How to End the War in Ukraine
The key is inside Russia itself
This past weekend I ate at the picturesque Bulgarian seaside town of Nessebar. Surrounding us were multiple tables of Russians, who appeared to be enjoying a Black Sea holiday. They laughed and indulged without any apparent care that a war was raging in Ukraine further up the Black Sea coast.
I often read articles about de-escalation and making peace with Putin, despite the potentially dangerous consequences and precedents that could follow. I’m all for peace, but not on Putin’s terms. Far too many westerners victim blame or mistakenly point the finger at NATO when looking for solutions. When in reality, what the world is facing is a Putin-led Russia intent on undermining democracy, especially on its borders.
The best way to end the war in Ukraine is to prevent Russian citizens from enjoying the fruits of democracy if they’re unwilling to fight for it at home. Many Russians want to vacation, own property, or otherwise access western democracies. But few have shown a willingness over the past year to stand up to a murderous regime determined to colonize its neighbor.
So you want to know how to end the war in Ukraine? Ban Russian citizens from all democracies.
Ending the war in Ukraine starts with undermining Putin’s support
No current approach is making enough progress toward ending this war. Putin is playing a game of attrition, throwing hundreds of thousands of Russian bodies at Ukraine. In what’s predominately a land war, the odds may be in his favor given Russia’s population advantage and the west’s current refusal to send troops into battle.
Sanctions also aren’t working fast enough. Russia’s petro-fueled economy has simply turned inwards and pivoted outwards with larger trading relationships with India and China. Unless the entire world stops buying Russian oil, current sanctions will not have a catastrophic economic impact.
I previously thought that sanctioning Russian oligarchs or people close to Putin would have a strong effect, but that hasn’t really worked either. Many have simply kept a low profile and used strategies to hide wealth and evade sanctions.
Every external diplomatic strategy has so far failed to produce conclusive results within the first year of this war. The approach, therefore, needs to change. It should focus inwards, inside Russia. It should target the Russian people.
Although Putin wields autocratic authority, support from the Russian people is important. A mass uprising or widespread protests would be disastrous for his credibility at home and abroad. So far, the fear he has instilled and the aggressive crackdowns on any dissent have deterred many Russians from trying.
After one year of this war, and little sign of change, it’s unlikely that Putin will be challenged in year two unless something is done to incentivize Russians to withdraw their support. With enough resistance, Putin could meet the same end as other autocrats from Gaddafi to Mubarak. The best incentive to inspire that level of resistance is removing all of the benefits Russians still enjoy from democracies globally.
Why banning Russians from democracies would work
Vacationing in democratic countries along the Black Sea is just the tip of the iceberg. Blocking Russians not only from travel but also investment in countries where property rights and the rule of law are actually respected would be compelling. These actions might open some Russians’ eyes to the leader and worldview they support, even if that support is only tacit.
If Russians want to even tacitly support Putin’s regime by not actively resisting it, they need to completely live within it. They need to only taste and enjoy autocracy. They should not be afforded the opportunity to buy apartments in New York City, send their kids to school in the United Kingdom, or vacation in the south of France. If they want a vacation, they can go to China or one of the African countries that Putin is now courting.
Too many Russians value access and investments in the west, from healthcare and education to U.S. Treasury Bonds to real estate. Too many enjoy travel and holidays in exotic western locales for this approach not to work. Closing the Russian people off from these opportunities sends a message that this is no longer just Putin’s war. It is Russia’s war against Ukraine.
But isn’t this just spiteful and likely to cause resentment?
Ask that question to the millions of Ukrainians who have been affected by the war in their homeland. Ask the innocent Ukrainian civilians who have been raped, tortured, and/or killed by Russian soldiers. The least the western world can do in support of democracy is implicate Russian civilians to some degree too.
I am not advocating for the seizure of all Russian assets abroad. Just freeze them. Until this conflict that Russia started is over. Then everyone receives what they’re owed once again.
Coastal towns on the Black Sea and real estate agents in London may not like the loss of Russian cash flow, but nobody is immune when a madman launches a land war in Europe. Anyone who has visited the gas station over the past year can attest to that.
I would be naive to say this would not cause resentment toward the west amongst some Russians. But if a ban from democracies triggers such resentment, shouldn’t the anger or frustration be directed at its source? Namely, the government that forced the hand of this policy in the first place.
Ukrainians have to live with air raid sirens, bombings, and fighting in their streets and on their doorsteps. The only way Russians will also empathize with their plight is if they taste a little less freedom too. They’ve been permitted to turn a moral blind eye for far too long.
Is it unfair to force Russians to protest an autocratic and oppressive regime?
Everyone knows what happens to dissidents in Putin’s Russia. They have the tendency to disappear. So I advocate for this policy with a certain uneasiness because of the difficult situation Russians face at home.
Many are undoubtedly scared of saying or doing anything. The return of Soviet-style fear in Russia is real. But this is not a novel situation. Populations have rid themselves of dictators, despots, and autocrats before.
Even in a totalitarian regime, the leader derives power from the people he controls. The people always outnumber the leader. This is why strong organization and coordinated civil disobedience can be so effective.
Ukraine’s people are being oppressed. Many are dying for their country’s right to self-govern itself. In the 21st century, that desire should not come as much of a surprise, but apparently, it does to some. And to others, the consequences of making peace on Putin’s terms are not worth considering so long as Putin’s finger is on the nuclear button.
Russia is posing a security threat to Ukraine and the world. The least the Russian people can do is defy their regime. And if they choose not to do that en masse, then democracies globally should choose not to recognize them as peaceful partners.
Russian citizens cannot enjoy the freedoms of democracy while refusing to accept the costs of their autocracy at home. By having to live completely within autocratic confines, enough Russians may be convinced to resist and help to end the war in Ukraine. Once and for all.
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