The Terrifying Paradox of Russian Weakness

Although Vladimir Poutine has a little distorted view of Russian history, he, like his compatriots, knows his country’s his...


Although

Vladimir Poutine

has a little distorted view of Russian history, he, like his compatriots, knows his country’s history well enough to understand what is at stake for him and for them – and ultimately for all of us – in Ukraine.

Conflicts have tended to define the political path of great powers throughout history, but in the case of Russia, the fortunes of war have played a particularly critical role in shaping its national identity, its global image , its constitutional settlement and its social stability.

The Russian people are justly proud that it was their bravery in war over successive centuries that halted in their tracks, then triumphantly overthrew, the two most ambitious efforts to establish an empire across Europe – those of Napoleon in 19th century and Hitler in the 20th century.

The Patriotic War of 1812 not only secured Tsar Alexander I his own throne and created a heroic model for the Russian cultural genius. It sparked a continent-wide reaction against the subversive currents of liberalism and secularism. The Holy Alliance that Alexander formed in 1815 with Prussia and Austria was the monarchist bulwark of the Old Regime against the currents emerging from the French Revolution, and it lasted about 40 years.

The Great Patriotic War of 1941-45 propelled Russia to global superpower status, ushered in the defining ideological struggle of the second half of the 20th century, and made Joseph Stalin the most powerful Russian leader since Alexander. It gave Moscow control over the territory of half of Europe and, for a time at least, decisive influence over the minds of almost half the world’s population.

But Russia has also lost wars disastrously – and on every occasion over the past century and a half, defeat has led to regime change at home and a landslide reversal on the world stage.

Defeat in the Crimean War in 1856 led to the dismemberment of Russian possessions in Eastern Europe and the loss of its Black Sea Fleet. This conflict also precipitated the untimely death of Tsar Nicholas I, whose successor, Alexander II, introduced sweeping reforms to Russia’s autocratic system.

In 1905, defeat in the Russo-Japanese War led to the First Russian Revolution. Tsar Nicholas II was forced to introduce reforms to temper the despotic rule that had been reimposed after the assassination of Alexander II, but Nicholas’s procrastination and authoritarianism were his undoing.

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It took the defeat of World War I to crush not only the Tsar, but any hope of a truly democratic Russian revolution. Russia replaced one dictatorial regime with another with the massacre of Nicholas II and his family in a basement in Yekaterinburg and the rise of Vladimir Lenin in Moscow.

Seventy years later, the ignominious withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan has revealed the vacuum of Russian military power and the futility of the sacrifice of thousands of Russian families. This led directly to the collapse of the USSR two years later.

Mr. Putin is now firmly impaled on this long historical precedent. It already looks like a possibly inconclusive struggle for Ukraine is a likely outcome, but history suggests that there are only two alternatives for the Russian leader: some victory, at any cost, or the collapse of his regime.

This lesson emphasizes the peril for all of us. We observe with admiration the bravery of the Ukrainian people in their resistance to Russian aggression. But the stakes for Mr. Putin are so high that they create a terrifying paradox of Russian weakness: the longer the fight lasts, the more incentive it has to escalate. The fear of all-out nuclear war may be overstated, but we are already a few rungs down the ladder that leads to it.

For the West, a defining moment will come in the coming weeks. We are tempted to push harder in Ukraine, not only out of empathy with the innocent people suffering there, but also from the growing prospect of Russia’s defeat and the regime’s downfall. Yet each higher rung of the ladder – the supply of money, weapons and fightereven stopping well before the no-fly zone some have claimed – increases the risk that Mr Putin will escalate or widen the conflict to avoid his own downfall.

We are then in the early stages of a process that will require an almost supernatural level of sophistication in our diplomatic approach.

We cannot let Mr. Putin win. Anything that looks like Ukraine’s capitulation to its central demand to never allow it to rejoin the West only reinforces it. But we can’t risk pushing him to the brink. Unedifying as it may sound, we must find a way to end the suffering in Ukraine, to guarantee the principle of national self-determination, and yet provide Mr. Putin with something to escape without. excuse for further escalation. Whatever concerns we have about the quality of

Joe Bidendiplomatic team, we better pray that they have the precise mix of gut courage and intellectual flexibility to pull it off.

Because another thing we know from Russian history is that the consequences of disastrous wars can be profound, not only for the tsars or their modern counterparts, but for the rest of us as well.

Journal Editorial Report: The West seeks alternatives to a no-fly zone. Images: US Air Force/AP/Getty Images/AFP Composed: Mark Kelly

Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

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