By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

Putin's Excuse And Why It Is Not Time To Talk To Putin

A recent article lays out how Putin’s supporters call for the liquidation of Ukraine as ‘genocidal rhetoric’ swells.

Elsewhere blogger Ilya Varlamov, whose Telegram channel is followed by 360,000 people, has described Ukrainians as “the grunting pigs of Satan.” 

Underneath Russian President Vladimir Putin on a screen at Red Square as he addresses a rally and a concert marking the annexation of four regions of Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has provoked—with one notable exception—every imaginable form of policy pushback from the United States and its allies. Western governments have significantly increased their military, economic, diplomatic, and moral support for Ukraine in the last month alone. Kyiv keeps getting more (and better) weapons, training, and intelligence, even from NATO members that earlier dragged their feet. The Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said on Thursday, which is echoed by others, the new EU sanctions against Moscow should not lead to significant consequences for ordinary Russian citizens and entrepreneurs.

Also, the United States has imposed new sanctions on Russia, moved closer to a price cap on Russian oil exports, condemned Russian nuclear threats, dismissed Moscow’s claim that Ukraine was planning a “dirty bomb” attack, organized an overwhelming United Nations majority to reject Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian provinces, and more.

This extraordinary international response makes the one exception to it all the more puzzling. Western governments and senior political leaders have had almost nothing to say about the bizarre theory with which Putin justifies the war in the first place. He insists that Russia is at war with the Western world, an all-out struggle for survival that his country cannot afford to lose. By ignoring his claim and through actions and statements that can even seem to validate it, Western governments miss a crucial opportunity to stir second thoughts in Russia about the entire enterprise. Promoting internal division in a country so rigidly controlled is hard, but staying silent lets Putin off too easy. How and when the war ends may well depend on the strength of Russian second thoughts.

It doesn’t always matter, of course, whether the parties to a war agree or disagree about what they are fighting over. Usually, they agree. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein wanted Kuwait; the United States made him give it up. France wanted Algeria to remain part of France; the Algerians didn’t. An old joke of introductory international relations courses captures the zero-sum nature of many conflicts, especially territorial ones: “We don’t disagree about anything—we both want Italy.”

So, is Ukraine another “Italy”—something Russia wants that the West won’t let it have? Not at all, says Putin. He has explained the war in many ways—with much grand talk about Russia’s historical destiny, ethnic identity, and civilizational autonomy—but his justifications have gradually merged into a single apocalyptic narrative. The West, says Putin, is out to “destroy” Russia. And what he has in mind goes far beyond everyday sharp-elbowed competition for military and economic advantage. Western elites, he claims, “have always dreamed about” breaking up Russia into separate units, setting its peoples against each other, and condemning them “to poverty and extinction.”

If Russia’s enemies succeed, Putin insists, a future of comprehensive oppression by the West lies ahead. This tyranny will be material (“they want to loot” Russia’s natural resources, he says) but also ideological (“they see our thought and our philosophy as a direct threat,” and “our culture and art present a danger to them, so they are trying to ban them”). Western governments are motivated, he claims, by racial hatred (a “Russophobia” that combines elements of “totalitarianism, despotism, and apartheid”) and by a determination to stamp out his country’s traditional values (Russia’s leader worries a lot about gender identity). In his 30 Sept. speech, he labeled the West’s cultural outlook as “pure Satanism.”

Putin’s rants stand out even in his own country, but he is far from alone in making many of these claims. His picture of Russia in existential peril has been picked up by other Kremlin officials (who have begun to use the term “de-Satanization”), government propagandists, and once reputable scholars and experts. Margarita Simonyan, head of RT, the state media outfit, fears that if Russia loses, it will no longer be legal to buy dresses for her daughters. Dmitri Trenin, who led the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center before the war, echoes Putin on most points but adds his special touches. The United States and its allies, Trenin believes, want to “permanently neuter the country by seizing its nuclear arsenal.” They see a chance to “hit Russia very hard, make it an international outlaw, press the Kremlin to surrender unconditionally.” Another analyst well-known to Western counterparts, Sergey Karaganov, treats the war against Ukraine as this century’s version of earlier invasions by Napoleon and Hitler. (Never mind that this time Russia did the invading.)

One of Russia’s most thoughtful, independent, and best-connected political commentators, Tatiana Stanovaya, has long insisted that the country’s elite does not buy the enslavement-and-extinction version of Western aims. Yet the many doubters—most hesitant to speak up—hardly ever hear the United States and its allies rebut their own president’s claims. Senior Biden administration officials call Russia’s attack on Ukraine “unprovoked,” They regularly add that such aggression threatens the “rules-based international order” on which global stability depends. It is necessary, they say, to “punish” countries that break the rules, the better to discourage future infractions. Western governments have promised to make the cost of aggression high.

Yet such formulations do little to challenge the narrative that Russia is in mortal danger. Some of them may even seem to confirm it. The theme of punishing Russia conjures an endless grudge match in which one side does its best to grind the other down. Invoking the rules that underlie international order provokes Putin’s indignant retort: “Who made these rules?” And the pride that Western governments take in the unity of their alliance does produce the occasional bloodcurdling threat. Responding to Putin’s recent nuclear threats, the European Union’s senior diplomat, Josep Borrell, warned that, if escalation occurs, Russia’s army will be “annihilated.” Talk of this kind helps the Kremlin sustain support for its “existential” war. Questioning the president’s theory of the case, not to mention defying his orders, becomes still harder.

Fortunately, the outlines of a better public-diplomacy line that calls out Putin’s hysterical exaggerations are obvious. Western spokespeople would have little trouble making the case that Russia has invented a struggle for survival where none exists—that its leaders seek to deceive their people, cover up their own mistakes, and preserve their positions of power. Every statement by Putin in recent months and years is full of wild claims that can hardly withstand a serious review of recent history.

If U.S. presidents aimed to destroy Russia, would they have reduced the U.S. military presence in Europe by 75% over 25 years (including removing all tanks a decade ago)? Would Germany have cut its armed forces in half? Would NATO, whose enlargement Russian officials claim to find so threatening, have sought a partnership with Russia to address major European security issues? Would the alliance have agreed to limit military deployments on the territory of new NATO members bordering Russia? Would the European Union have risked energy dependence on a country it wanted to subject to “poverty and extinction”?


Why Not Talk To Putin Now

Earlier, we mentioned Timothy Snyder, who met with Zelenski and wrote, "those who think first of U.S. interests should acknowledge what Ukrainians are doing for American security."

Give diplomacy a chance.” This phrase gets repeated in almost every conflict, and the war in Ukraine is no exception. A chorus of commentators, experts, and former policymakers have pushed for a negotiated peace at every turn on the battlefield: after the successful defense of Kyiv, once Russia withdrew to the east, during the summer of Russia’s plodding progress in the Donbas, after Russia’s rout in Kharkiv oblast, and now, in the aftermath of Russia’s retreat from Kherson. The better the Ukrainian military has done, the louder the calls for Ukraine to negotiate have become.

And today, it’s no longer just pundits pushing for a negotiated settlement. The U.S. House of Representatives’ progressive caucus penned a letter to President Joe Biden calling for a diplomatic solution, only to retract it a short time later. Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy has promised to scrutinize military aid to Ukraine and push for an end to the war. Even Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley has reportedly pushed for Ukraine to negotiate, although he subsequently made clear that the decision should be Kyiv’s alone.

And why not negotiate? Isn’t a diplomatic solution the best—indeed, the only—option for any kind of long-term settlement between Russia and Ukraine? And if so, what could possibly be the harm in exploring those options? Quite a lot, actually: Despite the way it is commonly portrayed, diplomacy is not intrinsically and always good, nor is it cost-free. In the Ukraine conflict, the problems with a push for diplomacy are especially apparent. The likely benefits of negotiations are minimal, and the prospective costs could be significant.

First, the argument that most wars end with diplomacy and so, therefore, will the war in Ukraine is misleading at best. Some wars—such as the U.S. Civil War and World War II—were fought to the bitter end. Others—like the American Revolution, the Spanish-American War, World War I, or the First Gulf War—were won on the battlefield before the sides headed to the negotiating table. Still others—like the Korean War—ended in an armistice, but only after the sides had fought to a standstill. By contrast, attempts at a diplomatic settlement while the military situation remained fluid—as the United States tried during the Vietnam War and, more recently, in Afghanistan—have ended in disaster. Even if most wars ultimately end in diplomatic settlements, that’s not in lieu of victory.

At this particular moment, diplomacy cannot end the war in Ukraine, simply because Russian and Ukrainian interests do not yet overlap. The Ukrainians, understandably, want their country back. They want reparations for the damage Russia has done and accountability for Russian war crimes. Russia, by contrast, has made it clear that it still intends to bend Ukraine to its will. It has officially annexed several regions in eastern and southern Ukraine, so withdrawing would now be tantamount, for them, to ceding parts of Russia. Russia’s economy is in ruins, so it cannot pay reparations. And full accountability for Russian war crimes may lead to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top officials getting led to the dock. As much as Western observers might wish otherwise, such contrasts offer no viable diplomatic way forward right now.

Nor is diplomacy likely to forestall future escalation. One of the more common refrains as to why the United States should give diplomacy a chance is to avert Russia making good on its threats to use nuclear weapons. But what is causing Russia to threaten nuclear use in the first place? Presumably, it is because Russia is losing on the battlefield and lacks other options. Assuming that “diplomatic solution” is not a euphemism for Ukrainian capitulation, as its proponents insist, Russia’s calculations about whether and how to escalate would not change. Russia would still be losing the war and looking for a way to reverse its fortunes.

Diplomacy can moderate human suffering, but only on the margins. Throughout the conflict, Ukraine and Russia have negotiated prisoner swaps and a deal to allow grain exports. This kind of tactical diplomacy on a narrow issue was certainly welcome news for the captured troops and those parts of the world that depend on Ukrainian food exports. But it’s not at all clear how to ramp up from these relatively small diplomatic victories. Russia, for example, won’t abandon its attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure heading into the winter as it attempts to freeze Ukraine into submission, because that’s one of the few tactics Russia has left.

At the same time, more expansive diplomacy comes at a cost. Pushing Ukraine to negotiate now sends a series of signals, none of them good: It signals to the Russians that they can simply wait out Ukraine’s Western supporters, thereby protracting the conflict; it signals to the Ukrainians—not to mention other allies and partners around the world—that the United States might put up a good fight for a while but will, in the end, abandon them; and it tells the U.S. public that its leaders are not invested in seeing this war through, which in turn could increase domestic impatience with it.

Starting negotiations prematurely carries other costs. As Biden remarked in June: “Every negotiation reflects the facts on the ground.” Biden is right. Ukraine now is in a stronger negotiating position because it fought rather than talked. The question today is whether Ukraine will ultimately regain control over Donbas and Crimea, not Kharkiv and Kherson. This would not have been the case had anyone listened to the “give diplomacy a chance” crowd back in the spring or summer.



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