March 09, 2022

This is How the War Ends

This is How the War Ends

Putin’s war has astonished most all observers in how universally it has rallied the world against a common enemy. Sometimes it takes the majority opposing something to realize that the world has shifted – that something once taken as a given (naked aggression) is now totally unacceptable.

What we see now that we did not even a week ago is that there is no way the Russian military wins in Ukraine short of a pyrrhic scorching of their “brotherly Slav’s” earth. Ukrainians are rightly confident they will win in this struggle, have the overwhelming support of the world’s moral and economic forces behind them, and, even in the unlikely situation the country is fully occupied by ineffectual Russian troops, would conduct an endless, brutal partizan war that would turn Russia into a permanent global pariah.

Whether the Kremlin yet realizes all this we don’t know (but there are inklings), and that will determine how long they keep doubling down on their losing adventure.

That the Russian military will inevitably have to retreat is a given. The only question is when, and how much damage will be done before they do, how many will be asked to die for Putin’s ludicrous eighteenth-century vision.

Meanwhile, those in power need to seek a way to end the war – an offramp – that could be agreed to by Ukraine, Russia, Europe, and the US. It seems a tall order, but really it’s not that hard to envision. Events have narrowed the options.

First, occupying the moral and historical high ground, Ukraine will not accept any division or emasculation of its state. Nor will it now accept a disarmed, neutered future.

Second, Europe and the US, while accepting that now may not be the right time for Ukraine to join NATO, will conclude that EU membership for Ukraine is both important and deserved.

Third, the first two points are as unacceptable to Russia as they were at the outset of this war, and, seemingly to Putin’s surprise, his naked aggression did not warm his Slavic neighbor to closer ties. Yet, as the loser, Russia will have no choice but to accept the outcome.

Indeed, Russia seems to be acting like a domestic abuser who can’t understand why his victim does not want to return home, why she does not understand that his violence shows how much he “cares about” (i.e. “wants to possess and control”) her.

Ukraine is never going to “return home” to Russia, and the police are at the door. Russia can decide to walk away now and seek forgiveness and reform, or escalate the situation and face incrimination and banishment.

The price that Russia will pay for its behavior will only get worse the longer this drags on. It can, as Thomas Friedman wrote, choose to lose fast and small, or slow and big. But choose it must.

Ironically, Putin has long pined for the Soviet Union, saying its collapse was one of the worst events of the twentieth century. Well, be careful what you wish for, because, as a result of this war, Putin has boomeranged Russia into its Soviet past: the currency is approaching worthlessness, the country is economically isolated, the economy is on the brink of collapse, international travel is shut down, and any semblance of a free press and basic civil rights have been eradicated by a resurgent police state.

The thing is, it’s not 1964. Russians have experienced a connected world, a middle class, and a semi-open society. They have vacationed widely in Europe and Asia. They have access to Vonnegut and Scorsese, Springsteen, and the Rolling Stones. For all of Russians' nostalgia for the past, I have not met any who would accept being stuffed back into Soviet skins.

Putin & Co. may not accept it yet, but they have lost their costly gambit. Badly. The question is when and whether Russians will recognize all that they have lost as a result of this war and whether they will know the right people to blame.

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