First, acknowledge that there can be no real peace until 100% of Ukrainian territory is free of Russian invaders. Second, join Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy in stating there can be no return to normal relations with Russia while Putin the war criminal is in charge. Russia has become an openly fascist dictatorship and meeting such evil halfway is a victory for evil.
Putin and his elites believe there will always be a way back eventually, that Western leaders and companies will always make concessions. For 20 years they’ve been right, but this time it must be different.
Last week, Putin announced a “partial mobilization” to resupply the depleted Russian military with untrained conscripts, mostly drafted from Russia’s poor, ethnic minority regions. The Kremlin hoped to avoid the societal upheaval that would come with disturbing the apathetic loyalty of urban Russians, the only group they really fear. But if Putin hoped to avoid panic in Moscow, he failed, and now he will reap the worst of both worlds with an ineffective military and an increasingly alarmed population.
On Friday, Putin gave a belligerent speech before announcing the illegal annexation of more occupied Ukrainian territory. I suppose Putin felt he needed to do this quickly, as the amount of Ukrainian territory controlled by Russia is decreasing daily. As I wrote months ago, a corrupt and incompetent Russian military dying for nothing would inevitably falter against Ukrainian forces fighting for their lives, nation, and freedom.
Putin’s speech barely mentioned Ukraine, instead framing his war of invasion and choice as a battle against NATO, the decadent West, and the United States in particular. Putin needs to be seen as the big boss, the savior of the motherland, and this requires big enemies.
Putin illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and the world did little to stop him, despite near-universal condemnation. (The handful of nations that recognized Crimea as Russian was the usual rogues’ gallery with North Korea, Syria and Venezuela.) Even Serbia, as sympathetic toward Moscow as ever, has refused to recognize this latest annexation. Nobody wants to back a loser and Putin is losing — and not just in Ukraine.
Putin’s bargain with the Russian people has always been loyalty for stability. Stay out of politics, make do with fewer rights and freedoms, and his wars and repressions probably won’t affect you. Now that bargain has been broken on the rock of Ukraine’s resistance and sacrifice. The consequences of the war — sanctions, conscription, isolation — can no longer be ignored. It was one thing when Putin’s violence was directed at our pro-democracy rallies and in relatively small foreign adventures. Now it’s everywhere, at large scale, with no payoff or end in sight.
Conscription has not gone smoothly, to say the least. There have been protests across Russia, even violence in unruly regions like Dagestan. There have been firebombing attacks on recruiting centers and new conscripts are documenting the abysmal conditions and lack of training on social media. A quarter-million men left Russia in days — not to invade Ukraine but to flee the draft. Imagine the impact on Russian society and the economy.
It was never realistic that untrained masses of conscripts, some already sent to the front lines within days of registering, would tip the balance against Ukraine’s hardened military. Putin’s mobilization is yet another escalation and bluff targeted simultaneously at Ukraine’s Western allies and the Russian people. He wants to convince both audiences that there is nothing he will not do, no limit to the lives he will throw away to stay in power.
This follows the logic of the strongman, who must always appear to be on the offensive, never retreating and negotiating only from strength. These bluffs have worked well for Putin in the past against weak Western leaders desperate to avoid making any hard decisions. But now, between Putin and the appeasers, stand Ukraine, 44 million Ukrainians, and Zelenskyy. Putin and the appeasers wanted Ukraine to be a buffer between them, sacrificing a sovereign nation and turning it into a base to spread Russian corruption. Instead, Ukraine has become a shield, protecting Europe at tremendous cost in blood, destruction and terror.
I recently completed a barnstorming trip across Europe, with professional and political engagements from Helsinki and Stockholm to Berlin and London. My visits in Germany were most critical, as the European giant is still loath to rise to the challenge despite strong popular support for Ukraine. Chancellor Olaf Scholz still dreams of a return to the pre-Feb. 24 world, with cheap Russian natural gas and an amoral separation of business and politics.
The sooner Scholz and the rest wake up from these fantasies, the better. The only way to achieve a lasting peace in Europe is for Ukraine to win in a comprehensive defeat of Russian imperialism and Putin’s gangster mafia. That was my message to German politicians, that there is no time to lose and no reason to delay.
Putin’s regime is wobbling under the pressures of every strong but brittle authoritarian regime. Cracks have formed that must be widened instead of giving Putin a chance to repair them. On Friday, while Putin was raving, Zelenskyy formally applied for NATO membership for Ukraine (which Putin said he would never accept, but of course he invaded Ukraine twice anyway).
Treaties and paperwork matter, but tanks and artillery matter even more now. Putin’s mobilization is best met by mobilizing the overwhelmingly superior forces of the Free World to end this war quickly. Putin’s annexation of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — an area roughly the size of the state of New York — further exposes the false nature of his claims on Crimea, which should finally end Western hesitation in supporting its liberation as well.
And then what will Putin do? He will rationalize and explain away defeat as easily as he concocted fake pretexts for the war in the first place. He will declare victory and try to spin a return to normal at home and abroad. It’s unlikely to succeed, but what else is there? He and his billionaire cronies have no interest in becoming literally and figuratively radioactive by using nuclear weapons in Ukraine. They are among the richest people on Earth and still hope to find a way back to their chalets in the Alps and to slots for their children at schools like NYU. The only real danger of nuke use is if Putin believes he can get away with it. Therefore, as it has been for generations, deterrence is still the best practice. Ukraine should be put under the NATO nuclear umbrella immediately. Every Russian commander must understand that any nuclear launch will result in their vaporization in moments, not a long trial in The Hague.
While it was Putin’s decision, this is not only Putin’s war. It is the latest symptom of the imperialism virus that must be eradicated from the Russian body of state. If Russia is to ever join the modern world, ending this dictatorship is not enough. It will have to release its colonies and start over before returning to Europe, humbled. The alternative is a pathetic life as a backward and authoritarian Chinese satellite, supplying gas, oil and land.
The ripples of Putin’s failure are already spreading. The winds of freedom are blowing from Ukraine, to uprisings in Iran and Dagestan and beyond. If Putin can be defeated by Ukraine, no dictator is invincible. This is the message coming to New York City at the Oslo Freedom Forum NYC on Oct. 3. I invite you all, in person or virtually, to hear the voices of dissidents and freedom fighters from around the globe. I guarantee you will be inspired by our courageous speakers. The world’s dictatorships are mobilized and united, so must be the world’s democracies and citizens.
Kasparov is chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative.