To persuade Vladimir Putin to stop the war in Ukraine, he must obtain some sort of gain, it is argued. Without a tangible benefit, Putin’s special military operation will be seen as a waste of resources. He will lose face, his job, and maybe even his head. Faced with this danger, he may resort to extreme measures — even to nuclear war.  

This argument surfaces not only in France and Germany but also in the US. The Biden administration asserts that Ukraine will have the final say on any peace deal, but top US officials say that Ukraine must return to its pre-invasion borders of February 23, 2022. Peace on those terms would mean that Russia retained Crimea, which it annexed in 2014, plus large slices of Donbas, which Russia occupied and then recognized as independent before the all-out February 24 attack.  

The bottom line — in this argument — is that the victim of Russia’s aggression must surrender territory to induce the aggressor to cut short its aggression. To cinch the deal it may also have to forgo its sovereign right to join whatever alliance or economic organization it chooses, such as NATO and the European Union (EU.) 

A similar deal could have been offered to Hitler in 1943. By then he was clearly losing. His troops were being pushed back from Soviet territory and southern Europe. To terminate the bloodshed and destruction, why not offer Hitler an inducement: pull out of Russia and most of Poland, but let Germany keep German-speaking Austria, Sudetenland, and Danzig that it took in 1938-1939? Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland would lose something, but this would be a small price to halt the carnage of the world war.  

Such terms could also appeal to Tokyo. By 1943, Japan was losing the Pacific war but might still hold out for years. Let Japan keep Korea and Manchuria but retreat from the rest of China and the other parts of Asia and the Pacific it occupied. Koreans and Chinese would pay a price, but millions of lives would be spared.  

Neither scenario took place, largely because Western governments and the public understood that the Axis powers could not be satisfied and that leaving the job half done would merely open the door to renewed conflict at a later date. Savage fighting continued until 1945 when Nazi Germany and Japan were defeated and occupied. Their wartime leaders were tried by international tribunals. Some were found guilty and some were executed.  Many — probably most — German and Japanese citizens came to understand that their countries had done evil and needed to change their ways. 

Germany and Japan changed — for the better, in nearly all respects. Could a similar future await Russia? 

To offer Putin large chunks of Ukraine to halt his aggression would obviously be unfair to Ukraine. It also would destroy any confidence in international laws against war and war crimes. The 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact banning all aggressive war (endorsed by the protocol of Stalin’s foreign commissar, Maksim Litvinov) is still the law of nations. Most members of the League of Nations backed the 1932 Stimson Doctrine of the eponymous US Secretary of State, refusing to recognize any territorial or political change accomplished by force. All members of the United Nations have signed the UN Charter, outlawing all war except in self-defense.  

The Helsinki Accords were signed by 35 states in 1975, and the Kremlin embraced the agreement because it affirmed the inviolability of Europe’s borders and banned interference in any country’s internal affairs. While not legally binding, the accords seemed to prop up Soviet  control of Eastern Europe. 

The Budapest Memorandum signed by Russia, Great Britain, and the United States in 1994, prohibited the signatories from threatening or using military force or economic coercion against Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan “except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.” In return, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan gave up their nuclear weapons. In 2009, Russia and the United States declared they would respect the Budapest security assurances even after their START I treaty expired.  

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Taken together, it is crystal clear that Putin’s Russia has treated international law and its sworn treaty promises with complete disdain. It cannot be trusted to keep its word, even if negotiations are agreed. 

What then of Putin’s possible resort to nuclear weapons? He has already risked the contamination of Ukraine and large parts of continental Europe through reckless military action near Ukraine’s nuclear reactors. Russia retains far more tactical nukes than the West. Putin brags he has strategic weapons unlike anything in NATO arsenals. His disdain for human life is evident in his use of poorly equipped soldiers as cannon fodder — already killing or wounding close to 200,000 of his own men in a single year.  

The Biden administration has moved cautiously to avoid crossing any red line that could provoke direct hostilities with Putin’s forces. Even before the war began, however, the US supplied valuable intelligence to Kyiv. Now it sends Patriot missiles and advanced tanks (but no aircraft.) 

It is not clear if Putin has any red lines. He has talked loosely about using nukes (as Nikita Khrushchev did on many occasions). But US intelligence has seen no preparations to do so. How credible are Putin’s threats? Not very. Strategic missile attacks on NATO countries could trigger Armageddon. Even if he cares nothing for others’ lives, Putin surely cares for his own. 

Even tactical nuclear explosions in Ukraine could blow back on Russian troops and Russia proper. A tactical nuclear weapon would cause all the horrors of Hiroshima, though possibly on a smaller scale. It would produce a fireball, shock waves, and deadly radiation that would cause long-term health damage in survivors. As Secretary of  Defense James Mattis warned  in 2018,  there is no “such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon.  Any nuclear weapon used any time is a strategic game changer.” 

More Western aid to Ukraine presents some risk of escalation — a very modest risk — but letting Putin continue his attacks on Ukraine unchecked or trying to appease him, as Chamberlain did Hitler, generates huge risks. The safest approach for the West is to help Ukraine defeat Russia and drive its forces from what was Ukrainian territory before 2014. 

To let Russia win anything by its unprovoked war and abundant war crimes would make a mockery of law and morality, and would undermine US interests in both the short- and long-term,  

Russia’s leaders must be brought to justice and the country compelled to pay reparations — probably close to $2 trillion for the destruction of life, property, and the environment.  

Purgation before resurrection — as in Germany and Japan after their crimes were recognized and expiated. 

Walter Clemens is an Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Boston University. He wrote ‘Can Russia Change?’ 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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