Why Putin fights
Understanding the imperatives of regime security
In a prominent and controversial essay, Sam Charap and Jeremy Shapiro argue correctly that Western supporters of Ukraine cannot simultaneously seek victory and de-escalation. But because they misunderstand the logic that led Russia to war, their proposed remedy — negotiations — will do more harm than good.
Charap and Shapiro are worried about the prospect of escalation, and that’s proper: as horrible as this war already is, it has the potential to cause much greater death and destruction. Whether or not their logic on escalation is correct is another question entirely, and the causes for doubt are elaborated most forcefully by my King’s College London colleague Ruth Deyermond in a long Twitter thread:
But my own beef with Charap and Shapiro isn’t with the question of escalation. While I disagree with their analysis on that point, it is not wholly unreasonable.
Rather, the problem I have is with Charap and Shapiro’s argument that negotiations with Russia would be helpful. The argument for negotiations is premised on the assumption that Putin is fighting for national security. That assumption, in my view, is false: Putin is fighting for regime security, and the difference is much more than semantic.
To be clear, you don’t have to accept that Ukraine or NATO posed a threat to Russia prior to February 2022 to believe that he went to war to make Russia more secure. But you do have to be able to identify a plausible national-security calculus in Putin’s actions — and I can’t find one. Even if Putin believed that he could take and hold Ukraine, he could not have believed that it would yield anything other than massive sanctions and a more aggressive NATO military posture, and thus less security. Short of that, he must have known — and he certainly knows now — that the war would bring military and economic costs for Russia itself.
For reasons that remain clearer to Putin than to me, however, he concluded that controlling Ukraine was vitally important not to the survival of Russia, but to the survival of his regime. (I have tried to outline at least some of these reasons here and here.) Indeed, Charap and Shapiro themselves acknowledge that the political costs of losing ground in Ukraine will compel Putin to keep fighting.
If Russia were fighting for national security, then there might indeed be a reasonable argument for negotiations (leaving aside here any moral considerations of whether ‘great powers’ should be negotiating about the fate of another country). While Russian and Western aims would remain incompatible, it might at least in theory be possible for the sides to put things on the table that could alter or override original objectives.
But because Russia is fighting for regime security, there is nothing the US or its allies could offer that would alter Putin’s calculus. Only Putin can decide what makes him feel secure in his power — a judgment he inevitably makes and adjusts on a daily if not hourly basis, drawing on a deeply subjective analysis of risks and rewards. That subjectivity is not fully available to us, and it cannot be altered from outside. It is part of the same calculus that has led Putin to erect a repressive apparatus far outstripping the political threat posed by the Russian opposition, and to put military force behind the Lukashenka and Tokayev regimes.
We know — and have known for some time — that Putin can decide to declare victory whenever it suits him. His levers of propaganda and repression are sufficient to allow him to get away with minimal territorial gains, or to continue pursuing more expansive ones. From a national-security perspective, then, there would indeed be an incentive for Western powers to negotiate an accommodation that would encourage him opt for something closer to the minimum, and to reduce the risk of escalation in the process. But that logic falls apart when you recognize the imperatives of regime security.
From a regime-security perspective, Putin’s external strategic flexibility is tempered by a heightened sense of internal vulnerability. The decision, then, on how far to pursue the war rests predominantly — if not entirely — on how Putin believes that decision will affect his rule: how it will alter the relationships he has with common citizens and elites alike; where it will leave the country’s rent-based political economy; and whether the incalculable risks of staying the course appear more or less frightening than the equally incalculable risks of turning back.
There is nothing Western powers can put on the table that would meaningfully affect those calculations — nothing we could offer or threaten that would give Putin the confidence to take a leap of faith on the security of his regime. Equally, there is nothing useful we can learn through negotiations about Russia’s own red lines, because, fundamentally, the red lines that matter aren’t in Ukraine: they’re in Russia.
And there is a real danger that negotiations would make things worse. By raising the prospect of concessions, they would give Putin another front on which to pursue domestic political gains — and because the potential dividends of negotiations are predicated on the reality of war, talks could give him an incentive to keep fighting.
Now, I want to be clear about one other thing: I have the greatest respect for both Charap and Shapiro. They are excellent, knowledgeable and experienced analysts. Whatever you might have read on Twitter, they are shills for no one. I just happen to think they got this one wrong, just as I’m certain they will explain why I am mistaken. But I’m equally certain that the mistake comes from a good place: they worry about Ukrainians and about our own security, and they are motivated — as are we all — to do whatever is possible to bring an end to this war, or at least to keep its misery from metastasizing. I have every sympathy for that instinct.
But if I’m right and negotiations are not the solution, then what is to be done? Part of the answer, alas, begins with humility. It is the contours of Russian politics that will determine how long Putin can fight, and there is very little that we can do to alter those contours. But there are some things the West can do and — credit where it’s due — is doing. Support for Ukraine is helping to keep alive the prospect that exhaustion occurs in Russia first. Sanctions are increasing the pace of that exhaustion. On both fronts, strategic patience is required.
But solidarity is required, too: solidarity not only with Ukrainians, but with those Russian citizens who can alter the contours of their country’s politics. And social solidarity within American and European societies, so that when the winter comes and homes go cold, Putin and his opponents both see that Western commitment will not flag.
Putin’s willingness to keep fighting this war is predicated on his ability to imagine a better outcome for his regime than the one he sees today: one in which more money flows through his patronage networks, in which the economy can trade again, and in which he doesn’t have to work quite so hard to keep people quiet. Steady Western policy can help foreclose on that imagination — but, sadly, not at the negotiating table.
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