Should the West Threaten the Putin Regime Over Ukraine?

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, The New Yorker has been publishing on-the-ground reporting from our correspondents Luke Mogelson, Masha Gessen, and Joshua Yaffa, as well as commentary and reporting from Washington to Warsaw to the Baltic states. Throughout the conflict, I’ve been in touch with Stephen Kotkin, a professor of Russian history who taught

Powered by NewsAPI , in Liberal Perspective on .

news image

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, The New Yorker has been publishing on-the-ground reporting from our correspondents Luke Mogelson, Masha Gessen, and Joshua Yaffa, as well as commentary and reporting from Washington to Warsaw to the Baltic states. Throughout the conflict, I’ve been in touch with Stephen Kotkin, a professor of Russian history who taught at Princeton for more than thirty years, and is now at Stanford. Kotkin is the author of many books, including two volumes of a projected three-volume biography of Joseph Stalin.

Russia’s war against Ukraine began in 2src14 with its militarized annexation of Crimea, and moved into its current phase when, in February, 2src22, Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion. In the initial months of that second phase, Ukraine, under the leadership of Volodymyr Zelensky, and with support from NATO, scored some astonishing victories, including the defense of Kyiv. But, although the people of Ukraine continue to stun the world with their resilience and imagination, the war shows no sign of ending anytime soon. And, as Kotkin puts it, Ukraine is running tragically low on young men of fighting age. Meanwhile, Putin does not hesitate to throw countless Russian bodies into the meat grinder of the war.

In an interview for The New Yorker Radio Hour, Kotkin talked with me about the situation on the battlefield and the evolving politics of Kyiv, Moscow, Washington, Beijing, and beyond. He raised the possibility of a Russian “Tet Offensive” that could alter the course of the American elections. He also questioned the Biden Administration’s seeming decision to “take regime change”—a threat to Putin’s rule—“off the table.” Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity; after we spoke, I added material, with Kotkin’s permission, from a series of e-mail exchanges.

This is our third conversation during this godforsaken war, and I have a very simple question: Where are we now?

Unfortunately, Ukraine is battling. They’re fighting and dying. The courage and the ingenuity are still there. But they’re running out of eighteen-to-thirty-year-olds. The average age of the Ukrainian soldiers training in Europe at the bases in Germany or the U.K. is thirty-five and older. They’re running out of munitions. They’re running out of anti-aircraft missiles. So I’m worried. I’m very worried, because of the huge casualties and the sheer size of Russia’s population compared with Ukraine’s.

It’s obvious that losses on both sides are enormous. What do we know about specific numbers?

Ukraine does not publicly release its casualty numbers, so we don’t know the exact number. But losses are really high––tens of thousands just during the counter-offensive alone. And here’s the problem: the guy in the Kremlin doesn’t care. Ukrainian leadership can’t just sacrifice their people in big numbers. So it’s not just that the numbers are bad; it’s that one side can use bodies as cannon fodder, and the other side can’t fight like that.

What’s your understanding of the success or nonsuccess of the Ukrainian counter-offensive against Russia?

It’s like the stock market these days. Everyone says they’re a long-term investor, they’re trying to produce long-term value, and then the analyst comes along and says, “Did you make your quarterly numbers? This was where you were supposed to be, and you failed.” Sadly, this is how we’re measuring what’s happening on the battlefield. The Biden Administration, our European partners, and the Ukrainians themselves talk about how they’re in it for the long haul. But then they go to a press conference and the first question they’re asked is, How come you didn’t meet your quarterly numbers? Why is the counter-offensive so slow?

The war is nine years old. People keep asking me how it’s going to end, and I say, “Why do you think it’s going to end?”

Speaking as a historian, what can a war of that length be compared to? What is the precedent for it?

All wars that start as wars of maneuver become wars of attrition, if they last longer than three to six months. And wars of attrition go on as long as both sides have the capability and the will to fight. If you don’t destroy the enemy’s capability or the enemy’s will, you can’t win a war of attrition. Ukraine has done some things that are just breathtaking. They’ve managed to neutralize the Russian Black Sea fleet without having a navy of their own. The ingenuity continues.

The problem is that there are two key variables in a war of attrition. One is the other side’s ability to fight. You’ve got to bomb their factories and take out their munitions production. The other variable is their will to fight. And, for Russia, the will to fight is about one guy. And we have taken regime change off the table. We have said many times, publicly and privately, that we’re not going to go after Putin’s regime because we don’t want him to escalate. But, by taking regime change off the table, we’re not pushing on the will to fight. And, if we’re not hitting Russia’s capacity to fight and not hitting their will to fight, then they can go on and on.

You seem to be saying that it was a mistake for the United States to make it clear to Russia that we are not pursuing a change of regime in Moscow?

I strongly back the policy of the threat of regime change. It is the most important lever to pull in order to exert pressure on Putin, who values his own personal regime above all else. As long as Putin feels that his regime is safe, he will continue to destroy Ukraine and throw his own people to their deaths.

But I acknowledge the argument that escalation is a danger that could arise from such a policy. I think this is a worthy public debate: Would the threat of regime change lead Putin to escalate the conflict? The avoidance of a wider war has been an achievement of the Biden Administration. It’s hard to get credit for something that does not happen, but the Administration deserves credit.

That said, I still support putting pressure on Putin’s regime. We should be seeking defectors among the nationalists, military, and security people who appeal to Putin’s base. Get those people—who are willing to state publicly that the war was a mistake, that it is hurting Russia, and that Ukraine is a separate country and people—out of Russia. Get them into European capitals, and on television or YouTube. The more the merrier.

The escalation debate has been solely about what might happen, or not happen, if we send more weapons. Most analysts have dismissed the possibility of escalation at all: we refuse to send tanks because of fears of escalation, then we send them, and there’s no escalation. Ditto for airplanes. But, of course, doing things gradually helps one to understand whether there will be escalation or not. In any case, sending tanks has not been decisive, and airplanes face the challenge of Russia’s anti-aircraft batteries (S-3srcsrcs and S-4srcsrcs). F-16s have almost never flown against anti-aircraft batteries in their history. Tanks are far less effective without air cover. Airplanes cannot fly against saturation anti-aircraft fire, and we are not attacking Russia’s anti-aircraft batteries, many of which are on Russian soil. It would take quite something to wipe them out.

Haven’t regime-change attempts brought about absolute disaster in our history, most recently in Iraq? And didn’t the fear of regime-change efforts, real or imagined, cause Putin to crack down in the wake of the Bolotnaya demonstrations in Moscow a decade ago?

You’re right—regime change has a checkered history. Readers are all too familiar with the Iraq War and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. As you’ll recall from our private conversations back then, I did not support that war, largely because the vision and preparations for the aftermath were ludicrous. Probably the worst example of U.S.-induced regime change was the coup that overthrew Patrice Lumumba, in Congo, and eventually replaced him with Joseph Mobutu, leading to decades of misrule and agony.

But not all regime change is the same. Invading to impose democracy when one knows nothing about a country, or violently overthrowing a freely elected leader—after he had appealed to the U.N. for help and got no response, and then out of desperation appealed to Moscow, as in the case of Lumumba—is not something that I support. What I advocate is threatening regime change against Putin, who runs a mafia state and launched a criminal war against Ukraine, with the goal of stopping the war.

Putin will choose his regime over the war if he concludes that his regime’s survival is threatened. And others in Russia could step forward to make the choice for him. Some of this is going on already, in fact. William Burns, the head of the C.I.A., has admitted publicly that the U.S. and its allies are successfully recruiting Russian defectors. Richard Moore, the head of Britain’s M.I.6, gave a speech in Prague recently to encourage further defections in Russia. We should take the next step: making defections public, and using them to undermine the stability of the regime. We need men in uniform—Russian nationalists who appeal to Putin’s base, but who recognize that the war against Ukraine is hurting Russia—to speak the truth about the war, in Russian. We need help to convey to all Russian élites that Russia can still be a proud country and a major power if the war ceases.

France is another country with an absolutist monarchical tradition and a bloody revolutionary tradition. One day, I hope that Russia will look like France: a country that used to threaten its neighbors—think of Napoleon—but that now has the rule of law and democracy. But, for Russia, the distance to that outcome is not small, and even for France such a transformation did not happen quickly. Meanwhile, Ukrainians are dying en masse, and their country is being wrecked.

The threat of regime change in Russia—to force Putin into an armistice to preserve his regime, or to encourage others to do it—is among the ways to get Ukraine on a path toward peace. It might look like a bad idea, based on historical examples. It would not be easy, that’s for sure. But what is the superior, realistic alternative? More tanks that have limited battlefield utility because they lack air cover, while even F-16s would have limited effect because Russia has saturation S-3srcsrc and S-4srcsrc anti-aircraft batteries and a large inventory of missiles? Are we going to bomb Russian territory, where many of those batteries are located? Are we going to bomb factories located in Russia producing replacement batteries and missiles and other weapons? Are we going to blockade all of Eurasia, from Turkey through the U.A.E., Kazakhstan, and North Korea, not to mention China, to prevent easy sanctions-busting? Conjure munitions for Ukraine out of thin air? Watch a much smaller country fight a war of attrition indefinitely, costing lives and treasure?

On the Korean Peninsula, armistice negotiations lasted some two years. They finally resulted in an armistice only when Stalin died. I continue to hope that the Ukrainians can force an armistice on Putin by gains on the battlefield. But what if they cannot? What’s the plan? Are we prepared to wait until Putin dies? What happens to Ukraine in the meantime? Show me a better, more realistic plan than pressing the threat of regime change, and I’ll sign on to it.

We were talking on the phone the other day, and you raised what to me sounded like a shocking notion about what Russia could do next, and what it might resemble in American military history.

Yeah. I’m really worried about a Tet Offensive.

For those of us who might not remember the Tet Offensive, in Vietnam, in 1968, explain what it was, and what the parallel might be with Russia and Ukraine.

In January of 1968, the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese, who were fighting against the U.S. and its allies, the South Vietnamese Army, mounted an offensive. Until then, it looked like the war was going well for the U.S. And then, boom, lo and behold, they mount a very significant surprise offensive. We beat it back on the battlefield, and it’s ultimately a failure for the Communists. But, still, everyone is shocked that they could do this at all. And so Uncle Walter goes on TV—

Walter Cronkite, the anchor of CBS News at the time—

Yes. Uncle Walter says that this war is not winnable. And that was a pretty big moment for Lyndon Johnson, the incumbent Democratic President, who subsequently decides that he’s not going to run for reëlection. So, although the Tet Offensive was a battlefield failure for the North Vietnamese-Vietcong, it was a political triumph for them.

The Ukrainian counter-offensive could work. It’s way too early to evaluate it. However, they could be surprised by a Russian counter-offensive, which doesn’t have to succeed to any great degree on the battlefield. It could be just like Tet in that way. But it could send political shock waves through Washington, D.C., and through the European capitals. People could conclude that this war may not be winnable.

In March, 1968, following Tet, Johnson said he would not run for reëlection, opening the way for Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and Hubert Humphrey to compete for the Democratic nomination. (Eventually, the Republican, Richard Nixon, won.) Do you really think that a Russian offensive like the Tet Offensive could affect the 2src24 U.S. Presidential race to the same degree?

It could. I don’t know the probability, but my view is that, if it’s possible, we’ve got to be ready. We have to prepare the public. And we have to prepare the battlefield.

I want to drill down on one point. You said that a Russian offensive, a Tet offensive, even if it doesn’t succeed, could have profound effects on the American political scene, even to the point that it affects Joe Biden’s fate in the race.

Look at Biden’s numbers. They cratered with the Afghanistan pullout. If Putin outsmarts us on the battlefield and mounts a counter-offensive . . . Well, I’d want to get out in front of this. I would be talking about the coming Russian counter-offensive, and trying to make it more difficult for such a thing to have a political effect. That might even make it more difficult to carry out at all.

Do you think a Ukrainian victory is impossible in the foreseeable future?

Nothing’s impossible, right? Here’s the challenge, though. You take Tokmak. They’re still far from it, but that’s the next objective on their line of deepest penetration. It’s on the road to Melitopol. That’s on the road to the Sea of Azov, on the land bridge that connects Crimea and the parts of eastern Donbas that Putin has taken since February, 2src22.

What’s your next step? How do you then win the peace? How do you start rebuilding Ukraine? How do you get to a Ukraine that is able to join the European Union over a period of time, and transform its internal institutions as a result of the E.U.-accession process? Where do you get the security guarantee from? Where do you get the expensive armaments that you can use as a deterrence?

The U.S. has been sending two hundred million dollars a day to Ukraine since this war started. I’m in favor of that support, but that’s not something that countries do forever. How do you get to the peace where Russia doesn’t do this again? Every war ends with a negotiation. Even unconditional surrender produces a form of negotiation. We need a process to win the peace, not just an assessment of the counter-offensive day to day. And, unfortunately, we haven’t had that, because there’s a divergence between the vision of the war in D.C. and the vision of the war in Kyiv.

Recently, President Zelensky was in Washington to see Joe Biden, and he spoke at the U.N. Zelensky gave the kind of speeches we’ve grown accustomed to, in which he’s both thanking the West for its aid and imploring it for more; he’s demanding constancy and the psychology that this is not just a war for Ukraine, but for the democratic West. Now, we’ve heard this before. I’m wondering if you perceived—on the part of the listeners—any change in perspective.

Yes. But the challenge is in the idea that the international order is at stake. In the U.S.’s rhetoric, nothing could be bigger than this, right? This is about deterring authoritarian powers, or they’ll do it again. This is about securing the rules-based order. This is about everything. There’s nothing bigger than this. But, at the same time, we can’t put American troops on the ground in Ukraine.

Those two statements cannot both be true. You can’t say that everything is at stake––world order, peace, and prosperity––while not considering the threat to be important enough to warrant putting American troops on the ground in Ukraine. And yet this is our strategy. And that’s why Americans don’t understand our strategy. That’s why our political figures can’t explain our strategy. And that’s why it’s not working as well as some people predicted it would work.

Of course, in Kyiv, they have a different view of this. For them, this war is about their existence, their sovereignty, their independence as a nation. The Russians are killing their people, destroying their infrastructure, raping their women and girls, destroying or pilfering their cultural artifacts to remove evidence that Ukraine is a separate culture and a separate nation. So, for Ukrainians, the idea of negotiation, the idea of relinquishing territory for an armistice, the idea of allowing Putin to get away with this without sitting at a military or international criminal tribunal, without paying reparations—that is anathema. It’s not just that the Russians are committing atrocities; this whole war is an atrocity.

So the Ukrainians have a maximalist view of what peace means. It’s about justice. It’s about reparations. It’s about war-crimes tribunals. It’s about stuff that they can’t impose because they can’t take Moscow. Their perspective is understandable. It’s completely justified from a moral point of view. But you’ve got to live in the world that you live in, and so this divergence between our view of the war and their view of the war is covered over by our rhetoric, which says it’s also existential. If the fate of the world is at stake, you have to be in favor of American boots on the ground.

I’m not clear what you’re saying. Are you arguing for America to send troops to Ukraine?

No, I am not. I’m arguing for bringing the rhetoric in line with the commitments. Otherwise, the American people are confused. Otherwise, we don’t understand the strategy. You can’t support this over the long haul if people think that you’re not telling the truth, or you’re not being level with them. Our commitments don’t match our rhetoric.

What do you think we need, in terms of Western policy, in terms of American policy?

We need an armistice. We need a D.M.Z. We need the fighting to stop. We need the eighteen-to-thirty-year-old Ukrainians who are left not to die. We need the Ukrainian kids who are going to school in Poland and Germany and elsewhere to come home, and go to school in the Ukrainian language, and become the future of the country. We need to invest and to rebuild the economy. We need Ukraine to start the E.U.-accession process. We need them to have some type of security guarantee, which is about not just deterring Russia but enabling a successful society in Ukraine.

That leaves a lot of Ukrainian territory, particularly the Donbas and Crimea, in the hands of Russia, which is an unacceptable outcome in today’s Ukraine. Both Crimea and the Donbas were part of sovereign Ukraine when it became an independent country, in 1991. Do you support relinquishing those territories?

If you can take them back, by all means, take them back. But, if you take back Crimea, what do you do with the Russians? There were 2.3 million people in Crimea, approximately, before the war, predominantly ethnic Russian. Five hundred thousand people from Russia have moved into Crimea since the war started. Russians who were abroad have bought apartments in Crimea since 2src14. So you’ve got a big population of Russians there. What are you going to do—ethnically cleanse them? Force them out of Crimea in the hundreds of thousands or more? How’s that going to look when you start the E.U.-accession process?

Under international law, Russia has annexed territory that belongs to Ukraine, and it’s a violation. I proposed, in 2src15, in Foreign Affairs, that if Ukraine can’t get the territory back, or isn’t willing to do what’s necessary to get it back, or getting it back might not be beneficial because of the high percentage of ethnic Russians there, how about if you force Putin to buy it? To pay for it? You do it on the installment plan. A five-, or ten-, or twenty-five-year plan. At the end of it, after Russia pays the money—and if, during that period, they behave in a way that doesn’t threaten Ukrainian sovereignty—we would internationally recognize it as Russian territory. Is that a good outcome?

It’s a lot less satisfactory than taking it back, and reinstating it as Ukrainian territory, the way it was from 1991 to 2src14. It’s unsatisfactory. I get that. But, if you can’t get it back, if you can’t march on Moscow, if you can’t impose the peace that’s morally just, if your partners won’t put boots on the ground to impose that peace on Russia with you as your partner, and you can’t pay the costs that might be necessary to take it back on the battlefield—if those things are true, then what do you do? It’s not something that I’m happy about. But I’m aiming for a Ukraine that’s rebuilding, not being bombed and destroyed, and I’ll take as much of that Ukraine as I can get in the time being. And, if I don’t get it all, I’m not going to acknowledge Russian occupation legally. Ukrainians want to be part of Europe, and they’re willing to die for that. That’s winning the peace, in my mind. And territory is part of that, but territory is much less decisive.

President Zelensky recently fired and replaced the top six military leaders in Ukraine. I’m trying to imagine a situation in which the United States is at war, and the President suddenly gets rid of the entire top echelon of the military. It would be a gigantic story. What happened in Ukraine, and what does it indicate about the country’s military leadership and the state of the war?

Until an E.U.-accession process transforms Ukrainian domestic institutions, we have the Ukraine that we have. Courageous, ingenious—their tremendous resistance just blows me away. But, on the institutional side, it’s not a happy story. There are shortcomings in Ukrainian institutions. We have to use the word “corruption” to talk about Ukraine. If you’re eighteen or nineteen, and your parents have money—if they have the U.S. equivalent of eight or ten thousand dollars to spend—you can buy off the military-recruitment chief of your locality and get out of going to war. And that’s been happening. It’s a big business. So Zelensky fired all the heads of his military-recruitment offices. He’s doing what he can. He’s trying to say that we take corruption seriously, we’re going to be accountable for the money and the weapons that you send, we’re going to fight this corruption battle, we’re not going to turn a blind eye to it, even though we’re under attack. He’s showing that he’s serious. He’s trying to send a message to the others who are going to replace those military leaders, and saying, Don’t do what they did. Does it stop corruption in the longer term? I don’t know. I don’t know whether he can prevent it over the course of a longer war.

We’ve seen increasing evidence of a global realignment since the beginning of the second phase of the war against Ukraine, the full-scale invasion. Putin has sought to align with North Korea, with China, and to some extent with India, against the West. How successful has he been?

That’s a really important question. So far, Ukrainian courage and ingenuity have produced four big victories. One is that Ukraine has kept its sovereignty. It has defended its capital and kept itself independent. There is no puppet regime in Kyiv. That’s a huge victory.

The second victory—just as big, if not bigger, from a strategic point of view—is that the West has been resuscitated. People rediscovered that the West exists as a family of shared values and shared institutions. North America, Europe, and the first island chain in Asia, from South Korea all the way down to Australia: The West is not a geographical concept, but it’s an institutional concept, and it’s been revived, with unity and resolve. It’s got the wealth, it’s got the technology, it’s got the institutions. Rediscovering that was a huge victory.

The third victory was Russian humiliation. Not strategic defeat—that’s an exaggeration—but the humiliation of Russia. We’ve seen that Russia is not ten feet tall. Putin is not a genius. He’s not even a tactician, let alone a strategist. He’s a murderer, and he’s troubled, but he’s no genius.

The fourth big victory is China’s losing its lustre. Beijing had concluded that the U.S. was going to try to contain China, and it was going to be hostile. But Europe, which hates conflict and loves trade, could still be a friend. And so there was a wedge driven between the U.S. and Europe, these close allies, on China policy. But Xi Jinping, by siding with Putin in this war, has destroyed his wedge. Europe is now more aligned with the U.S. on China policy, and understands that having its economy be dependent on an authoritarian regime is not a good idea.

So those are four big victories. And, now that we’ve made them, we should want to take those off the table. You don’t want to be in a situation where Kyiv could still be at risk, and where Western unity and resolve could be undermined by a Tet Offensive. And yet these gains are still in play, still at risk, because we’re trying to get territory back in Ukraine, which may or may not be germane, in my view, to winning the peace. That’s the big story.

Then we have what you asked about—the success of Putin’s attempt to get closer to China. Let’s be careful here. Russia and China’s alignment has discredited both countries. Has it been a net plus for them or a net minus for them to get closer?

There are countries that are not part of the West, but that want the opportunity that the West offers. They want access to technology. They want access to our universities, where they can study. They want all sorts of things, including security, that we can provide. Why did it happen that China became synonymous with opportunity, and the U.S. became synonymous with war? We do Iraq, we do Afghanistan, and China does opportunity. China builds infrastructure, they build bridges, they build your telephone network. We dropped the ball. We have to get back to opportunity because the thirst for opportunity is so vast. It’s the international system that we created that brought Germany and Japan, our enemies, back into being successful, prosperous democratic societies. The conversation has to change. Everyone else is invited to join peace and prosperity. And those who are opposed to that, we need some deterrence. Your regime could fall if you are behaving in ways that are destabilizing to the international order. ♦

Read More