With regime change in Kyiv unattainable, Putin has reduced his ambitions, focusing on controlling a slice of the south and east of Ukraine in an effort to enlarge and connect the territories he took in 2014. What he has not given up, however, is his belief that Ukraine does not deserve to be a sovereign entity. As a result, it is difficult to imagine Putin ending the conflict. If Russian forces fare poorly in their ongoing offensive in the Donbas, he will be loath to accept what many might view as a defeat in a war he started. Doing so could render him vulnerable to internal challenge and could come to define his legacy. If, on the other hand, Russian forces gain the upper hand, Putin will see no reason to agree to a cessation of fighting.
Further dimming the prospects of peace is the unlikelihood that any of the developments that could change Putin’s calculus will materialize. Take, for instance, criticism within Russia of the war. Ukraine claims that 30,000 Russian soldiers have already been killed in battle, whereas other assessments suggest that the number is half as high. Whatever the precise figure, it is surely larger than the Kremlin had imagined. In a normal society, that would sap support for the war. But because the government can so effectively control information and crack down against its opponents, domestic criticism of the war has been relatively muted so far.
What if the economic pressure mounts? For now, the sanctions are nowhere near the point of threatening to bring down Putin. Higher oil prices and the emergence of buyers such as India have helped offset reduced sales to the West. Europe, for its part, continues to import Russian gas. If it stopped doing so, Russia would be hard-pressed to sell the gas to others, but Europe is likely to keep buying. Worried about their economies, European countries will resist cutting off imports until they can be assured of either alternative supplies of gas or substitute energy sources—all of which will take years to materialize.
Then there is the prospect of pressure from China, which has so far stood by Russia. If the West persuaded Beijing to distance itself from Moscow, then Putin might realize that his invasion was costing him a vital partner. The United States and Europe should do what they can to drive apart the two powers, including offering incentives to China while also warning it that continued support for Russia would lead to a further deterioration of U.S.-Chinese relations. But even if they tried, their efforts still might fail, as Chinese President Xi Jinping would be extremely reluctant to do anything that would lead to Russia’s defeat or that would suggest that he erred in associating China so closely with Russia…..
Ultimately, what is probably required to end the war is a change not in Washington but in Moscow. In all likelihood, given Putin’s deep investment in the war, it will require someone other than him to take steps that would end Russia’s pariah status, economic crisis, and military quagmire. The West should make clear that it is ready to reward a new Russian leader prepared to take such steps even as it keeps up the pressure on the current one.
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