Weaken, but don’t ruin, Russia

While in Poland after his trip to Kyiv, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated that the West seeks for Russia to emerge from its war against Ukraine severely weakened, if not debilitated. The purpose is to ensure that Russia will not have the capacity to attempt another attack in the same place or elsewhere in the future. This is the right intent and would be a desirable outcome in the near term — as long as we don’t overdo it.

Helping Ukraine withstand Russia’s aggression and survive as a nation must be our goal. As such, the current policy of arms shipments, intelligence and other indirect support, and powerful economic sanctions makes sense. But the permanent weakening of Russia should not be our long-term objective, and we should take care not to create conditions that produce that outcome.  Leave aside the humanitarian implications for the Russian people. Such a policy would be dangerous.

No historical analogy can ever be a perfect guide to future policy. But the lessons of the Treaty of Versailles, negotiated in 1919 after World War I, are instructive here.

Versailles’ harsh terms set the stage for the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany, the rise of Adolf Hitler, and World War II. Convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the guilt of Germany for beginning World War I, Britain and France showed up loaded for bear. Paris and London put the full blame on Berlin and chose to make it pay through the nose. The reparation payments the treaty demanded of Germany were severe, amounting to several percent of the country’s GDP for many years. This deepened the suffering of its population during the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s. 

So, too, was the German military subject to embarrassing restrictions, with limits placed on its size and constraints placed on the location of its forces — within its own borders. The accumulation of economic hardship and national humiliation left the German population embittered, and ultimately too angry to accept its fate quietly. The second world war thus, in effect, was the continuation of the first, with a 20-year gap in between. The same kind of thing could happen now, though with Russian President Vladimir Putin already in power, the gap between crises could be much shorter.

Whatever strategic mistakes the West may have made in seeking to expand NATO after the Cold War do not absolve Putin of the moral responsibility for this war. But the analogy with Versailles is still apt, not least because the Russian people seem to feel differently — at least so far. Polling done in April by an independent organization indicated that a majority of Russians believed Putin’s characterization of the war as a “special military operation,” and that they supported it. If the Russian economy winds up flat on its back for years to come, and Putin and his state media machine continue to encourage the Russian people to blame the West for unfair punishment, stoke resentment, and energize identity-based imperialist narratives, the seeds may be sown for another future war.

It makes sense to keep restrictions on high-technology trade and investment with Russia even after a ceasefire or peace deal is eventually struck, but it is important that those are targeted to limit Russia’s ability to compete with us militarily and not just for purposes of prolonging national punishment. And we’ll need to work for a peace treaty that allows Russia to regain access to the western banking system and to resume whatever fraction of its oil and gas exports it can restore once the fighting ends.

The West also should consider carefully the costs and benefits of permanently reinforcing NATO’s eastern flank, and of adding Sweden and Finland to the alliance. This is not to say that worrying about Putin’s perceptions of encirclement should drive our strategy, but it would be forgetful of history and short-sighted to pretend that the Russian population will be insensitive to those changes. Of course, for any peace to be possible, Russia must minimize whatever territorial ambitions it may have in this conflict and accept that Ukraine will reconstitute and reinforce its military after hostilities end, provided that it does not seek NATO membership. 

By clarifying our thinking now about what kind of post-war Europe we seek, we can reduce the risk of reliving the mistakes of Versailles — and perhaps accelerate negotiations to end this senseless violence. No one is in a mood now to be kind to Russia, but an overly harsh peace deal that leaves Russia ruined would not serve our own long-term interests.

Michael O’Hanlon is the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy at the Brookings Institution, and author of several books, including “The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint” and “Defense 101: Understanding the Military of Today and Tomorrow.” Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEOHanlon.

Melanie W. Sisson is a fellow in the Foreign Policy program’s Center for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Brookings Institution, where she researches the use of the armed forces in international politics, U.S. national security strategy and military applications of emerging technologies. Follow her on Twitter @MWSBrookingsFP.

Tags Europe Lloyd Austin NATO Russian invasion of Ukraine Treaty of Versailles Vladimir Putin

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