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Now is Not The Time to Let Putin Save Face
Why the West needs to keep supporting Ukraine.
Over five months into Russia’s war in Ukraine, questions about the extent to which the West should continue to give Ukraine military support are growing more urgent. On the one hand, some people argue that we are reaching the limit of our ability to help. Western weapons supplies may be running low. Domestic problems such as runaway inflation in the United States and likely energy shortages in Western Europe may dampen public support for aid to a foreign country. What’s more, Russia, some say, may be inexorably winning the war—or at least attaining its objective of bringing parts of Ukraine under its dominance while reducing the rest to a failed rump state.
But since the beginning, the dominant narrative about this conflict has repeatedly swung back and forth between “Ukraine is beating Russia against all odds” and “Ukraine is doomed.” When Russia first attacked on February 24, many in the West believed that Ukraine would be promptly crushed. In March, after reports of Russian failures and Ukrainian successes, the prevailing view shifted: Russia’s invading force was now seen as hobbled by a variety of factors, from outdated methods of warfare to retrograde technology to demoralized soldiers, while Ukraine’s more modernized and motivated defense force came to be seen as a nimble David routing Goliath. Since June, it’s been something of a seesaw of mixed news and mixed signals: Russia scored a big win with the fall of Severodonetsk, the last major city in the eastern Luhansk region under Ukrainian control; but now Ukraine is launching an offensive to recapture the occupied city of Kherson and new deliveries of Western weapons are expected.
One thing is clear: the war will not be over soon and may, in fact, turn into a long slog— “positional and protracted” warfare, in the words of dissident Russian historian Boris Sokolov, i.e., conducted along permanent fortified front lines comparable to the Korean War in 1951-1953. But for the West to back down in the face of a prolonged and unpredictable conflict, and to press Ukraine for concessions that could give Putin a face-saving exit—as some argue—would be a serious mistake.
First, Ukrainians reject any deal that involves territorial concessions by a truly overwhelming margin. In a poll conducted in late June (covering the entire territory of Ukraine except for Crimea and the separatist-occupied areas in the East), nearly 90 percent said they would oppose a settlement that involves ceding any of the land seized by Russia after February 24. Only slightly fewer—about 80 percent—also reject a deal in which Ukraine permanently cedes the lands seized by Russia before February 24 (Crimea and parts of the Donbas). A population seething with anger at a rightly perceived betrayal would hardly be conducive to an effective peace deal if the West withdrew military support—especially since, in such a situation, Russia would be in a position to press for maximum concessions.
Second, any negotiations with Russia would be made more complicated by the fact that, to put it bluntly, the Russian side cannot be trusted to keep its promises. In late 2014 and early 2015, after Russia’s first invasion, Russia and Ukraine signed the Minsk Agreements intended to implement a ceasefire. As American diplomat Kurt Volker demonstrates in an article posted last December, Russia and its separatist proxies in Eastern Ukraine have repeatedly flouted those agreements—among other things, by rejecting neutral peacekeeping and blocking oversight by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. More recently, on July 23, Russia fired missiles at the Black Sea port of Odessa a day after Moscow and Kyiv reached an agreement to unblock the port and allow tons of Ukrainian grain to be shipped in order to avoid a global food crisis.
Third, let us not forget that ceding territory to Russia means condemning tens or hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian men, women and children to an occupation marked not only by physical brutality, but by a deliberate effort to wipe out independent Ukrainian culture. The Moscow-controlled separatist enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk formed in 2014 were violently repressive statelets where abductions, torture, ad hoc trials, and summary executions were the norm. Last week’s reports of escalating atrocities show that the same pattern persists today in Ukrainian territories under Russian occupation.
Fourth, claims that Ukraine is losing the war for Western hearts and minds are as premature as claims that it’s losing the war on the frontlines. Public support for aid to Ukraine remains high in the United States, despite domestic anxieties about inflation and President Biden’s low approval ratings. Europeans are somewhat more ambivalent, with a plurality (35 percent) in a recent study saying that they would prefer for the war to end as soon as possible even at the cost of Ukraine ceding some territories to Russia, while only 22 percent opting for punishing Russian aggression. Even so, they strongly backed continuing military and economic aid, and many approved of sending troops. The study’s authors noted that there is a large “swing vote” on the issue and that Ukrainian military successes would likely shift that portion of the public toward a more hardline stance.
By contrast, support for the war among the Russian public is probably far more tepid than some high poll numbers suggest. Sociologist Grigory Yudin has pointed out that Russians tend to regard polls as a form of monitoring by the state and often give acceptable answers, a tendency especially pronounced in today’s climate in which dissent is equated with treason. Young adults are especially skeptical, a fact that may explain the Kremlin’s reluctance to announce universal mobilization. “Support for war in Russia is high enough to continue it, but not high enough to win it,” Victor Davidoff, an editor at the independent Russian magazine New Times, told me in an email interview last week.
Fifth, support in Russia may wane further if, as many analysts believe, the optimistic assessments of Russia’s economic resilience turn out to be wrong. A report from the Yale School of Management concludes that “Not only have sanctions and the business retreat worked, they have thoroughly crippled the Russian economy at every level,” so that “Russian domestic production has come to a complete standstill with no capacity to replace lost businesses, products and talent.” The effects of the economic crisis on morale are likely to be exacerbated by Russia’s international isolation post-February 24, which remains stark despite overtures to countries like Iran. Even erstwhile close allies like Kazakhstan are growing more distant.
Finally, backing Ukraine’s self-defense is ultimately in the West’s interest. Ukraine’s European—and pro-American—aspirations are closely linked to a commitment to the liberal order that is now embattled in the West itself. A world with more liberal democracies is a safer and better world than one with more autocratic regimes and their puppet states. While democracy-building abroad can be a dangerous quest, there is a much stronger case for helping a democracy under attack defend itself. Conversely, allowing aggression to be rewarded creates a dangerous precedent—one that China, for example, is very likely to heed with regard to Taiwan. Today, it may seem that an exhausted Russia is unlikely to embark on new military adventures if it gets out of the Ukrainian quagmire with some face-saving gains. But the Kremlin’s escalating imperialist rhetoric must be taken seriously.
It’s hard to predict what the endgame for a Ukrainian victory would look like. It is not necessarily a cheery scenario: we should not underestimate the dangers a damaged Putin regime could pose. But every other option is worse, both for Ukraine and for the free world.
Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason.