Russia needs to stop being a threat: to its neighbours, to its own people, to the world. Minimising that threat should be the goal of our policies and the only way to face up to the reality of the Kremlin’s boot stamping on so many faces. The hope that the current iteration of Russia is ready to recognise that other states have rights is gone. Putin’s Russia is not an ordinary country seeking some rational security guarantees. It’s a predator that works according to its own logic of internal oppression and external aggression. With such a state there is no going back to “normal”. No clever “deal” that can be cut to restore previous relations.
As we work out what minimising Russia’s threat means in practice, we may also get to something bigger: a set of security, humanitarian and economic interconnections that redefine how we reduce aggression in an interconnected age. Russia’s aim in its invasion of Ukraine was to reset the world order, tilt it towards dictatorships, impunity and the right of great powers to crush the small. Instead, it may produce a desire to strengthen rights, sovereignty and democracy. In pushing for the worst, it might produce something better.
The first place where Russia’s threat has to be minimised is in Ukraine itself. This will be achieved on the battlefield. Ukraine is still vastly outnumbered in both men and arms. The situation in the Donbas is tenuous. Every day, about 100 Ukrainian soldiers are killed. And it’s no longer hardened professional fighters – it’s IT specialists, sociologists, students.
When I met President Zelenskiy, together with colleagues from the Atlantic magazine a few weeks ago, his greatest fear was that the victory in the battle for Kyiv meant that too many people would think the war over when it was just shifting to a different, more deadly phase in the Donbas. The world’s attention has faded. Allies are being slow to arm Ukraine sufficiently. Positions are being ceded daily because of a lack of basic munitions for artillery. This needs to change fast. Any eventual negotiations have to be taken from a position of Ukrainian strength, not weakness, or else they risk being another deal that gives up all the leverage to Russia, only augmenting the threat it poses.
If and when those negotiations happen, Ukraine has to be armed to the teeth to deter future Russian incursions. It is also hoping for security guarantees, including from the UK. But there’s a greater context here too. The Russian invasion is relevant to any nation that lives unprotected in the neighbourhood of nuclear bullies: think Moldova, Georgia and the central Asian states around Russia; Japan, Australia and Taiwan around China. It’s no coincidence that Australia, a country that could have chosen to sit out this conflict, has been such an enthusiastic advocate of the Ukrainian cause, even providing $70m-worth of defensive equipment.
How can you protect such countries from aggression, given they are not Nato members and the nuclear status of the states that threaten them? The ad hoc support to Ukraine gives us a clue: a mix of economic warfare and provision of arms. But to act as a deterrent this threat has to be made clear and be coordinated before any invasion. Russia attacked Ukraine in 2022 because, after its 2014 invasion, Putin thought he could get away with it. The moment sanctions kick in should not be up for debate: a war of aggression should trigger harsh measures.
Moreover, we need to tie crimes against humanity to even more aggressive sanctions. The indiscriminate bombing of Mariupol or slaughter in Bucha should lead to oil embargoes. We need to reconnect humanitarian norms to economics.
So far, the economic power dynamics lie the other way. At the moment, a country such as Australia, which criticised Beijing’s human rights record, is bullied by China with grain sanctions. Russia holds the world hostage to hunger by limiting its own grain exports and blocking Ukraine’s, demanding sanctions against Russia are lifted. In central Europe, a gruesome calculation is emerging: what hike in gas prices are people willing to bear before they close their eyes to Putin’s crimes against humanity? Everywhere, human rights are subservient to economic needs. For us to rein in the aggression of the Russias and Chinas of this world, it needs to be the other way round.
While such measures can act as a deterrent, Russia will also have to change internally before it stops being a threat. Can we ever hope for a Russia that is ready to give up imperial pretensions, live in harmony with its neighbours and even establish rule of law at home? It seems a far-off dream. All talk about “regime change” from outside is foolish: Russia is a great power no one can influence or attack that brazenly. But what we can do is remain steadfast in our sanctions and commitment to indicting war criminals, showing Russian elites that their punishment is long and serious. Anecdotal research from inside the country suggests many think the sanctions will be lifted soon. This betrays great weakness. In his memoirs of life in Nazi concentration camps, the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl noted that those who thought their imprisonment would end soon were in denial of reality – and the first to then break and collapse.
Who will communicate this? Currently, we are not explaining the intent of sanctions to the Russian people, allowing the Kremlin to manage perceptions. It wouldn’t be hard to get Russians’ attention. A short video from Arnold Schwarzenegger directed at his Russian fans and condemning the war got millions of views. The Russian internet firewall is feeble: you can still use radio, WhatsApp, Telegram and YouTube. The more understanding there is that the Kremlin has led people into a dead end, that this is permanent, the more impetus there is for elites to change the direction of the country.