When Putin invaded Ukraine, he believed occupying Kyiv, toppling the Zelensky government and replacing it with a friendly regime, would be accomplished quickly. Of course, Putin knows what the world knows. The war has been an unmitigated disaster for Russia. Poor planning and dubious military strategy, insufficient boots on the ground, substandard performance of military equipment and inadequate munitions, contributed to Russia’s woes on the battlefield.
But the essential story involves the grit and determination of the Ukrainian people to defend their country. Certainly, a massive amount of western military aid was important to Ukraine’s defense. But consider how the Afghan army, armed and trained for a generation by the US, proved incapable of defending the country from Taliban forces.
Given Russia’s poor performance on the battlefield, Putin reframed his military offensive as a tenacious defense of the motherland. Satanic Western forces are out to destroy Russia. And Putin has warned he will use every weapon to rebuff this existential threat to Russian security. These are unsettling words from the leader of a country with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. At no time during the Cuban missile crisis did Russia threaten to use nuclear weapons.
Putin’s nuclear saber rattling is being taken very seriously. But how are we to understand it? What prompts Putin to make this threat? We would be wrong to conjure images of Richard Nixon’s “crazy man” strategy, that Putin is trying to “out crazy” the west, as one commentator put it. He is not crazy, nor is he trying to sound like someone who is.
Let’s take a step back. Putin referred to the dissolution of the Soviet Union as one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. He is the ultimate Russian patriot who experienced this as a personal humiliation as well as a national catastrophe. Over time, he defined his political and historical ambition to repair Russia’s national psyche by avenging Russian humiliation and restoring the country to its rightful preeminent place on the world stage.
We must keep in mind there are several important sources of Russia’s humiliation. A military defeat in Afghanistan, the dissolution of the Soviet empire, and the loss of the cold war. And perhaps the most insidious humiliation involves how their erstwhile Chinese communist comrades engineered the greatest capitalist transformation over the last forty years, while the Russian economy remained stagnant and dependent on the extraction of minerals and oil.
Putin fashions himself to be a cross between Peter the Great and Henry Kissinger. But the self-proclaimed savior of Russia’s national pride and dignity, engineered a disastrous military campaign that turned Russia into a pariah state. A leader whose mission was to alleviate national disgrace exposed his country to greater scorn. This is intolerable and unacceptable to Putin.
Putin will do everything in his power to stave off this outcome. This is not the reasoning of a madman. It is the reasoning of someone who realizes he exposed his beloved Russia to global ridicule and disdain. Putin knows what the world knows: that he failed abysmally in Ukraine. And he accepts full and sole responsibility for the national humiliation that comes with Russia’s poor military performance. Of course, he will consider any means possible to remedy the situation, to avoid any further military and political damage, including the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons. Using nuclear weapons in Ukraine is not unthinkable. Sustaining a military defeat in Ukraine and feeling personally responsible for heaping greater humiliation upon Russia, remains unthinkable for him.
What is to be done? We are dealing with an extreme nationalist leader who realizes he caused his country to suffer further humiliation. The diplomatic challenge here is to engineer an acceptable diplomatic offramp for Putin to save face in a way that will also be palatable to Ukraine. This is not about appeasement. This is not about placating a war criminal. This is about making it possible for Putin to stand down in Ukraine. Ukraine and the West must be able to offer something of value to Putin that will allow him to say to himself and the Russian people, “mission accomplished”.
What could this be? First and foremost, diplomatic pressure must be applied to Ukraine to renounce any desire to join NATO. The timing is awkward, given Zelensky’s recent announcement to petition NATO to fast-track Ukraine’s membership. But Ukraine must relinquish this ambition. Further, Ukraine must proclaim its political and military neutrality a la Finland during the cold war. But one might ask, what about Ukraine’s future security needs? Given the tenacity of Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression, there should be no doubt about Ukraine’s resolve to protect itself. Russia is not likely to invade Ukraine ever again.
Next, it is extremely unlikely Ukraine will expel all Russian troops from Ukrainian soil. Prior to the invasion, there were regions in eastern Ukraine that appeared to favor reunification with Russia. A condition of any peace settlement should be an agreement to hold binding internationally administered referendums to determine if any regions of Ukraine prefer annexation to Russia.
Like all Soviet leaders before him, Putin feared being encircled by hostile powers. Over the course of years, Putin voiced persistent concern about NATO expansion eastward. Ukraine’s declaration of neutrality would go a long way to addressing Putin’s fear. Removing any prospect of Ukraine joining NATO and securing a legal means to potentially annex some territory in eastern Ukraine could be enough to declare a ceasefire and bring Putin to the negotiating table. And the promise of resumed access to some $300 billion in foreign currency reserves, currently frozen in the west, could be an additional powerful incentive to entice Putin to negotiate.
Would all of this be acceptable to Ukraine? Clearly, they defied the odds and resisted Russian aggression on their soil. Would a declaration of neutrality and the possibility of ceding some territory in the east be too hefty a price to pay for peace? That is something Ukraine would have to decide for itself. But agreeing to these conditions would give them an opportunity to end this dreadful war and to direct their national attention towards the urgent task of rebuilding their gravely damaged country.
Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano