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Opinion: Russia’s defeat must be democracies’ goal

October 19, 2023 6:44 PM 5 min read
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his press conference at the Third Belt and Road Forum on Oct. 18, 2023, in Beijing, China. (Contributor/Getty Images)
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Proposals for peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine are pointless and dangerous. The Kremlin will not offer peace in exchange for Ukrainian territories, because its goal is not territorial but the elimination of Ukraine on the way to completing Russia’s “historical mission” of destroying the “decadent West.”

BERKELEY/KYIV – The democratic world, one hears constantly from its leaders, will support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” But, given these leaders’ reluctance to give Ukraine what it needs to win, what does this strong-sounding commitment really mean?

In the worst case, it’s an excuse for inaction in the futile hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin will die soon, that Russians will overthrow him, or that some other solution will miraculously emerge, deus ex machina. In the best case, it means providing Ukraine with enough weapons to attain a better negotiating position in future peace talks.

Both approaches are misguided. Even if Putin dies soon, Russia will remain a mortal danger to Ukraine, and to the West. Russians overwhelmingly support the war, and Russia’s tiny “liberal opposition,” representing no one but themselves, has no chance of gaining power. Like Germany and Japan, which became democratic only after they were defeated, occupied, and effectively governed by the Allies, Russia cannot reform itself from within.

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Talk of negotiations or a “frozen conflict” is pointless and dangerous. Russia will not offer peace in exchange for Ukrainian territories, because its goal is not strictly territorial. It wants to eliminate the Ukrainian nation. But that is just a step in the Kremlin’s plan to restore the empire and fulfill what it conceives to be Russia’s centuries-long “historical mission” of destroying the “decadent West.”

Russia’s assault on democracies is undeniable: it supports far-right parties and populists in the West, meddles in elections, deepens cleavages within and between countries, spreads disinformation, monopolizes critical markets such as energy, and corrupts Western elites, including in France, Germany, and Austria. Meanwhile, Russia has already found ways to circumvent sanctions and secure the necessary parts and equipment for weapons, while such support from China and Iran will likely increase.

Only a strategic defeat of Russia can stop this cancer from spreading. Why, then, are many Western leaders allergic to this prescription?

A strategic defeat, some argue, would lead to Russia’s partition and uncontrolled nuclear proliferation. But proliferation is just as likely if Russia is not defeated.

Russia can already supply Iran with the technology and materials needed to produce a nuclear bomb, just as the Soviet Union did for China and North Korea. Moreover, if today Russia is not punished for launching a genocidal war on Ukraine, many more countries will want nuclear weapons because they will see that a country that voluntarily gave up its nuclear arsenal was abandoned when a nuclear state attacked it.

There is also fear in Western capitals that Russia’s defeat will strengthen China. But this assumes that China and Russia are rivals. In fact, both (as well as North Korea and Iran) are united by a common enemy: democratic systems that offer an attractive alternative to authoritarian regimes.

Aside from nuclear proliferation, some warn that Russia’s partition would lead to civil war, flooding Europe with refugees. Perhaps this is an extrapolation of what happened to the Russian Empire in 1917 and the Soviet Union in 1991.

In both cases, it should be remembered, disintegration was a good thing. After all, would it really have been better if Finland and Poland had remained within the Russian Empire after 1917? And would it be better today if Ukraine, the Baltic states, Moldova, and the nations of Central Asia had not gained independence after 1991?

What Russia portrays as civil wars were in fact Russian attacks on newly emerged independent states. After 1917, Soviet Russia attacked Poland in 1919-21, Ukraine in 1918-22, Belarus in 1918-20, and Georgia in 1921. After 1991, Russia attacked Moldova in 1992, Georgia in 1993 and 2008, and Chechnya in 1994 and 1999. It tried to attack Ukraine in 1994 and 2003, and invaded in 2014 and 2022.

If Russia is deprived of the resources to wage wars, it will likely disintegrate peacefully. Why would Yakuts be at war with Buryats instead of building their own states? Any territorial disputes that arose could be resolved with proper intermediation, giving the United Nations a chance to prove its effectiveness.

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The international community would also have much more leverage over the new states than it has over today’s Russia: international recognition and technical and financial assistance could be tied to peaceful settlement of their borders and renunciation of nuclear weapons. Moscovia would be much less dangerous than Russia.

The immediate steps to achieve Russia’s strategic defeat are clear. First, Ukraine should be provided with all the weapons it needs, including warplanes and long-range missiles, without any conditions. After all, destroying Russian weapons plants is much more efficient than destroying Russian weapons on the battlefield.

Second, sanctions must be tightened and enforced more strictly. Russia should be completely isolated. This includes cutting it off from receiving equipment and software, ordering businesses that still remain in Russia to exit, and recognizing Russia as a terrorist state that belongs on the Financial Action Task Force Blacklist.

Third, Russian government-controlled media should be banned, and NGOs and political organizations that receive Russian money and promote Russian narratives should be closely monitored. Deliberate propagation of lies has nothing to do with freedom of speech.

Since Russia has many more people whom it can send to kill and die in Ukraine, we don’t have “as long as it takes.” Ukraine needs much more support now. During World War II, the democracies supported Stalin to defeat Hitler, although Stalin’s regime rivaled Hitler’s in brutality. In Ukraine, the distinction between good and evil is clear. Anything short of Russia’s strategic defeat will make more war inevitable.

Editor’s Note: Copyright, Project Syndicate. The following article was published by Project Syndicate on Oct. 17, 2023, and has been republished by the Kyiv Independent with permission. The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.

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