Three weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as its underperforming military bogs down in the face of a world-inspiring defense effort, US president Joe Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin find themselves caught between the cautionary lessons of history and today’s geopolitical realities.
Almost nothing has gone according to Putin’s earlier plans: Ukraine rallied against his military, inflicting horrendous losses and making it clear that Russia will never be welcomed into the former Soviet republic, and the world has united against Putin’s government, inflicting an immediate economic toll that already poses the greatest threat to his ongoing leadership in two decades.
Now Putin faces a dangerous question with destabilizing consequences for the West and the world beyond: How does he want to lose this war? What more of Russia’s treasury, economy, and people—and, not least of all, his own political power—is he willing to risk to either grind down Ukraine or preserve his hold on the country he’s led for nearly a quarter-century?
Meanwhile, half a world away, Biden faces his own, fraught choice—how to punish and defeat Russia without risking a war he’s clearly chosen not to fight and hold the line on American aid in the face of popular and political pressure to escalate.
For both presidents, the political calculations are informed by a half-century of geopolitical lessons reaching from the Cold War to Afghanistan to Libya.
Vladimir Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine caught nearly everyone—including his own troops—by surprise. The act seemed so irrational, so costly, and such a throwback to a previous era (tanks in European capitals?) that few imagined Putin’s build-up as much more than his normal saber-rattling. After all, it was clear to everyone, except perhaps Putin, that Ukraine was fundamentally different—in size, geography, and geopolitics—from previous targets in Chechnya and Georgia.
Now that Putin has cast his lot in Ukraine, nearly every passing day seems to confirm that he has made an awful, hubristic, and perhaps even politically fatal mistake.
Russian military losses are staggering: Leaked numbers appear to indicate as many as 9,800 killed and 16,000 wounded. That would be the equivalent of the US losing 12,000 to 15,000 soldiers in the multi-week 2003 invasion of Iraq, which actually saw just about 140 Americans killed. Ukrainian officials say a half-dozen generals and top Russian commanders have been killed in action, around a quarter of all the leaders it deployed to the field—while the US lost a single general in 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and none in the Gulf War. Those human and material costs to Russia will only mount, and it’s apparent that the billions of dollars in “modernization” spent on the Russian military have failed to deliver an intimidating force. Russia’s military might will only grow weaker as it brings forward even less-prepared units. And the country has apparently turned to China for help with the most basic military supplies.
The Ukrainian response has made it clear that any long-term attempt to occupy the country will come at an impossible price, both in terms of Russian casualties and ongoing financial costs. Russia simply does not possess a military force capable of subduing a resistance as strong as that put forward by Ukraine’s 43 million people. The American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Study of War, the think tanks that have been providing the most thorough unclassified battle analysis available, offered an assessment over the weekend that “Ukrainian forces have defeated the initial Russian campaign of this war,” adding, “the initial Russian campaign to seize Ukraine’s capital and major cities and force regime change has failed.”
At home, the Russian economy is unraveling at warp speed; Western sanctions and moves against almost every facet of the Russian economy were broader, faster, and more coordinated than anyone anticipated—least of all, apparently, Putin himself. Foreign airspace closed, banks unplugged, McDonald’s locations shuttered. In a series of rapid moves, the Putin-backing billionaire oligarchs who have long crossed freely between Russia and polite society in capitals like London were uninvited. Videos are already circulating of barren Russian grocery stores and runs on basic supplies. In a few months, Russian planes will cease flying even domestically. The pain will grow by the day; the impact harder to hide from the civilian population with every passing hour.
The broad economic devastation could hardly come at a weaker point for Putin’s homeland.
Russia and Putin were already facing a bad set of cards. As China’s economy soars and millions emerge from poverty to the middle class, Putin’s strategy for the last decade has focused on tearing down Western democracy because he understood his country couldn’t compete. The Soviet Union was never the economic engine America once feared, and 30 years of kleptocratic rule has further weakened Russia.
Its economy recently ranked around the eleventh-largest in the world—about the size of South Korea or Brazil, and not all that much larger than Spain—and less than a tenth the size of the US or China. And that was before crippling sanctions decimated its foreign currency reserves, upended the comfortable lives of its ruling oligarchs, and so excised the country from the world economy that its stock market has not reopened since the Ukraine invasion.
Russia mishandled Covid, failed to develop a functional vaccine, and continues to face shrinking birth rates and an unhealthy, aging population. Last year, Russia’s population of 140 million actually shrank by a million people—a dangerous and disruptive economic factor even without sanctions.
Putin’s gamble in Ukraine has been the quick undoing of 30 years of economic liberalization and Western expansion inside Russia; his moves since, like seizing and nationalizing the hundreds of leased aircraft on Russian soil, all but guarantee that Western firms will never spend another dollar in Russia while Putin leads the country. Over the weekend, the UK already made it clear that there is no “normalization” to come, even if Russia suddenly and uncharacteristically backs down. “To try to renormalize relations with Putin after this, as we did in 2014, would be to make exactly the same mistake again, and that is why Putin must fail,” Prime Minister Boris Johnston said Saturday, calling the crisis a “turning point for the world.” Russia’s own bright next generation is abandoning the nation in droves, fleeing abroad and taking their talents and entrepreneurship to new economies.
For Putin, the Ukraine war is quickly becoming an existential fight—which increases the danger inherent in each step of Western escalation. “There are a lot of things that can start the ball rolling toward a confrontation Putin doesn’t want but might not know how to get out of. He’s already proven he's a terrible strategist. We have to deal with that reality,” strategist Tom Nichols tweeted Monday.
Biden’s job, it increasingly appears, is to allow Putin the time and space to lose the war without giving him an excuse to escalate it into World War III.
until a few weeks ago, Biden’s presidency seemed to stand on the cusp of a new world era—one that finally put the failed forays of Iraq and Afghanistan behind the US and allowed it to focus on the rising global competition with China, a pivot Biden’s two most recent predecessors had tried and failed to make. For a decade, national security officials have warned that Russia was yesterday’s battle and China today’s. “Russia is a hurricane; China is climate change,” they’ve said.
Now the West is facing the a world-upending hurricane.
As Russian tanks breached the Ukrainian border, Biden—a politician who came of age during the Cold War but has spent the last 20 years at the forefront of floundering conflicts from the global war on terror—finds himself confronting questions closer to those of 20th-century leaders like Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy than 21st-century predecessors like George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
As Biden weighs how to calibrate America’s response and resists the charismatic—and desperate—pleas of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky for direct NATO involvement in the war, Biden faces one of the oddest conundrums of the office: Americans celebrate our wartime leaders and give little credit to those who avoid wars in the first place.
It’s the lesson Dwight Eisenhower tried hardest to teach his young successor in the midst of the Cold War.
Few leaders in American history know modern war more intimately than Eisenhower—both how hard and costly it is to win one and how difficult it is to stay out of one. He understood procedures, organization, logistics, and the need for decisive decision-making in times of crisis. As president at the start of the Cold War, he sat in the White House and doodled as his own generals—junior pip-squeaks in his mind, men who had been young officers when he led the Normandy invasion in 1944—recommended using nuclear weapons to settle now forgotten international crises: Kaesong, Quemoy, Matsu, Formosa, Berlin. At the end of his two-term presidency, asked what he was most proud of, he didn’t hesitate: “We kept the peace,” he said. “People asked how it happened. By God, it didn’t just happen—I’ll tell you that.”
Part of Eisenhower’s insistence on maintaining peace was his knowledge that the laws of physics apply to war, too: Objects in motion stay in motion. War has a natural momentum; it’s easy to start, easy to escalate, and hard to turn off. And once it’s underway, commanders use the weapons at hand. Facing defeat, they’re unlikely to leave even extreme weapons unused if they’re available. Most worrying of all is the fact that wartime leaders tend to dramatically misunderstand the circumstances they face, increasing the risks of miscalculation or accidental escalation.
That’s why the most important thing is not getting into a superpower war in the first place.
Seventy years after the start of the Cold War, one of the more remarkable human achievements remains that across two dozen US, Soviet, and Russian leaders, the world’s first two superpowers have never directly gone to war. The Cold War stayed cold.
One of the key lessons of the Cold War was that those leaders came much closer to war than they realized at multiple points—and knew surprisingly less than they thought in the middle of those crises. The Cuban Missile Crisis, which today is remembered as the moment when the superpowers came “eyeball to eyeball” and faced nuclear Armageddon, is filled with close calls and missing intelligence pieces that have only become clear with time. In one, US Navy ships enforcing the blockade on Soviet ships dropped harmless explosives in an attempt to force a Soviet submarine to the surface. But unbeknownst to the US, the sub captain was armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo and was unaware of the quarantine line or the surfacing procedures that the US Navy had transmitted to the Soviet government. He initially thought he was under attack and came close to arming and firing his ultimate weapon.
In another near miss, John F. Kennedy resisted the call from his own generals to invade Cuba—a push informed by the military’s sense that they could easily take the Caribbean island and overrun the Soviet positions. It took 40 years for the US government to realize that 162 tactical nuclear weapons had been deployed to Cuban soil with Soviet troops instructed to use them if they faced a US invasion.
Throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy tried desperately to hold on to events as they spiraled. At the time, Barbara Tuchman’s new history of World War I was on the bestseller lists, famous for its portrayal of how the great powers of Europe had gambled, stumbled, and misread their way into the “War to End All Wars.”
Kennedy, a student of history, was haunted throughout the Cuban crisis by Tuchman’s narrative and, in particular, a conversation between two German leaders after the war began. One, a former German chancellor, asked the current chancellor, “How did it all happen?” The latter, who had led his nation into war, replied, “Ah, if only one knew.”
Amid the darkest moments of the crisis, JFK confided in his brother Robert F. Kennedy that he wanted to avoid an account comparable to The Missiles of October being written about him. As President Kennedy recalled later, “If this planet is ever ravaged by nuclear war, if 300 million Americans, Russians, and Europeans are wiped out by a 60-minute nuclear exchange, if the survivors of that devastation can then endure the fire, poison, chaos, and catastrophe, I do not want one of those survivors to ask another, ‘How did it all happen?’ and to receive the incredible reply, ‘Ah, if only one knew.’”
Every action from Biden thus far seems calibrated to Eisenhower’s Cold War promise and Jack Kennedy’s caution: When dealing with a nuclear-armed foe, it is imperative to keep events from spiraling out of control.
It was a dance Biden’s predecessors kept at straight through the fall of the Berlin Wall. Managing the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a feat of extraordinary delicacy; as Madeleine Albright once phrased it, the West had “to manage the devolution of Russia from an imperial to a normal nation.” Another aide phrased it bluntly: “Russia was too big and too nuclear to fail.”
It still is.
The canon of books on the end of the Cold War—including Strobe Talbott and Michael Beschloss’s classic, At the Highest Levels, and the brand-new book by M.E. Sarotte about NATO expansion, Not One Inch—underscore how hard it was to keep the peace even at the end, to not antagonize Soviet and Russian hard-liners, and to not risk unraveling the peaceful withdrawal of Soviet forces from Eastern Europe. Robert Gates, in his first memoir of the Cold War, outlines how the US placed economic pressure on the Soviet Union while only engaging militarily through proxies, like arming the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, and through battles with developing nations that overextended the Soviet Union while never threatening the central leadership directly.
As he watched the Iron Curtain collapse and the Berlin Wall fall, President George H. W. Bush was chastised by the media for not appearing celebratory enough. “I’m not going to dance on the wall,” he said. Behind closed doors, Bush’s team weighed the right response, and Talbott and Beschloss concluded that they had a single overarching concern: “The US must not try to make Gorbachev’s life any more difficult than it already was.” Condoleezza Rice, one of primary foreign policy aides at the time, phrased it more colorfully: “He’s afraid to light a match in a gas-filled room.”
That victory, which has held for three decades after the end of the Soviet Union, has rarely seemed as tenuous as it does with the Russia-Ukraine War entering a particularly dangerous new phase and Putin contemplating the unraveling of his grandest ambitions. “The prospect of nuclear war is now back within the realm of possibility,” UN secretary general António Guterres warned last week.
Today, Biden faces Bush’s dilemma: how to not light a match in a gas-filled room. The US is clearly calibrating its response to avoid anything that would give Putin an excuse to launch a wider war against NATO or drag the alliance directly into the conflict.
As the western responses unify, Putin faces the opposite dilemma: He is increasingly alone. Putin biographer Ben Judah recently called Putin “the most isolated Russian leader since Stalin,” cut off from the world even more in recent years by his apparent paranoia about Covid, exemplified in bizarre photos of him in socially distanced meetings with aides seated at the other end of long tables.
Until a few months ago, Putin was effectively on a path toward presidency for life, the now 69-year-old’s two-decade rule a finely calibrated descent into authoritarianism. His steady corruption of Russia’s institutions has spread as he faces a mounting series of challenges at home and abroad, trying to balance the needs of the wealthy elites who surround and support him while ensuring that no internal or external critic can grow powerful enough to unseat him.
The growing list of his regime’s crimes are the main reason he can’t trust any others in power—he can’t guarantee that a successor won’t choose to prosecute or execute him. Added to that is the fact that his war crimes in Ukraine appear so monstrous and enormous that he’ll likely be forever ostracized by the West. He has watched, warily, as the US moved to overthrow and kill two of the few other dictators in his world’s worst club—Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi—and he knows that dictators rarely retire peaceably.
Putin may realize by now that he will likely never leave Russian soil again. His war is already lost; Ukraine, which he has long seen as a step toward rebuilding Russia into the great imperial power it once was, will never be his.
The challenge increasingly appears to be how to lose the war without sacrificing his hold on power. He knows that any sign of weakness or defeat might very well be his political undoing, but his military’s ability to remain functioning and his country’s economy’s future are likely measured in weeks more than months. Before an impending collapse, can he find a way to declare victory, get out, and avoid a coup?
He has few friends left to help; his circle of loyalists has shrunk considerably. He’s already begun hunting at home for “scum and traitors” who are undermining his war, senior intelligence officers are reportedly under house arrest, and he’s continuing to squelch any domestic political dissent while warning oligarchs to remain loyal.
It's clear he knows his long-running playbook has now failed him.
Since the beginning of his political rise, Putin has looked to foreign threats and military campaigns to boost his popularity and secure his rule at home. Soon after coming to power, he launched the grim Second Chechen War. Russia initiated the invasion in response to a string of apartment building bombings in Moscow and elsewhere in September 1999 that killed 243 Russians and injured 1,700, bombings that most now believe the Russian FSB security services carried out themselves, perhaps even with the explicit permission of Putin. The war initially delivered political capital, and Putin’s popularity soared.
One of the most remarkable passages in M.E. Sarotte’s new book, Not One Inch, about the delicate politics of NATO expansion in the 1990s, comes from records she found in the State Department archives of a December 1999 conversation in which Nursultan Nazarbayev—then dictator of neighboring Kazakhstan, whose 30-year brutal rule coincidentally ended just a few weeks ago—told President Bill Clinton that Putin “had nothing going for him besides the Chechen War.” As Nazarbayev recognized even then, “He has no charisma, no foreign policy experience, no economic policy of his own. He just has the war—a fight with his own people.”
In many ways, Nazabayev’s words ring even more true now. Putin’s been shown to be an empty strategist; whatever economic success he may have had is in shambles, and the monetary and human costs of his war will be felt more acutely at home by the day. Domestic political dissent, never easy in his Russia, may well increase in temperature.
What clearly worries the West is that Putin’s dwindling options increase the chances of ever-worsening outcomes. The Russian military appears unable to defeat the Ukrainian military, but it is still able to pound civilians, massacre children, and level cities. Western governments are warning now about the possibility that Putin will open up new fronts—chemical or biological weapons or, as Biden warned on Monday, cyberattacks against the US.
And then there’s the nuclear question.
Since his earliest forays into Ukraine, in 2014, Putin’s government has warned that it still believes in the use of nuclear weapons “when the existence of the state itself is threatened.”
Today, Biden’s balancing act is understanding the extent to which Putin views himself as inseparable from the state. As this war becomes an existential threat to Putin, will it bring forth even greater tragedy? Can Biden navigate a path to help Putin lose without destroying the world?
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