What Happens When We Back Putin Into a Corner

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Every Friday, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

What are your thoughts about the war in Ukraine? What questions do you have? What are your hopes or fears?

Email your answers to conor@theatlantic.com. I’ll publish a selection in Friday’s newsletter.

Conversations of Note

War is ravaging Ukraine.

“There are decades where nothing happens,” Vladimir Lenin purportedly said, “and there are weeks when decades happen.” Throughout the West and beyond, governments are nervously reassessing aspects of the global order that have prevailed since the end of the Cold War, or, in some cases, the end of World War II.  

With Vladimir Putin’s invasion ongoing, provoking fierce Ukrainian resistance, fleeing refugees, and stiff sanctions from Western powers constrained by the threat of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, many wonder: What can we see through the fog of war? And what should we do next?

In the Kyiv Post, Diane Francis spells out the dark future she expects for Ukranians:

The world will now watch, in real-time, the destruction of an innocent, democratic nation, abandoned by the West as a result of 30 years of appeasement and collaboration with Russia by Europeans … Bombs will rain down on beautiful cities, apartment blocks, schools, hospitals, churches, and squares. Footage will once more show European families fleeing, children orphaned, defenseless elderly people, and a culture torn asunder. Casualties could be catastrophic and it’s more likely that 10 million, not 5 million, Ukrainians will flee to Europe, creating a humanitarian disaster lasting years. There is no justification for the invasion, and no excuse for the United States and the United Kingdom to have reneged on defending Ukraine from the Kremlin as promised.

Watching Russian forces slaughter Ukranians is causing some journalists to muse on U.S. intervention. “A massive Russian convoy is abt 30 miles from Kyiv,” NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel tweeted. “The US/NATO could likely destroy it. But that would be direct involvement against Russia and risk, everything. Does the West watch in silence as it rolls?”

Zack Beauchamp writes: “This is a catastrophic idea. Stripped of cant, the US announcing a no-fly zone in Ukraine would be an American declaration of war on Russia—the first major conflict between the two nations that, put together, control 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.” Robby Soave adds at Reason, “The U.S. cannot attack Russia because Congress has yet to declare war on the country … A direct attack on Russian forces by either the U.S. or NATO would be an act of war,” creating “favorable conditions for an all-out nuclear war.”

Glenn Greenwald worries that a reckless escalation is more likely because of “war propaganda.” “Any war propaganda—videos, photos, unverified social media posts—that is designed to tug on Western heartstrings for Ukrainians or appear to cast them as brave and noble resistance fighters, or Russians as barbaric but failing mass murderers, gets mindlessly spread all over without the slightest concern for whether it is true,” he writes. This media, he argues,

provokes a surge in tribalism, jingoism, moral righteousness and emotionalism: all powerful drives embedded through millennia of evolution. The more unity that emerges in support of an overarching moral narrative, the more difficult it becomes for anyone to critically evaluate it … When critical faculties are deliberately turned off based on a belief that absolute moral certainty has been attained, the parts of our brain armed with the capacity of reason are disabled.

Tanner Greer argues that, so far, Western responses to the Russian invasion have been

“natural, proportional, and even predictable”—for example, Western leaders, including Joe Biden, have rejected Ukrainian requests for a no-fly zone—but warns that “failure to slow down and examine the assumptions and motivations behind our choices may lead to decisions that feel right in the moment, but fail to safeguard our interests, secure our values, or reduce the human toll of war in the long run.” He is worried that the West will err in part because of the structure of this conflict:

This rush to act while action is still possible means that all slow paced proceduralism will of necessity be suspended … those in high places will be forced to rely on snap judgements and emotional responses to guide their decisions … Without risk of nuclear escalation NATO’s ability to prevent Ukrainian defeat is limited. This is a humiliating position for the most powerful statesmen in the Western world … Our emotions will demand that we do something if only to prove to ourselves that we still have the capacity to act. This sort of moral resolution is not inherently bad. It is the only wellspring of daring or fortitude. But our daring must accord with the outcomes we desire!

Rod Dreher has similar concerns:

The Russians are bringing in the big guns, and are going to unleash hell on those poor people. It is despicable, and yes, the Russians should be made to pay a price for what they are doing. But keep in mind that the most important thing in front of Western leaders now has to be preventing the war from becoming a world war. Nobody wants to talk about this now, because Russia is behaving evilly in Ukraine, and to reflect on how the world got to this point feels like breaking faith with the suffering Ukrainians. Resist that urge: it’s the same emotivist mistake that people like me made post-9/11, when any questioning of the proposed war on Iraq felt like breaking faith with the 9/11 dead.

Underscoring these concerns and the importance of airing and heeding them, Alex Tabarrok notes that, in the estimation of many subject-area specialists, nuclear war is alarmingly likely, with a small chance of occurrence each year adding up to a high likelihood of it happening in one’s lifetime.

A Courageous Ukrainian Resistance

“Acts of unthinkable bravery by Ukrainian citizens have already ascended into legend across the country,” Christopher Miller, Isobel Koshiw, and Pete Kiehart write at BuzzFeed News, “boosting morale and galvanizing a nationwide resistance.” The heroism of the Ukrainian resistance is a recurring theme in news coverage and analysis, with Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, personifying the nation’s courage. “What reason does he have to doubt that Vladimir Putin will order his murder, as the Russian leader has done with so many of his bravest critics and enemies?” Franklin Foer asks.

Yet Zelensky has stayed to fight, Foer writes:

His willingness to die is testimony to the new Ukraine, which its people are now rallying to protect. The enduring failure of Ukrainian democracy has been the gap between the code of behavior that applies to the elite and the one that the rest of the country must follow … Zelensky has erased this gap. There’s no airlift awaiting his fellow residents, so rather than accepting the perk of his position, he’s suffering in the same terror.

Alexander Motyl wonders if, as in 1776, there is a fortunate match between a national leader and the moment:

The fact that Zelensky is a Russian-speaking Ukrainian Jew is of immense symbolic as well as political importance … Zelensky identifies fully with Ukraine, but this Ukraine is expansive, diverse, tolerant and committed to freedom and democracy. This Ukraine—which Putin obscenely claims has to be de-Nazified—has also been embraced by the vast majority of Ukraine’s inhabitants, regardless of their language preference, religion or ethnic background. Indeed, some of the most striking dispatches from the ongoing war feature Russian-speaking Ukrainians defending their freedoms and cursing Putin … Zelensky may yet stumble and lose his aura. In any case, he will go down in history as a new type of Ukrainian patriot who fought for his homeland’s freedom. And in the end, he may deserve to be considered Ukraine’s George Washington.

David French analyzes why Zelensky inspires so many beyond Ukraine:

It’s not that we’re even experiencing a political class full of ordinary people in extraordinary times, but rather too often it seems as if they’re small people, who shrink even smaller the bigger the moment … In these circumstances it is breathtaking to witness actual courage. It’s even more breathtaking when that courage is both moral and physical. He’s not just speaking against evil, he’s quite literally standing against evil—when evil seems to possess all the power, and virtue feels so weak. And this reminds us of something important about leadership. It’s one thing to say, “I will lead you.” It’s another thing entirely to say, “I am with you,” and to demonstrate it by laying your own life on the line.

But Gordon Corera reminds his BBC audience that arming the Ukrainian resistance (as the United States, Germany, Sweden, and others have discussed doing) might well fail:

In the early parts of the Cold War, efforts by the CIA and MI6 to back resistance in countries behind the Iron Curtain, such as Ukraine, the Baltics and Albania, all ended in abject disaster … An attempt by the US to train groups to fight in Syria in the last decade also failed.

A “support the resistance” strategy could well be bloody and nasty and Russia has the track record of using brutal methods to suppress such activity—as witnessed in Chechnya. That means the costs may be carried by the people of Ukraine as well as Russia.

Cornering Vladimir Putin

In The Spectator, Harry J. Kazianis warns that backing Putin into a corner could result in the use of nuclear weapons:

If both sides can’t come to a deal, Putin may decide to truly go all in against Kyiv, determining that a scorched earth policy and winning at any cost is better than taking weeks or months to take the country in full. The level of carnage we would see would be something akin to images from World War II: bombed-out cities, bodies on the streets, and total carnage everywhere. The world would be horrified—and would demand action against Russia. What would the West do? It’s likely that more weapons would flow into Ukraine on a grand scale, putting more pressure on Putin to respond. More sanctions would then follow, including disconnecting all of Russia’s banks and financial institutions from SWIFT, including entities tied to Russian energy, the lifeblood of Moscow’s economy. At that point, Russia’s way of life, its ability to exist, would be threatened. The Putin regime would be threatened. What, oh, what would Moscow do then? Think “escalate to deescalate”—and that could mean something horrible for all of us.

Citing similar concerns, National Review editorializes that Putin should be given some way to avoid complete humiliation:

There is a danger that Putin—trapped and risking a humiliating defeat—will choose a desperate escalation, threatening the West with nuclear blackmail or saber-rattling on the border of a NATO country. The United States must stand firm and support our allies, but we must also look for ways that might allow Putin to back down while retaining some semblance of face.

The former Trump campaign adviser Steve Cortes worries that the West’s financial sanctions are too harsh and may have unintended consequences:

Here’s the main problem with this weaponization of money: it specifically and immediately targets the Russian people … Regular Russian citizens now find themselves suddenly forced to deal with massive, runaway inflation. Their hard-earned wages become more and more worthless by the hour as their currency collapses as a direct consequence of the concerted efforts of ruling class elites in Washington, New York, London, and Brussels. What will be the fallout of cornering a proud nation of 145 million people in this manner? Putin and his fabulously wealthy connected cronies can handle, at least in the near-term, such historic volatility—but the masses of Russia cannot.

Daniel W. Drezner, an international-relations scholar who has studied sanctions, worries that the current approach is so driven by a desire to punish that its architects are failing to think strategically:

Satisfying as it might feel in the moment, “imposing costs” cannot be an end in itself … Russia has engaged in egregious actions that warrant economic coercion. There are multiple reasons why sanctions are the appropriate policy choice. But whether the goal is to compel Russia into concessions or contain Russia’s capabilities, some thought needs to be given about how the sanctions are supposed to work and the conditions under which they can be lifted. Those thoughts need to be codified and articulated to Russia and the rest of the world. To sound social science-y about it, the sanctioners need to have a theory of the case. Otherwise, all this behavior is just an exercise in maximizing the economic pain of ordinary Russians without any conception of what that will achieve. One thing it could achieve is a Russian populace that embraces the demented imperial ambitions that Putin embodies. Another is to capsize a tottering global economy.

Noah Smith argues that the optimal end to this war is for Russian leadership to simply remove Putin from power, and believes that “we could use economic tools to provide an off-ramp for a post-Putin Russia, in order to encourage a transition of power and a quick and happy ending.”

He writes,

EU leaders and Biden need to announce clearly and repeatedly that if Russian troops pull back from Ukraine, the sanctions will all be quickly dropped. The part about removing Putin from power doesn’t need to be stated; it will be implicit … The rapid progress in solar, wind, and storage technology … mean that the world’s days of dependence on oil and gas are numbered. Russia is in big long-term trouble no matter what it does. This gives the EU and U.S. an additional lever—the promise of a Marshall Plan to help the Russian economy retool. Dropping sanctions will restore Russian oil and gas revenue in the short term, but in the long term Russia needs things like infrastructure investment, FDI in manufacturing industries, trade agreements to facilitate European and American purchases of Russian-made goods, and so on.

The EU and the U.S. can provide all this. We can make numerical guarantees and specify sectors—railroads, roads, aerospace, IT, whatever. (In fact, this is probably what we should have done in the 90s, instead of “shock therapy” privatization … but here I digress). This is something Russia can’t really get anywhere else—even China.

The Shifting International Scene

The National Review writer Michael Brendan Dougherty marvels that many once-neutral countries are taking sides in this conflict, noting that even Switzerland has come out against Russia.

Even as Americans are analyzing and criticizing bygone U.S. foreign-policy decisions in light of the invasion, a parallel reckoning is happening in Germany. Spiegel International’s headline summed up its self-critical assessment of events: “The Calamitous Errors of Germany’s Russia Policy.” Spiegel emphasized striking post–Cold War drawdowns in the size of the German military. “As recently as 1989, the Bundeswehr still had more than 5,000 battle tanks in its inventory; today, it has fewer than 300,” the news organization reported. “During the same period, the number of soldiers fell from almost 500,000 to well below 200,000. The country dropped its previous practice of compulsory military service and a lot of money was saved.”

As striking were quotes from German military leaders, starting with Lieutenant General Alfons Mais:

“I would not have believed in my 41st year of service in peace that I would have to experience another war,” Mais, who is the head of the Army, wrote on LinkedIn. “And the Bundeswehr, the army that I have the honor of leading, is more or less empty-handed. The options we can offer policymakers to support the Alliance are extremely limited.”

Generals usually only express themselves that openly once their careers come to an end. Mais, though, went even further: “We all saw it coming and were not able to get our arguments through, to draw the conclusions from the Crimean annexation and implement them.” His former boss sounded even more upset. “I am so angry at us for our historic failure,” tweeted former Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer of the CDU. “After Georgia, Crimea and Donbas,” nothing had been prepared “that would have really deterred Putin.”

Now, “the German government has done an about-face and will even send weapons to Ukraine,” Anne Applebaum remarks. “More incredibly, this 180-degree turn has the support of an astonishing 78 percent of the German public, who now say they support much higher military spending and will gladly pay for it.” As she sees it, “Germans have understood that the lesson of their history is not that Germany must remain forever pacifist. The lesson is that Germany must defend democracy and fight the modern version of fascism in Europe when it emerges.”

Noah Barkin has more on German politics.

In Israel, the fate of Ukraine’s Jews is one focus of coverage. According to a report by The Jerusalem Post’s Zvika Klein, “the government estimates that 10,000 Ukrainians will emigrate to Israel in the coming weeks, out of the 200,000 Ukrainians eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.” Several factors complicate the question of how any exodus will unfold, the Post editorialized:

As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has banned men between 18 and 60 from leaving Ukraine … Israel needs to focus on rescuing the elderly and the young. This should include plans to help Righteous Gentiles and their families who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews during the Nazi occupation, and the hundreds of orphaned or semi-orphaned children being cared for by Chabad and other Jewish organizations.

… A mass aliyah from Ukraine at this juncture could play into the hands of the antisemitic trope of dual loyalty. It is worth noting that Zelensky himself is Jewish, but has acted as a role model by determining to stay in Ukraine rather than to flee and set up a government in exile.

At War on the Rocks, Selim Koru warns against assuming that Turkey shares the same interests as its NATO allies:

Turkey’s founding fathers defeated Western forces in battle in order to build a republic that held up Western modernity as a model. The current government, which can trace its roots to the radical right-wing dissenters from this tradition, seeks to do the reverse. They see the West as an anti-model: a rival to be mirrored, and eventually to be beaten at its own game. Nothing about Russian success in Ukraine would reverse this. Rather, Putin’s triumph would have exciting implications for some at the presidential palace in Ankara. It would tell the Turkish right that they are on the cusp of a new era in global politics.

And Peter Singer praises antiwar Russians while calling on Russian troops to disobey their orders:

Dmitry Muratov, the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner and editor of Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s last remaining independent newspapers, posted a video in which he called for Russians to rise up, saying that: “Only the anti-war movement of Russians can save life on this planet.” Yelena Kovalskaya, director of the state-run Meyerhold Theatre Center, resigned in protest against the attack on Ukraine, saying, “It is impossible to work for a murderer and receive a salary from him.” More than 150 scientists and science journalists signed a letter, published on a Russian science website, lamenting that Russia has condemned itself to isolation and the status of a rogue state.

What is also needed now is for Russian soldiers in Ukraine to stop fighting an unjust war … Intentionally killing people without sufficient cause is murder, and that is what Russian soldiers will be doing if they obey orders to target Ukrainians with lethal weapons. Obeying orders is no excuse, just as it was no excuse for those under Hitler’s command.

And When the Dust Settles?

George Packer posits that one lesson of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that America has deep interests there––and anywhere else the world’s enemies of democracy wage war on the democratic sphere:

The West’s yearslong underestimation of Putin’s intentions and the stakes in Ukraine showed a failure of understanding and a weakening of liberal values. Now Putin, along with his patron and enabler, Xi Jinping of China, has pushed into American and European faces a truth we didn’t want to see: that our core interests lie in the defense of those values. To be realist in our age is not to define American interests so narrowly that Ukraine becomes disposable but to understand that the world has broken up into democratic and autocratic spheres; that this division shapes everything from supply chains and competition for resources to state corruption and the influence of technology on human minds and societies; that the autocrats have gained the upper hand and know it.

Matt Yglesias still thinks President Barack Obama was correct about the need for American foreign policy to “pivot to Asia”:

My biggest critique of Obama’s foreign policy is that he wasn’t sufficiently forceful in executing the pivot … conceptually, he was right all along, and the idea that we should have gone all-in on anti-Russian foreign policy 10 years ago doesn’t make sense. Of course today, after the seizure of Crimea, the 2016 election hacking, and now the renewed invasion of Ukraine, it makes more sense—especially because now we have European partners who are working with us. But the basic question of priorities remains. And I think the stark reality is that China is a more formidable adversary and America’s democratic friends in Asia objectively need support more than our European allies. All of this means that while “the West” in some sense does need a sustained focus on Russia-related threats, the United States really should find a way to offload this responsibility primarily to Europe, with us remaining helpful but with a lighter touch.

Christopher Roach wants the United States to mostly withdraw from Russia’s sphere of influence:

Europe, lacking natural borders and frontiers, has long been the realm of balance-of-power politics and frequent wars. This is why George Washington counseled us to stay out of its squabbles, as we were protected by two oceans. We later acquired the additional advantage of a nuclear umbrella. When the Soviet Union threatened domination of the entire European continent and also the globe, NATO and our involvement made sense, just as our involvement made sense earlier when Hitler similarly threatened to become a continental hegemon. In contrast, right now, Russia is merely threatening to dominate its near-abroad and is taking sides in a war of secession.

… America should reduce its role in NATO for everyone’s benefit, as this would encourage Europe to do more to stand up for its own security. Given that Europe is far more affected by Russia’s relative power than we are, this makes sense. We only remain in NATO and have involved ourselves in the current Ukraine mess because of our quixotic goal of remaining the sole superpower, which is rather ironically making us weaker.

In contrast, Eric Edelman and Daniel Fata urge NATO to use the newfound unity of its members to take a hard line against Russia and consider expanding the alliance’s membership:

In June, Spain will host a NATO Summit that will unveil the latest version of … a document that is meant to guide NATO’s ambitions for a decade … The Alliance needs to affirm that Russia is without question the biggest threat to stability and security in Europe … NATO should also reaffirm its open door to those nations that meet its established criteria … countries such as Sweden and Finland, now the subject of explicit threats … Some will argue that, by proffering theoretical future membership, NATO is setting these nations up to be attacked … But retreating from the open door policy because of Putin’s actions in Ukraine only rewards his naked aggression and dashes the hopes of millions who want to be part of the greater transatlantic community.

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