It has been barely a week since President Vladimir Putin of Russia launched an unprovoked, unwarranted war of choice against Ukraine, and already it has turned out to be a bad choice. He finds himself in the unexpected and uncomfortable position of having to double down or face what could be defeat.
It turns out the isolated Putin is something of a serial under-estimator of others. In light of American political divisions that he himself helped stoke, paired with an ignominious US withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, Putin appears to have judged the Biden administration would be unable and unwilling to respond effectively to either his threat to invade Ukraine or an actual invasion. Instead, the United States made Putin’s plans public, shared intelligence with its allies and partners, and built a powerful coalition to respond to Russian aggression. It shipped significant military hardware to Ukraine, organized and implemented unprecedented multilateral sanctions that are badly hurting Russia’s economy, and strengthened NATO.
Germany, long the weak link in the transatlantic alliance, has reinvented itself. While Putin might have been betting an untested German leadership would be unwilling to stand up for Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has responded admirably. Germany has suspended the Nord Stream II gas pipeline, joined in economic sanctions, sent arms to Ukraine, and announced a significant increase in its defense spending. Western companies like BP are bailing from Russia. Turkey appears prepared to deny access to the Black Sea to Russian warships. The European Union has funded the delivery of weapons to Ukraine and closed its airspace to Russian flights. Even illiberal Hungary is critical of the Russian invasion.
Ukraine, for which Putin has made clear his utter contempt, has stood up, mounting an effective defense. President Volodymyr Zelensky has caught the imagination of the country and much of the world. The Russian advance is going much more slowly than was anticipated. Russian casualties are reportedly substantial. A cake walk it is not.
Bad news for Putin is in many ways good news for the rest of us. His war violates the most basic of international norms, that sovereignty is to be respected and borders are not to be changed by military force. Respect for this norm is the difference between world order and anarchy. And order is best understood as oxygen: We don’t see it and take it for granted except when there is not enough of it, at which point what is required for societies and economies to function normally disappears.
All of which is to say Putin’s defeat would stave off what could be a far more dangerous era of international relations, one characterized by less freedom, more frequent conflict, and more widespread proliferation of conventional and nuclear arms. If Putin is allowed to succeed in Ukraine, he would be unlikely to stop there. Some other countries, in particular China, would be tempted to follow suit and use force to realize their objectives. Still others would conclude they had no choice but to defer to neighboring tyrants or acquire nuclear weapons of their own.
The problem comes from what Putin’s frustration and fear of failure might prompt him to do. He has already made nuclear threats and put Russian nuclear forces on a higher state of alert. He may be hoping this frightens the West or Ukraine or both into standing down. When it becomes clear this threat will not succeed, he might be tempted to make another bad choice and escalate. Options include even more indiscriminate conventional military strikes on civilian targets in Ukraine, massive cyberattacks against the West, expanding the war to one or more NATO countries, or introducing chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons.
What makes any of this all too plausible is that Putin has become a one-man band. He has dismantled most of the checks and balances within the Russian system, which is so de-institutionalized as to no longer be a system. He launched this war against Ukraine with no public support and with little or no consultation with others. It is quite possible he faces fewer constraints on his decision-making than did Nikita Khrushchev during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
So what should the United States and others do? The most basic strategy is to keep up the pressure, both on the ground (by strengthening Ukraine’s ability to fend off the Russian invasion) and with additional economic sanctions. Preparations should be made for every sort of possible escalation. Messages need to be passed to the Russian government as to the specific retaliation Russia could expect if it escalated the war. The promise of war crimes prosecutions and reparations should be part of that price. Ideally, these credible threats will either deter Putin from taking such actions or prompt people within the system to act against him. The United States and Europe could as well make clear under what conditions which sanctions would be eased. Growing signs of opposition from the Russian people to their government’s actions will hopefully add to the pressure on Putin to cut his and his country’s losses.
There is one other way out. Talks between Russia and Ukraine have begun on Ukraine’s border with Belarus. There are as yet no signs of progress. At some point, though, Putin may well see the value in compromising in order to avoid an outcome that threatens his rule and his country’s future. Ukraine’s government has the incentive to compromise — to offer Russia a diplomatic off-ramp that does not sacrifice core Ukrainian interests and rights — in order to avoid further death and devastation. Diplomacy failed to prevent this war; the question is whether before too much longer it can help end it.
Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “War of Necessity, War of Choice,” “The World: A Brief Introduction,” and other books.