A key reason for Western policy failures toward Russia is not Russophobia but a narrow-minded Russophilia that views Europe’s East through Moscow’s prism. Officials and advisers dealing with Russia are invariably schooled in Russian history, language, and literature. Russia’s neighbors are largely seen as secondary actors rather than geopolitical players in their own right. Hence, even in the midst of a brutal war of conquest against Ukraine, the idea of not “provoking” Russia or “humiliating” its leaders continues to prevail.
A conciliatory approach toward Russia is also undergirded by two fears: nuclear war and Russia’s instability. The specter of nuclear annihilation is spread by Moscow whenever it is in danger of losing a war or another country decides to join NATO. Western policymakers invariably play into the Kremlin's hands by giving the threat credibility. A more effective response would be to point out that Russia will become extinct in the event of nuclear war, and its leaders will not commit collective suicide, as they are opportunists who only fight weaker opponents.
Second, and more importantly, Western governments uphold a status quo mentality and have not yet realized that the world has fundamentally changed during the past three months. Russia’s failures and frailties have been glaringly exposed: Its military muscle is flabby, its economy rests on weak foundations, and its political structure is untenable. The Russian state could not survive in its current form even if President Vladimir Putin were ousted, as liberals have limited influence and Putin’s successors will confront immense centrifugal pressures.
Instead of preparing responses to Russia’s domestic instabilities, Western policymakers continue to believe they can squeeze the genie back into the bottle. They operate on the assumption that another modus vivendi can be forged, and cooperation with Moscow resumed, even as it continues to occupy neighboring states. Although the French and German governments are the most grievous offenders, the Biden administration also proposes “cease-fires” that would involve Ukraine’s territorial concessions.
The notion that the Kremlin is seeking diplomatic off-ramps or exit strategies in Ukraine is based on a delusion. After staking so much on victory, any retreat from captured territories is a defeat for Putin that will hasten regime collapse. Conversely, any settlement that leaves Putin in possession of territories gained through aggression is a defeat for the West, as it will encourage future assaults and military rebuilding once sanctions are eased. The surrender of territory in Donbas would also capsize Biden's democracy agenda, as it would effectively give the green light to carving out autocratic entities from democratic states.
A comprehensive Ukrainian military victory would send a powerful signal that attacks on independent states end in failure, that NATO is united in confronting aggressors, and that the West is prepared for Russia’s implosion. Ukraine must be supplied with every effective weapon that will hasten its victory, including long-range artillery and mobile rocket launchers. Ukraine’s triumph would constitute a strategic victory for the West as it would help demolish the last empire that threatens European security.
New thinking is urgently needed in Washington and Europe on how to deal with a failed power that borders 16 states and whose internal turmoil will affect all of them. Security partnerships must be pursued in handling conflicts that may spill over Russia’s current borders. This new thinking must also escape traditional Moscow-centrism by focusing on the diverse regions and nations occupied by the Russian Federation that will increasingly move toward independence as the Kremlin’s military and economic defeats become starker.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. He is the co-author of Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks with Margarita Assenova. His new book, Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture, will be published in June.