Identify Off-ramps Now
For Putin and others in the senior Russian leadership, the past forty-eight hours have transformed the war from being merely "frustrating" to potentially "catastrophic" – which poses a grave danger to us all. If the war continues on its current trajectory, his military will have been humbled by a neighbor he had cast as a vassal state; his supposed rejuvenation of Russian power will be exposed as a mirage; his neighbors will be more unified and stronger; and his country will face an indefinite future of crippling economic sanctions. Putin undoubtedly understands the dangers that he personally faces — some combination of coup and uprising — and is almost certainly scrambling to identify options that might turn defeat into at least a draw. Although people around the world have hoped for Russia's defeat, we all have a powerful interest now — for Ukraine's sake, and for the world — to ensure that Putin can envision outcomes that don't result in his removal from power and likely arrest or death.
Faced with the binary alternatives of victory or death, Putin may be driven to escalate. This could mean unleashing the full power of Russia's artillery on Ukraine's cities. In Putin's mind, the prospect of massive civilian deaths may lead the world to ruefully plead for a ceasefire, creating options for him to demand a face-saving outcome. Alternatively, Putin could escalate via global cyber-attacks, although those often take time to unfold, and they cause difficult-to-predict levels of damage. Worst of all, there are signs that the unthinkable escalatory threat, involving nuclear weapons, is on his mind.
Sun Tzu advised leaders to "Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across," or else they'll be forced to fight to the death. As distasteful as it may seem, we need to find off-ramps from this war now, which will give Putin the hope of claiming some modest gains and surviving this war — so that he doesn't cause even more damage in his desperate efforts to avert a personal disaster.