We Must Make Sure Russia Finishes This War in a Worse Position Than Before

On the grounds inside the Kremlin in Moscow. Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
On the grounds inside the Kremlin in Moscow. Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine 10 weeks ago, Western governments have tirelessly condemned this egregious act and declared their support for Ukraine. But as united as they have been in their outrage, they have been vague about their goals.

This posture has begun to change. Recently, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that America wanted “to see Russia weakened” so that it could not threaten its neighbors again. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss of Britain said that her country would seek “to push Russia out of the whole of Ukraine”. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, declared that “we want Ukraine to win this war”.

But what the West is unclear about is how it wants the war to end. While it has chosen the means to respond to Russia’s aggression — principally, military aid to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia — it has not defined the ends these methods will serve. Instead, Western policy has largely been focused on outcomes it wants to avoid rather than achieve. The first is a Ukrainian defeat that allows Russia to install a puppet regime in Kyiv. The second is Russia’s resort to weapons of mass destruction or expansion of the war beyond Ukraine.

Within these two constraints there are many possible outcomes to the war. But in practice, the choice is simple: Will Russia be better or worse off than when it began this invasion on Feb. 24, 2022? Any outcome that leaves Russia better off than it was before the war would be a victory for the Kremlin — even if this falls far short of its original goal of subordinating all of Ukraine.

The West needs a strategy that guarantees Russia will end up worse off than it was before the invasion. A peace that for the second time since 2014 rewards a Russian invasion with Ukrainian territory would have severe consequences for Ukraine’s future, Western security and credibility, and the norms of sovereignty and nonintervention that underpin the international order.

First, such a peace would vindicate both Russia’s aggression and its horrific abuse of human rights. The Kremlin would manipulate the facts to sell this outcome as a victory to its population. A net territorial and propaganda gain would embolden rather than satisfy it. This not only could pave the way for a third Russian invasion of Ukraine in due course, but also would damage the security and credibility of the West.

Second, a diminished Ukraine would be permanently weakened, especially if Russia consolidates, or worse, extends its control over Ukraine’s coastline. At least one prominent Russian military commander has suggested this is a legitimate strategic objective. This would suffocate Ukraine and give Russia the upper hand in negotiating at least three other issues that will have to be resolved as part of an eventual peace agreement.

One includes Ukraine’s status: Will there be any constraints on its right to join alliances or other international organizations? Another, abductees: How will Ukrainians forcibly moved to Russia be returned? And sanctions: Under what conditions, and how far, will the West ease its economic isolation of Russia? If Russia gains territory, it will be in a stronger position to bargain on all these issues.

Russia may also carry out further atrocities on any new territory it controls. Ukrainians are likely to resist any form of occupation. An end of fighting will not mean an end of violence, but rather the start of further Russian aggression. Occupation is not a recipe for stability.

Finally, Ukraine would only accept further loss of territory after a long and costly fight. Every day of the war in Ukraine is imposing further material damage and civilian deaths, weakening the country further. Yet some European states seem content to watch the two sides slug out an attrition war for months, even years, until they reach mutual exhaustion. To wait for a grueling stalemate to define the contours of a peace settlement is to favor Russia.

To prevent this from happening, the West needs to guarantee that Russia is worse off than it was before the invasion. At a minimum, Western policy should ensure that Russia gains no new Ukrainian territory and continues to face severe sanctions until it fundamentally changes its policy toward Ukraine.

A bold approach to sanctions would be to start with the assumption that Russia should be completely isolated from access to Western economies, and then carve out necessary exceptions, rather than subtract transactions from the status quo. The next steps — notably the phasing-out of Russian oil and then gas imports to Europe — are more costly and difficult than sanctions already imposed. But there is no costless way to address a major security and humanitarian threat to the continent. Further sanctions would be inconvenient for Europe — but disastrous for Russia. The West must prevail in this contest of resolve.

The West should also engage the wider international community in support of this agenda of sovereignty and independence from imperialist aggression. This means not only that Congress should pass the $ 40 billion military support package that President Biden has requested, but also that Europe should follow suit. June marks the 75th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, which revived an exhausted Europe, restored its confidence and helped to contain Soviet power. It would now be fitting for Europe in turn to restore the confidence and security of Ukraine by unambiguously committing to both the restoration of Ukraine’s territory and the reconstruction of its war-torn economy.

Fear of Russian escalation should not constrain the West from taking these steps. Russia’s reckless nuclear talk is designed to play on the West’s fears. But Russia’s saber-rattling reflects its dearth of other options. Since the war has exposed Russia’s weakness in other domains — conventional military force, informational warfare, cyberpower and economic resilience — weapons of mass destruction are now its only claim to geopolitical greatness.

But weakness does not make an irrational threat more credible. The argument that “Russia will use nuclear weapons unless it is allowed to gain from the war” does not deter Ukraine from fighting. It should not deter the West from giving it the means to do so.

The cost of strategic indecision can be high. Failure to clarify goals helped prolong the Bosnian war, Europe’s bloodiest post-World War II European conflict. Jacques Poos, chair of the European Community’s Council of Foreign Ministers, declared in 1991 that “the hour of Europe has come”. Yet the conflict endured for three years and cost nearly 100,000 lives.

The West should not repeat the same mistake.

Nigel Gould-Davies is the senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He was the British ambassador to Belarus from 2007 to 2009 and was the head of the Economic Section at the British Embassy in Moscow.

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