Russia’s humiliation is unavoidable

French President Emmanuel Macron recently suggested that “We must not humiliate Russia, so that the day when the fighting stops, we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic means.” The intent behind his statement may be noble, but the goal is impossible to achieve. Any genuine peace — one that precludes future wars and guarantees Ukraine’s survival as a democratic state — will necessarily entail some degree of humiliation for Russia.

That’ll be the case even if the West and Ukraine bend over backward to avoid humiliating the Russians and their ruler, Vladimir Putin. That’s because it takes two for humiliation to occur. Whether the West humiliates Russia depends as much, if not more, on how the Russians perceive themselves as it does on what those in the West do or say.

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Many Russians view their country as a God-given superpower with a messianic mission in Ukraine, Eurasia, and ultimately the world. Such a divinely inspired state must expand, because territorial expansion is the precondition of its earthly mission to promote its culture, values and spirit amongst the heathens who have strayed from the one true path by adopting liberalism, promoting libertinism, and supposing that democracy dares to consider itself superior to a dictator’s rule.

The works and speeches of Putin, the fascist philosophers Aleksandr Dugin and Ivan Ilyin, the recently deceased populist rabble-rouser Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the former Russian prime minister and president Dmitry MedvedevPatriarch Kirill, and scores of propagandists, pamphleteers, and dime-novelists all agree on the general outlines of such a worldview, which has become Putin Russia’s legitimating ideology.

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To those who hold such a grandiose self-perception, any defeat, even of the smallest kind, any criticism, however minute, any slight, however picayune, translates into a mortal offense, into an attempt at humiliating God’s divine proxy. Ironically, such hypersensitivity also bespeaks an underlying uncertainty about Russia’s avowed greatness. Tell the French or the Americans that their cultures are inferior, and they’ll dismiss you as harebrained. Tell Russians that you aren’t completely enthralled by their culture, and they’ll be insulted and try to persuade you that you’re wrong.  

This means that any peace predicated on Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty — that is, any peace that involves a Russian withdrawal from at least the territories Moscow seized since the war began on Feb. 24 — will entail some form of Russian defeat and, hence, some form of humiliation.

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Russia will be humiliated regardless of how, and how greatly, Ukraine wins the war. In fact, as scores of Russian commentators make clear, many Russians already feel humiliated — and the war is far from over. They feel that way with good reason. Russia failed to capture Kyiv; it was forced to withdraw from Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy provinces; it proved incapable of seizing Kharkiv; its hold on Kherson province looks shakier by the day; and it has pretty much failed to achieve the much-expected breakthrough in the Donbas.

By any standard, Russia has failed. Ukraine has defeated Russia in many areas. And there is little prospect of Russia’s winning — especially if and when the Ukrainians receive Western heavy weaponry that enables them to launch a counter-offensive in late summer.

Given the profound shame that many Russians already must feel, given the extent of their humiliation, to suggest, as Macron did, that humiliation should be avoided is tantamount to saying that the clock should be turned back to Feb. 23 and the Russian onslaught should not have occurred.

That may be a noble counterfactual thought-experiment, but it’s useless as a guide for policy.

The task before Ukraine and the West is, thus, not how to avoid humiliating Russia but how to reduce the extent and depth of Russia’s humiliation. That can be achieved best by hastening Russia’s defeat.

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The longer it takes for Russia to accept the inevitability of its defeat, the more Russians needlessly die, the more economic hardship the Russians endure, the greater will their humiliation be when the war ends and they realize that all their efforts, all their sacrifices, all their pains were for naught. And, as Macron implies, deeply humiliated countries make for bad partners in peace.

Alternatively, if the Russians lose quickly, the shock and disappointment will be great, but the humiliation will be significantly smaller. Their rulers can put the blame on the dastardly NATO alliance or, conceivably, utilize Russia’s massive propaganda machine to spin defeat into some form of Pyrrhic victory, whereby Holy Russia fought Evil in a noble, if uneven, fight. The resultant peace likely would be durable, since it would guarantee victorious Ukraine’s existence and defeated Russia’s minimal humiliation.

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The only way to avoid any kind of humiliation would be a Russian victory, one that would entail the achievement of all of Putin’s strategic goals: Ukraine’s complete destruction and Russia’s continued expansion into neighboring states in Eurasia. If Macron and his like-minded supporters in the West find that alternative unacceptable, if what they want is a genuine peace, then they have no choice but to support Ukraine militarily and strive for its victory as soon as possible.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”

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