The cliché of the day: We need to find an “off ramp” for Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, a face-saving way for the Russian caudillo to end his campaign of atrocities abroad and bring his troops home — at some considerable cost to Ukrainian sovereignty.
Here is a question nobody is asking: What is the United States’s off ramp?
The United States has the world’s most powerful military, with China a distant No. 2; Russian troops would not last six weeks in a battle with America forces. The United States has the world’s largest economy; Vladimir Putin lords over a country with an economy the size of Florida’s. Russia is a backward petro-emirate; the United States, in contrast, has the world’s most sophisticated and diversified economy — the home of Silicon Valley and Wall Street is also the world’s largest food exporter, and we produce more oil than Russia does on top of all that. In any sane world, it would be the United States that sets the terms and tempo of any conflict in which we are involved, the United States that decides to escalate or to de-escalate, the United States that makes the threats.
But we do not live in a sane world. We live in a world in which such a figure as Vladimir Putin is permitted to control a considerable arsenal of nuclear weapons — and it is that arsenal alone that constrains our real strategic options vis-à-vis Moscow. Nuclear weapons are the reason the Biden administration turned tail on the matter of those Polish fighter jets and the reason the United States fears taking any action that might cause Putin to start treating us as a belligerent and attack NATO forces directly.
After all these years, we are starting to come back around to the fact that was plain to Ronald Reagan a generation ago: Nuclear disarmament is critical to American security. President Reagan’s dream of abolishing nuclear weapons was not only a moral position founded in his peacenik libertarianism — it was part of a strategic vision. A country’s possession of even a handful of nuclear weapons radically limits our scope of action in relation to that country. Vladimir Putin knows this. Kim Jong-un knows this. Ali Khamenei knows this. Xi Jinping knows this. And they know that we know that they know it.
Having the world’s most powerful conventional forces is a considerably diminished advantage when there are nuclear weapons in the field. Of course, Putin’s decision to use a nuclear weapon would very likely mean the beginning of a very short and intense global war at the end of which nothing would remain of Russia except sad stories, but winning that war would impose a very high price on the rest of the world. And so Washington, Brussels, and London walk on atomic eggshells.
But Russia has only the one superweapon. The United States has several — and our nuclear arsenal isn’t even the most important of them.
In a good year, Russia’s GDP per capita is just over $11,000, a level of prosperity right between Bulgaria’s and Kazakhstan’s. The sanctions being imposed by the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and much of the rest of the world are right now in the process of systematically reducing that level of prosperity. With sanctions already in play, our Russia agenda for the immediate future should be seeing to it that the Putin regime is not inconvenienced but crushed by continuing economic disintegration — irrespective of whatever off ramp the Russian caudillo ends up negotiating in Ukraine.
The Russian army can inflict awful destruction, but Putin is going to fail in achieving his objectives in Ukraine.
Why give him an easy out? Why give him any out at all?
Far better to keep Putin on the hook than to let him tap out when the time comes. If there is a time to kick someone when he is down, this is it.
The Europeans and other allies will want to let up on Moscow once the Russian forces turn tail, as they almost certainly will, but we should endeavor to keep up the pressure with open-ended primary and secondary sanctions encumbering every barrel of Russian oil and every Btu of Russian natural gas, every airliner and every commercial sea vessel. We should also go after every shoebox full of Swiss francs and every stick of furniture in the London and Miami retreats of every Russian oligarch. We should not wind down the sanctions when Putin winds down his misadventure in Ukraine — we should wind them up.
The Germans will resist this, but with some intelligent statesmanship the French might be brought along, rejoicing in the relative independence of action their nuclear power gives them. (There’s a lesson in that, no?) And the Germans’ practicality may yet persuade them that the United States is the better energy superpower to be in business with. Russia’s immediate neighbors should not be very difficult to bring on board.
Let us see how Russian nationalism fares on a Pakistani income.
At the end of the Cold War, Russia suffered an economic catastrophe so severe that its GDP fell by half. Putin’s position is based on his having convinced Russians that his autocratic leadership puts them beyond the danger of repeating that trauma — it is in that promise that his legitimacy, such as it is, primarily subsists. But Russians are starting to discover that Putin’s promise is a lie and has been all along, that theirs is a one-horse economy vulnerable not only to commodity-price volatility but also to programmatic economic assault, which is what they are now having a taste of. If the United States means to start acting like what it is — an economic superpower — then Russians are in for a great deal more pain and privation.
Putin is not a young man, and his brutality has earned him many enemies. His reign is not going to last forever. And his departure from the scene is very likely to coincide with a deep and painful — and long-lasting — economic crisis in Russia. We should welcome his successors with generous offers of economic assistance and security assurances — for a price: putting Russia on the road to nuclear disarmament. That, and not some Mickey Mouse memorandum of understanding, should be our audacious program for bringing something worth having out of the horror that Russia has inflicted on the world. It will not be the work of one year or even ten, but it is not as implausible a program as it may seem. The role of U.S policy here should be to help the Russians make the right choice by leaving them no other. We missed our last opportunity to do that. We should not squander this one.
Putin has put Russia on the road to ruin. Instead of hoping that the Russians will change course, we should direct them to the off ramp of our choosing.