would go hand in hand.

I hope the Ukrainians win. I hope the Russians back down. I hope nobody drops a nuclear bomb. I hope the victory lobby is right and I am wrong. Yet certain objective conditions apply. I think the chances of the Russians losing the war and dropping a bomb are higher than the chances of the Ukrainians winning the war in any meaningful sense. Putin either gives up (unlikely), or, humiliated and trapped, he uses tactical nuclear weapons (God forbid), or the war grinds on and he weaponises the anxiety that he just might use those weapons (possible). Either way, however much land he keeps, or takes, he has lost; and however much land Zelensky keeps, or takes back, the border problem is not going to go away for him or for anybody else in the region.  

Locked as they are, the miserable truth is that neither side can afford to win or lose. As the Kremlin’s former top adviser Sergey Karaganov told the New Statesman, because “Russia cannot afford to lose… we need a kind of victory”. A kind of victory is a phrase the negotiators might bear in mind.

Those who seek victory over Moscow say that the Russians are the perpetrators; that they are the barbarians; that they did it. This is precisely right. They did it. But a way out for everyone must involve a way out for Putin too. In diplomacy, everything is simple, but nothing is easy. And every other option is worse.

[See also: Olaf Scholz will not let Germany slide into a major European war]

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