The West should offer Putin a ‘golden bridge’ out of conflict

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression rages on in Ukraine, it is all too easy for Western politicians, commentators, journalists and even casual observers to work themselves into a moral lather. The manifestly illegal, unnecessary and unprovoked nature of the Russian invasion of its sovereign neighbor makes such a response both appropriate and inevitable, of course.

Indeed, anything short of furious indignation at Putin’s act of unjustified aggression would bespeak an almost unimaginable moral bankruptcy in and beyond the Western world. So let us stipulate right up front that moral outrage is without question the appropriate first response to what we are witnessing in Ukraine.

And yet, at some point soon that righteous indignation will have to give way to cold strategic calculation. For if it doesn’t – if Western policymakers give in to their outrage or respond to the pressures of an outraged media channeling an outraged public – then some very bad outcomes lie ahead. 

And that cold strategic logic, inevitably intermixed with moral outrage, demands that we calibrate a response to Putin’s crime that not only satisfies the moral need to punish injustice, but also signals clearly and unambiguously to Moscow – and, non-trivially, to Beijing too – that the costs of any such military adventurism in the future will always exceed the anticipated benefit. 

That much ought to be clear. But there’s a limiting principle at work too. Such signals – in the form of concrete diplomatic and policy initiatives – cannot be so strong as to trigger even more undesirable actions on the part of the receiver. They cannot be so strong militarily as to amplify Putin’s fears that Russia is under increasingly unbearable strategic pressure. They cannot be so strong economically as to cripple the Russian economy, thus inclining Putin to gamble even more recklessly in the short run before he becomes too weak to do so down the road. And they cannot be so strong across the board as to drive Russia ever more firmly into the geopolitical embrace of China.

Such outcomes would satisfy neither the desire to right and/or punish a wrong nor the imperative to enhance the security of the West. In fact, quite the opposite: While advancing the cause of justice not an inch, they would dangerously destabilize the North Atlantic security order and disastrously alter the global balance of power. They would, to put it bluntly, increase the risk of major war in Europe and the Western Pacific merely to make a moral statement that could have been made at far lower cost. 

What, then, is to be done? First, we must eschew the more extreme responses, no matter how gratifying they may feel in the short term. Inflict pain, yes — that’s crucial to the future credibility of deterrence-by-punishment. But always bear in mind that Russia can throw counterpunches that might inflict serious harm on the West. It could, for example, level its own sanctions against its perceived adversaries — sanctions related to liquid natural gas, critical minerals like titanium and chemical elements such as neon (which is critical to chip production) that could prove costly to Western nations.

Russia could also counterpunch in the cyber realm, opening the door to an escalatory spiral that could culminate in mutually assured (cyber) destruction. As a major exporter of agricultural fertilizer, it could also impose costs on those countries in the developing world that felt obliged to sign on to Western sanctions against Russia. All of which is to say that maximalist “feel good” actions today may not feel so good – or look so smart – tomorrow.

Bear in mind, too, that as Putin is made to feel more and more insecure, he will have more and more motive to act audaciously now while he still has the economic and military muscle to do so. Russian forces have not performed to expectations in Ukraine, and the robust European and global political response Putin no doubt failed to anticipate has in fact materialized.

Putin is already feeling so exposed that he has put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert. Excessive sanctions on top of these unpleasant surprises are less likely to chasten Putin than to incline him to gamble even more recklessly in the hope of somehow turning things around.

Second, we must impose serious diplomatic and economic costs on Russia, but without crippling the Russian economy or doing anything else so severe that it might drive Russia into an even closer relationship with China. Washington and allied capitals need to bear in mind that we are now in a post-post-Cold War moment — a moment when the unipolarity of the 1990s and 2000s has given way to a new multipolar order in which China and Russia compete with the United States for power and influence. In this new world of multipolar great power competition, the United States must be careful not to create conditions in which it is rational for Russia and China to overcome their substantial differences and forge an even tighter strategic partnership that could tip the global balance of power decisively in their favor. Overdoing the response to the invasion of Ukraine could have precisely that effect.

Third, we must strengthen the relative position of the West vis-à-vis Russia to deter further aggression. To begin with, this should involve depriving Russia of some of its economic leverage, especially in the realm of hydrocarbons. As importantly, however, it must involve greater European investment in its conventional deterrent capabilities.

Most of NATO’s European members have long fallen short of their pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. But that is beginning to change, as Germany has just now committed to meeting that commitment and more. Care needs to be taken not to overdo this, of course, as that would only amplify Putin’s mistaken belief that NATO is somehow out to get him. But the development of a robust, autonomous European military capability would go a long way to deterring future Russian aggression — and would have the side benefit of freeing up American forces to deal with other threats in other parts of the globe.  

None of this is meant to endorse Putin’s invasion of Ukraine or to argue against punishing this egregious violation of international law. It is, however, to caution against over-reacting in a fit of moral outrage, however justified.

In this respect, perhaps the best advice is that provided by Scipio Africanus, widely considered to be among the greatest generals ever produced by ancient Rome. Scipio argued that the best way to defeat an enemy army was to envelop it on three sides but purposefully leave the fourth side open. In thus creating what he called a “golden bridge,” Scipio believed that he could defeat the enemy army without forcing it into a bloody fight to the death.

Two millennia after Scipio’s last victory, we’d do well to follow his advice and offer Vladimir Putin some sort of golden bridge. The last thing we want is him fighting to the death.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.

Tags International sanctions during the Russo-Ukrainian War Reactions to the 2021–2022 Russo-Ukrainian crisis Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Russian irredentism Russo-Ukrainian War Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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