The last time the world seriously considered this darkest of all scenarios was the Cuban Missile Crisis, exactly six decades ago. At the time, leaders in Washington and Moscow did find an exit, in the form of a secret deal that only came to light much later. However, this crisis is different. For starters, Biden and Putin – unlike John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev – don’t seem to be talking.
The assumption that motivates the Western search for an exit is that Putin can no longer de-escalate alone — by withdrawing from Ukraine or even admitting defeat — because he would lose power and perhaps his life. Therefore, he needs the help of the West, a sort of trap door to another story in which he could proclaim victory to his Russian home crowd and survive politically.
Some experts, such as Timothy Snyder of Yale University, consider this Western obsession with providing exits for Putin as “deeply perverted.” Putin “doesn’t need our help in the real world to create comforting fictions for Russians. He’s been doing this for 20 years without our help” – by controlling the Russian media and creating a virtual reality in which he always has an escape route. things don’t go the way he wants, he just declares the victory and changes the subject and russians pretend to believe him.
The counter-argument is that Putin may have lost control of the virtual reality he has created. His army is too embarrassingly routed on too many Ukrainian battlefields for his propaganda fiction to be plausible. As a result, he is not so much under pressure from Russian moderates or pigeons, but from even more radical hawks.
Cornered like a rat, more at home than abroad, Putin seems to see no choice but to escalate. He mobilizes hundreds of thousands. He recklessly annexes four additional Ukrainian regions and then spreads his nuclear umbrella over them. He bombs Ukrainian civilians. He is stepping up sabotage and hybrid warfare within NATO countries. The path he’s on, the fear is going, will eventually lead him to nuclear weapons unless we give him that exit.
However, that reasoning highlights another difference between the war in Ukraine and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962, the only antagonists that mattered were the two major nuclear powers, and the exit was a secret concession from one to the other. In exchange for the Soviet Union’s withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Cuba, the US would also remove its nuclear warheads from Turkey. Today, on the other hand, every imaginable exit would include things that are not America’s to give.
The US-led West should offer Putin something he has demanded in his many alien tirades over the past year. It is clear that these are Crimea or other Ukrainian territories that he has taken.
But only Kiev can make such deals. And after its heroic defiance and string of battlefield victories, it’s understandably in no mood to do so. It is difficult for the West to incite Kiev – for example by restricting arms supplies – to a compromise that would amount to surrender. Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson are not from Biden to trade.
Such an “off-ramp” would amount to awarding an actual victory to Putin and setting a disastrous precedent. By defending itself, Ukraine is also fighting for the principles of sovereignty, legitimacy, self-determination and democracy that are the foundation of the Western and international orders. If the West forfeits these principles, it rewards aggression, especially nuclear blackmail. Putin would start planning his next invasion, just like dictators elsewhere.
By the same logic, the exit Biden seeks cannot take the form of a NATO pledge to downsize or limit itself. Putin wants the alliance to withdraw troops from countries that were formerly members of the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact. But it is precisely these allies – especially Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland – who feel the most threatened by Putin. They demand more and stronger reinforcements along their eastern front. For the same reasons, the Finns and Swedes want to join the alliance.
Any concession by NATO in this context would again amount to rewarding Putin’s aggression rather than deterring it. Worse, it would cast doubt on NATO’s premise – Article 5 – that an attack on one is an attack on all, and that the alliance will defend every square inch of its territory.
Are there other exits the West could offer? It’s hard, so see one. The dropping of sanctions that have been in place since Feb. 24 will not impress Putin or his domestic target audience. Even a ‘Finlandization’ of Ukraine would not work – the West would still have to arm the country in case Putin attacks again in two years’ time, and the Russians would therefore not believe that Ukraine is actually neutral.
The depressing conclusion is that we may not have an exit to offer. Neither Biden nor anyone in the West deserves to be blamed for that. It is instead a result of Putin’s many disastrous miscalculations. He has set fire to his ships one by one, forgetting that he is not Hernan Cortez and that the Ukrainians are not Aztecs.
It’s always good to keep looking for exits, just in case we’ve overlooked one. But the reality is that we are back in the darkest scenarios of the Cold War, playing out game theory about the prisoner and chicken dilemmas and signaling the threat of mutual assured destruction. MAD it is. That is Putin’s legacy.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
Putin is already attacking NATO, just not all at once: Andreas Kluth
Putin unhinged is a warning to China and Xi: Clara Ferreira Marques
Putin’s aerial terror campaign against Ukraine is already failing: James Stavridis
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on European politics. A former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and writer for The Economist, he is the author of ‘Hannibal and Me’.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion