How Do We Deal With a Superpower Led by a War Criminal?
It is hard to believe, but now impossible to deny, that the broad framework that kept much of the world stable and prospering since the end of the Cold War has been seriously fractured by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In ways we hadn’t fully appreciated, a lot of that framework rested on the West’s ability to coexist with Putin as he played “bad boy,” testing the limits of the world order but never breaching them at scale.
But with Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, his indiscriminate crushing of its cities and mass killings of Ukrainian civilians, he went from “bad boy” to “war criminal.” And when the leader of Russia — a country that spans 11 time zones, with vast oil, gas and mineral resources and more nuclear warheads than anyone else — is a war criminal and must be henceforth treated as a pariah, the world as we’ve known it is profoundly changed. Nothing can work the same.
How does the world have an effective U.N. with a country led by a war criminal on the Security Council, who can veto every resolution? How does the world have any effective global initiative to combat climate change and not be able to collaborate with the biggest landmass country on the planet? How does the U.S. work closely with Russia on the Iran nuclear deal when we have no trust with, and barely communicate with, Moscow? How do we isolate and try to weaken a country so big and so powerful, knowing that it could be more dangerous if it disintegrates than if it’s strong? How do we feed and fuel the world at reasonable prices when a sanctioned Russia is one of the world’s biggest exporters of oil, wheat and fertilizer?
The answer is that we don’t know. Which is another way of saying that we are entering a period of geopolitical and geoeconomic uncertainty the likes of which we have not known since 1989 — and possibly 1939.
And it promises only to get worse before it gets better, because Putin is now like a cornered animal. He not only got so much wrong in his Ukraine invasion; he produced the opposite of so much he was aiming to achieve, making him desperate for any war achievement, at any price, that can obscure this fact.
Putin said he had to go into Ukraine to push NATO away from Russia, and his war has not only reinvigorated what was a stagnating Western military alliance, it has also guaranteed NATO’s solidarity and weapons modernization for as long as Putin is in power — and probably another generation after that.
Putin said he had to go into Ukraine to remove the Nazi clique ruling in Kyiv and bring both the Ukrainian people and their territory back into the arms of Mother Russia, where they naturally belonged and, in his imagination, longed to be. Instead, his invasion has made Ukrainians — even some formerly pro-Russia Ukrainians — bitter enemies of Russia for at least a generation and supercharged Ukraine’s desire to be independent of Russia and embedded in the European Union.
Putin thought that with a blitzkrieg takeover of Ukraine he would earn the proper respect from the West for Russia’s military prowess — ending the insults that Russia, with an economy smaller than the state of Texas’, was just “a gas station with nukes.” Instead, his army has been exposed as incompetent and barbaric and needing to enlist mercenaries from Syria and Chechnya just to hold its ground.
Having gotten so much wrong, and having launched this war on his own initiative, Putin has to be desperate to show that he produced something — at least uncontested control of eastern Ukraine, from the Donbas region, south to Odesa on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast and connecting with Crimea. And he surely wants it by May 9, for Moscow’s giant annual Victory Day parade, marking Russia’s victory over the Nazis in World War II — the day when the Russian military recalls its greatest glory.
So, it appears that Putin is gearing up for a two-pronged strategy. First, he’s regrouping his ravaged forces and concentrating them on fully seizing and holding this smaller military prize. Second, he’s doubling down on systematic cruelty — the continued pummeling of Ukrainian towns with rockets and artillery to keep creating as many casualties and refugees and as much economic ruin as he can. He clearly hopes that the former will fracture the Ukrainian Army, at least in the east, and the latter will fracture NATO, as its member states get overwhelmed by so many refugees and pressure Kyiv to give Putin whatever he wants to get him to stop.
Ukraine and NATO, therefore, need an effective counterstrategy.
It should have three pillars. The first is to support the Ukrainians with diplomacy if they want to negotiate with Putin — it’s their call — but also to support them with the best weaponry and training if they want to drive the Russian Army off every inch of their territory. The second is to broadcast daily and loudly — in every way we can — that the world is at war “with Putin” and “not with the Russian people” — just the opposite of what Putin is telling them. And the third is for us to double down on ending our addiction to oil, Putin’s main source of income.
The hope is that the three together would set in motion forces inside Russia that topple Putin from power.
Yes, that is a high-risk-high-reward proposition. Putin’s downfall could lead to someone worse at the helm in the Kremlin. It could also lead to prolonged chaos and disintegration.
But if it leads to someone better, someone with just minimal decency and an ambition to rebuild Russia’s dignity and spheres of influence based on a new generation of Tchaikovskys, Rachmaninoffs, Sakharovs, Dostoyevskys and Sergey Brins — not yacht-owning oligarchs, cyberhackers and polonium-armed assassins — the whole world gets better. So many possibilities for healthy collaborations would be resurrected or forged.
Only the Russian people have the right and ability to change their leader. But it will not be easy because Putin, an ex-K.G.B. officer — surrounded by many other former intelligence officers who are beholden to him — is nearly impossible to dislodge.
But here is one possible scenario: The Russian Army is a prideful institution, and if it continues to suffer catastrophic defeats in Ukraine, I can imagine a situation where either Putin wants to decapitate his army’s leadership — to make them the scapegoats for his failure in Ukraine — or the army, knowing this is coming, tries to oust Putin first. There never has been any love lost between the Russian military and the K.G.B./S.V.R./F.S.B. security types surrounding Putin.
In sum, having the Russian people produce a better leader is a necessary condition for the world to produce a new, more resilient global order to replace the post-Cold War order, which Putin has now shattered. What is also necessary, though, is that America be a model of democracy and sustainability that others want to emulate.
When Ukrainians are making the ultimate sacrifice to hold onto every inch and ounce of their newly won freedom, is it too much to ask that Americans make the smallest sacrifices and compromises to hold on to our precious democratic inheritance?
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