Russian President Vladimir Putin has always been eager to share an instructive story from his childhood, about how, when he was growing up in poverty in Soviet Leningrad, he used to spend his days chasing rats. And how he once cornered a big rat. With no way out, the rat launched itself at him and bit his face. The threat implied in Putin’s reminiscence: Don’t ever corner a rat.
Pursuing Putin’s “strategic defeat” is now the dominant doctrine in the Western camp. In the US, doves and hawks have converged on the conclusion that there is a way for Ukraine to resist Russia and minimize its loss of territory, because the beleaguered nation has time on its side. But for this to happen, both the war and the supply of the heavy and state-of-the-art weaponry requested by Ukraine – whose Zelenskyy administration is determined to continue to resist – must continue.
Putin’s “strategic defeat” does not mean “regime change” – that’s a job for the Russian people, not the West. What it does mean is weakening Russia militarily and economically, so it cannot pose a military threat in the future. The 46.6 billion dollars of US military aid assigned to Ukraine to date (which does not include European aid) already represents two-thirds of Russia’s annual defense budget. The Russian economy is facing a double-digit contraction rate this year, and the further extension of the war would bring it to the brink of economic collapse. So there is a realistic way for this scenario to come about.
The desire to see Putin strategically defeated is shared by the majority of European countries, especially if it leads to an exhausted Russia coming to the negotiating table with reduced claims on Ukraine. But behind this shared aspiration, the EU is divided on the desired duration of the war. The countries of “old” Europe tend to favor a quicker end to the military operations in Ukraine (peace, but not at any cost), even though they continue to arm the Ukrainians and escalate sanctions. Poland, the Baltics and the North, on the other hand, see the prolongation of the war in Ukraine as the main precondition for neutralizing the Russian threat, and thus preventing Putin from expanding his aggression to other neighboring countries in the future, starting with Moldova.
Ivan Krastev summed up the dilemma as a conflict between the “justice party” and the “peace party.” Justice demands the defeat of the barbarian invader, but this may require a long and perilous war. Peace cannot be dishonorable and unjust; it must not vindicate the aggressor.
No one can argue that the legitimate pursuit of Putin’s “strategic defeat” does not pose considerable risks for Europe. “Europe is in danger,” Josep Borrell said in a recent speech, but Putin isn’t the only danger confronting Europe. There are also the recession and the rising cost of living, consequences which a long war would exacerbate further, succoring Europe’s nationalist and populist camps – the pro-Putin forces that would like to break up Europe, and which we saw loom into the foreground during the French elections. France and Germany, the “old Europeans,” are well aware of the danger and are treading carefully as a result.
There is also the risk of escalation with weapons of mass destruction, and of Russia extending its attacks to NATO, at minimum in the form of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. The more that Russia’s conventional arsenal is destroyed, the higher the chance it will use weapons of mass destruction, so prolonging the war increases the risk of its escalating out of control. Margaret MacMillan, the World War I historian (“The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War”), shows that “at times of heightened tension, accidents can set off explosions like a spark in a powder keg, especially if countries in those moments of crisis lack wise and capable leadership.” History is full of examples of collectively disastrous outcomes that none of the opposing sides sought or managed to prevent.
Wars are too complex to be left to the moralists, the hawks, or the “peace at any cost” brigade. And we must always make sure to leave a way out. Otherwise, the cornered rat may make the leap of despair.
George Pagoulatos is a professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business, and director general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).