Ukraine’s partners cannot remove Putin but they can stop legitimizing him

In the weeks following the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, many Western leaders indicated that Russian President Vladimir Putin had passed the point of no return. Most notably, US President Joe Biden declared that Putin “cannot remain in power.” Those sentiments, however, have since been significantly diluted, with Washington, London, Berlin, and Paris now apparently reluctant to contemplate the prospect of Russia without Putin.

Perhaps in coordination, multiple sources have recently suggested a desire in some Western capitals to begin negotiating with Moscow. Yet a comprehensive peace agreement with Putin still in power is inconceivable. As long as he remains in the Kremlin, the Russian negotiating position will be at a vast distance from Ukraine’s, with no genuine room for bargaining and concessions. Any agreement would therefore be based on insincere undertakings, with further conflict highly likely.

Complete normalization of relations with Putin would be repugnant and unwise. The scale of the crimes committed during the full-scale invasion of Ukraine is immense and accountability for them must not be negotiated away. Putin is already wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the war crime of ordering the forcible transfer of Ukrainian children. Many legal practitioners and scholars believe that crimes against humanity have been committed in Ukraine, that Russians have incited genocide against Ukrainians, and that a plan to destroy at least part of the Ukrainian nation may be escalating.

There is a very real prospect that additional crimes will be added to Putin’s existing ICC warrant, which has already accelerated his de-legitimization internationally and prevented him from attending multiple summits. Far from countenancing French President Emanuel Macron’s suggestion of negotiating about Putin’s prosecution, Ukraine’s partners should indicate to Russian elites that their isolation might be eased in return for delivering up Putin.

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There are few reasons to believe that Russian state behavior would normalize following any negotiated deal with Putin. Since February 24, 2022, Russia has withdrawn from numerous international bodies and agreements which it judges to be constraining. Meanwhile, far from seeking a rapprochement, Putin has been obsessively transmitting his grievances to Russia’s future generations, preparing them for war as a means to arrest and reverse Moscow’s imperial decline.

A sustainable peace between Ukraine and Russia depends on the departure of Putin, under whom there are elites and sub-elites which Ukraine and the wider international community can work with. That in turn depends on enabling Ukraine to deny Putin any gains that he can sell as a victory. To say that Ukraine has been given all the military equipment and training necessary to do so is disingenuous. The piecemeal provision of weapons with strict territorial restrictions, instead of being supplied simply on the basis of use in accordance with international law, is based on a “learning by doing” approach to risk management, which has repeatedly established artificial escalation baselines for future Kremlin reference.

The Wagner revolt in late June revealed the extent of Putin’s domestic weakness. The subsequent apparent assassination of Wagner leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin has done nothing to alter the basis of this reality: Putin has clearly caused immense discomfort to Russia’s elites in exchange for territorial gains that Ukraine’s partners can now either allow or deny him. Yet with gestures such as continued talk of off-ramps and settlements fundamentally compromising for Ukraine, Ukraine’s partners have consistently chosen to legitimize Putin rather than following the ICC’s example of de-legitimizing him. Ironically, Ukraine’s most important security guarantors could also prove to be Putin’s most important political guarantors.

Much of the broader toolkit for complimenting a battlefield strategy of denying Putin tangible gains in Ukraine can be found in Reagan-era US policy toward the Soviet Union. Acutely undermining Russia’s currency and banking system has so far been eschewed, even though this would most directly convince ordinary Russians that Putin is a liability for them. Significant gaps also remain in the existing sanctions regime.

Applying a range of pressure incrementally in places such as Syria, Georgia, and Kaliningrad can create additional dilemmas for Russia’s use of resources currently focused in Ukraine. Articulating the possibility of a European future for Belarus is similarly important in order to support the significant domestic opposition to Putin’s closest ally, Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

It is to be hoped that efforts are already being made to identify Russian elites amenable to a normalization of relations with Ukraine’s partners in accordance with international law and the true interests of Russia’s neighbors. This should include facilitating Russian efforts to legitimize domestic alternatives to Putin and engender a serious public debate about Russia’s imperial character and the crimes attendant on it.

As long as Putin is in power, Russia will remain a rogue state. Policy that legitimizes him through fear of a post-Putin Russia is perverse; it obscures the memory of Russia before Putin, along with the idea of a future without him. Ukraine’s partners should regain the sentiments of spring 2022, which were clear, principled, and widely subscribed to, even at a time when Putin’s maximalist intentions had been revealed yet the limits of Russia’s capabilities had not.

Richard Cashman is an Adjunct Fellow at the Centre for Defence Strategies.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting on the implementation of the development program for the cities of Anadyr, Magadan and Yakutsk in the Russian Far East, via video link in Sochi, Russia. September 5, 2023. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS