What terms should we impose on a defeated Russia?

Russia Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin leads a cabinet meeting via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP) Mikhail Metzel/AP

What terms should we impose on a defeated Russia?

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Vladimir Putin is right to see the Ukrainian war as a titanic struggle against the West. Not, of course, in the sense that NATO provoked the war. Far from pushing for confrontation, Western leaders desperately tried to talk Putin down from the ledge. But the Russian framing of the war as, roughly speaking, “tradition, hierarchy, and sacrifice versus liberalism, capitalism, and comfort,” is accurate enough. I’d use different terms — autocracy, oppression, and violence versus freedom, prosperity, and the rule of law — but it amounts to much the same thing.

The first major book about the conflict, Overreach by Owen Matthews, came out two weeks ago. It gives an eerie insight into the thinking of the men who made the war, both the siloviki (strongmen) around Putin and the intellectuals and hangers-on who amplified their worldview. They genuinely believed that Russia had to fight to avoid being swallowed up by an individualist philosophy that, as they saw it, normalized homosexuality and gender-swapping, elevated the individual over the nation, and licensed hedonism. To the extent that the spread of democratic values would have meant an end to their tyranny, they had a point.


Which is precisely why Putin has to lose — and be seen to lose. The authoritarianism that keeps driving Russia into brutalities cannot be left ascendant. We need to think in terms of Germany after 1945 rather than Germany after 1918. One of the reasons that Russia was capable of launching an unprovoked attack on a nation that offered it no threat was that the Russian people had never had to confront the atrocities carried out by the USSR. Putin has little time for revolutionaries; but he has adopted without amendment the Soviet narrative of a heroic Russian victory over fascism. To point out that Stalin spent the first third of World War II on Hitler’s side is to risk incarceration.

Putin’s paranoia about Western encroachment became self-fulfilling. A war launched to scare NATO away from Ukraine ended up having the opposite effect. An invasion intended to split the West united it. Over the summer, I traveled through Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine and found them solidly behind the war effort. Any lingering doubts they had had over their country’s Western orientation were blown to smithereens when Putin’s ordnance began to smash into their cities.

Will Russia meet total ruin? That is largely up to the Western allies. As things stand, there is no reason why Ukraine should not continue to seize territory as it did in Kherson — targeting Russian command and control centers, cutting supply lines, and leaving the demoralized troops with little option but surrender. Talk of hard winters and Russian fortitude and Stalingrad is beside the point. In previous wars, Russians were defending their own land; and, in previous wars, they rather than their adversaries were the beneficiaries of Anglo-American weaponry.

Nor is the nuclear threat credible. A tactical nuclear strike against Ukraine would serve no military purpose and would risk irradiating Russian troops, possibly Russian towns. A strategic strike against London or Warsaw would likewise serve no military purpose, and would not prevent Ukrainian troops from advancing. But it would trigger a devastating response that would result in the near-certain death of Putin and his tribe. This would be true even if the attack failed. The West has double agents, cyber-defenses, interception mechanisms. It is quite possible that, in anticipation of an attack, Russian nuclear weapons would be detonated in their silos.

Putin, in short, is out of options. Before the war, he might reasonably have held out for Crimea plus an autonomous status for the Donbas. Even in August, he might have hoped for better borders than when the fighting began in February. But with each passing day, his negotiating position weakens. He now has no serious hope of holding on to eastern Ukraine, and the best he can hold out for in Crimea is some kind of international control pending a referendum on final status.


If you think that Putin would fight to the death to avoid such terms, you are not using your imagination. A defeated country is in no position to bargain, and the bill could rise much higher. War crimes trials, reparations, disarmament, and, yes, territorial awards. The conversation will eventually move into whether Japan should have the Kuril Islands, Finland Karelia, Germany Konigsberg. Separatist movements within the Russian Federation might receive recognition.

It turns out that the decadent West isn’t so decadent after all. God knows our societies are imperfect. But they are vastly preferable to rackety dictatorships where dissidents are murdered and boys are conscripted to die in purposeless wars. No wonder we Westerners are winning.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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