‘Russia delenda est’: The West must defeat Putin’s Russia

Associated Press/Rodrigo Abd
Tanya Nedashkivs’ka, 57, mourns the death of her husband on the site where he was buried, in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 4, 2022. Russia is facing a fresh wave of condemnation after evidence emerged of what appeared to be deliberate killings of civilians in Ukraine.

Given the atrocities committed by Russian troops in the war in Ukraine, I think we can all agree that the world would be a much better place without Vladimir Putin, just as it became a much better place without Adolf Hitler.

But post-war Germany was able to abandon its love affair with barbarity because Hitler’s demise was accompanied by the demise of Hitler’s Germany. Had only Hitler died, had Nazi Germany not been defeated and partitioned, it’s highly unlikely that West Germany would have become a democracy that, over time, embraced liberalism, tolerance and peaceful relations with its neighbors.

Can Putin’s Russia become “normal” — a term that means some combination of nice, decent, and average in Russian — without Putin? Or must it, as the German example suggests, be defeated before it can rejoin the family of civilized nations?

However inconvenient for Western hopes of peaceful coexistence with Russia, however unpleasant its implications, we no longer can ignore the question. As long as Putin acted as a thuggish leader, one could entertain the belief that, somehow, things would work out. Now that he, his regime, and his people have engaged in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly, genocide in Ukraine, it is necessary to consider whether today’s Russia can be anything but a dangerous, imperialistic, supremacist war monger and rogue state.

The prognosis isn’t rosy. On April 2, the official Russian propaganda service, RIA Novosti, published a programmatic article that did nothing less than propose a point-by-point final solution to the Ukrainian question. The name of the author is immaterial because he couldn’t have written what he did — a contemporary Russian version of “Mein Kampf” — without the approval and encouragement of Putin and the Kremlin elite.

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There can be no more pretending, either in Russia or the West. Everyone now knows that Putin has killed thousands of Ukrainians intentionally — the massacre at Bucha is just the tip of the iceberg — and everyone now also knows that he plans to keep killing them until he can reduce Ukraine to rubble and its people to slaves. Now we all know that Ukrainians are to Putin what Jews were to Hitler.

Hitler couldn’t countenance compromise with the object of his obsessive paranoia. For him, it was a question of his own annihilation or that of the Jews. Putin and his regime frame the issue identically: It’s either Russia or Ukraine.

Given such a mindset, negotiations and the search for compromise are at best Pollyannaish, and at worst destructive, because they create illusions of progress when in fact Russia is merely sharpening its knives. We know from Hitler’s manipulation of naïve European democracies that he despised them and their efforts to appease him. Putin’s detestation of the “degenerate” West is no less intense.

Since neither the United States nor Europe want to get involved in a war with Russia — although they may have one foisted upon them if they fail to act decisively vis-à-vis Ukraine — the only way of defeating Putin’s Russia is to arm the Ukrainians and give them the military wherewithal to push all Russian troops out of all Ukrainian territories. Strengthening NATO forces in Eastern Europe won’t do the trick because, if Putin wins in Ukraine, he will feel emboldened to take on some especially vulnerable, and arguably indefensible, NATO states such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Won’t Putin escalate? He already has, twice — first by starting the war and then by turning a “special military operation” into a genocidal campaign. Further escalation won’t make much difference to the Ukrainians, who are already being slaughtered by the thousands. And escalation won’t enable the Russian army to turn the tide on the battlefield. Its best units took a beating in February and March; its second- or third-best units will take an even greater beating in April and May.

If the Ukrainians lose, Putin’s Russia will continue expanding until it is stopped — this time with the blood of other Europeans and Americans being spilled. If the Ukrainians win, Putin probably will be overthrown, a power struggle will take place, and there’s a sliver of hope that a Putin-less Russia might evolve in a “normal” direction.

If such a promising denouement takes place, the West must embrace Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus; maintain existing sanctions, including new U.S. sanctions announced this week; and contain Russia — until it implodes from its internal contradictions.

As a result of Putin’s criminal war, Russia has declared itself the enemy of humanity. There may be no alternative to Cato the Elder’s insistence that “Carthago delenda est” — that Carthage must be destroyed. After all, the only way to stop a genocidal criminal is to stop the genocidal criminal.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction.

Tags Adolf Hitler Hitler comparisons Russian aggression Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian war crimes Vladimir Putin

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