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Lessons from the Mutiny in Russia for the War in Ukraine
Maybe Putin Is Not So Prone to Escalation as We Believed
Since the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, analysts and officials have claimed that Putin will never back down; that he needs a face-saving win (i.e. Ukrainian territory) to end his war. U.S. officials also have decided to not give Ukraine certain weapons systems to prevent Putin from escalating.
Events yesterday undermined these assumptions. Putin talked tough in his national address. He sounded like someone preparing for a big fight. But when faced with the difficult decision of trying to stop Wagner mercenaries with major force, he backed down. In this game of chicken, we swerved off the road. He didn't escalate. He didn't need a face-saving off-ramp to declare victory. When facing the possibility of really losing to Wagner mercenaries coming into Moscow, he instead capitulated. Rather than doubling down with overwhelming force to crush the mutiny, Putin accepted humiliation instead. He was the rat trapped in the corner that so many Putinologists have told us to fear. But he didn't lash out & go crazy. He didn’t take the riskier path of fighting a civil war. He negotiated. Moreover, he cut a deal with someone he just hours earlier labeled a traitor. This decision made Putin look weak. We still do not know the details, but the compromises he made yesterday may even further undermine his grip on power at home. But he took that path anyway.
The lesson for the war in Ukraine is clear. Putin is more likely to negotiate and end his war if he is losing on the battlefield, not when there is a stalemate. Those who have argued that Ukraine must not attack Crimea for fear of triggering escalation must now reevaluate that hypothesis. The sooner Putin fears he is losing the war, the faster he will negotiate.
For American and other NATO leaders, the policy implications are also clear — provide better and more weapons and better and more sanctions as fast as possible. That was true months ago as I wrote in Foreign Affairs in January. (You can read that essay here.) After the events in Russia yesterday, it’s even more true today.
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