Putin’s Last Stand

Russia’s war in Ukraine was supposed to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crowning achievement and an illustration of how far Russia could go since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. 

The annexation of Ukraine was supposed to be the beginning of a new Russian empire. Putin wanted to show that outside of Western Europe, the United States was a paper tiger and that, along with China, Russia was destined to play a leading role in the new multipolar international order.

However, the Kremlin’s plans collapsed. A close alliance with the United States and Western allies has helped the Ukrainian army hold on and repel Russian invaders. Instead, the Russian army suffered defeats and a lack of organization and strategic thinking. Still, the West will need to prepare for the next phase of Russia’s war because there is little chance that the dictator Putin will change his stance and actions.

The first and least likely option is that Russia concedes defeat by agreeing to a settlement based on Ukraine’s demands. This scenario would require significant changes, as there is no diplomatic communication between Russia, Ukraine, and the West. Ukraine would find it difficult to accept any diplomatic deal less than a complete capitulation by Russia, given the extent of Russian aggression and war crimes.

However, the Russian government—whether under Putin or his successor—could try to hold on to Crimea and use it elsewhere. The Kremlin may argue that it is preparing for the long game in Ukraine to save face at home, keeping the door open to future military incursions. 

Russia could blame its poor performance on NATO, arguing that Russia’s victory hindered Ukraine’s power and the alliance’s arms supply. Hard-liners and imperialists, including Putin himself, must be marginalized for this strategy to succeed within the regime. Although it is difficult, it is not impossible. Nevertheless, this scenario is implausible given Putin’s war strategy, which has been maximalist from the beginning.

Failure to escalate would be the second possible outcome of a Russian defeat. The Kremlin will conduct a campaign of covert sabotage in the countries that support Kyiv and Ukraine itself while trying to expand the conflict in that country nihilistically. 

In the worst case, Russia may attack Ukraine by nuclear means. After that, NATO and Russia would enter into a direct military conflict. Russia is transitioning from a revisionist state to a rogue state, which is already underway, and this will reinforce the West’s conviction that Russia poses a clear and intolerable threat. Crossing the nuclear line could trigger NATO’s conventional involvement in the conflict, hastening Russia’s defeat on the battlefield.

The third scenario is defeat due to regime change, and the key battles will occur on Moscow’s streets or in the Kremlin, not in Ukraine. Putin has tightly centralized power in his hands, and his relentless pursuit of a losing conflict has jeopardized his administration. 

The Russian people can follow their ineffective tzar up to a certain point. While Putin has brought political stability to Russia — a welcome development given the rifts of the post-Soviet era — his subjects may turn against him if the conflict leads to mass deprivation. 

The demise of Putin’s regime could lead to an abrupt end to the war, as Russia would not be able to continue the struggle in the simultaneous internal upheaval. A coup d’état followed by civil war would be similar to what happened after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, which prompted Russia to withdraw from World War I.

The defeat of Russia, no matter how it happens, will undoubtedly be appreciated. Russia’s terror that Ukraine has suffered since the start of the invasion is tremendous and must be punished. This would reinforce the idea that attacking one nation should lead to retaliation. For Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and the West, completely reshaping Europe in its image can provide new prospects. Belarus can find a way to move away from tyranny and move to free and fair elections. 

Following the example of governments in Central and Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine could eventually work together to join the EU and possibly NATO.

Russia’s versions have disintegrated twice in the past 106 years, in 1917 and 1991. Versions of Russia rebuilt themselves twice. The West must seize the opportunity presented by the fall of the Russian imperialist regime to create an environment in Europe that will serve to protect NATO members, allies, and partners. 

The defeat of Russia would create numerous opportunities and temptations. Waiting for defeated Russia to virtually vanish from Europe would be one of these temptations. But a defeated Russia will eventually assert itself and look out for its interests. The West should be prepared politically and intellectually for the defeat of Russia and its comeback.

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