Russia must be humbled

With Russian forces retreating in eastern and southern Ukraine in the face of a masterful Ukrainian counteroffensive, some commentators in the West have argued that the war the Kremlin launched in February mustn’t end with the ‘humiliation’ of President Vladimir Putin or Russia. In fact, the opposite is true: Putin’s appalling aggression must leave Russia thoroughly chastened on the world stage.

Leaving aside the immorality of this one-sided appeal to give Putin a face-saving exit (no one seems to be appealing for Ukraine not to be humiliated by an eventual peace settlement), can the argument be justified by history or the cold logic of dealing with a nuclear superpower (even one that has been demonstrated to be super-powerful only in this dimension)?

To answer that question, we must start with the fact that any defeat in war will always be deeply humiliating for the losing side—regardless of whether it is the aggressor or the victim. War always entails humiliation for at least one side, and sometimes for both. Those arguing against humiliating Russia typically point primarily to the aftermath of World War I. The Treaty of Versailles, they claim, imposed such humiliating terms on Germany that it led to the rise of Hitler a decade later, and then to World War II.

In fact, Germany suffered only moderate territorial losses at Versailles. It was obliged to return Alsace-Lorraine (taken from France in 1871) and lands seized from Poland during the partitions of the 18th century. Others—including the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires—lost far more territory than Germany did.

It was the Versailles treaty’s reparations provisions, not the territorial settlement, that may have contributed to Hitler’s rise. The reparations were certainly just, in the sense that they were proportional to French war losses and to the French reparations paid to Germany after the war of 1870. But, as John Maynard Keynes (and, later, many historians) argued, Germany’s reparations payments may have contributed to the hardship suffered by its population during the hyperinflation of the early 1920s and the Great Depression of the early 1930s.

This point about the economic impact of the Versailles treaty is driven home by the events following World War II, when Germany once again ceded Alsace (again to France) and lost a quarter of its territory to Poland and to the Russian puppet state of East Germany. If anything, its sense of humiliation should have been far greater than after World War I. Instead, the Nazis’ defeat turned out to be massively beneficial for both Germany and its neighbours. The aid received from the United States under the Marshall Plan far outweighed the reparations that West Germany had to pay, and the German economy has boomed ever since. It reunified peacefully with East Germany when communism fell, and it has never again pursued a revanchist foreign policy.

Nor is Germany the only example of a country that has benefited from defeat and humiliation in war. Japan, too, renounced imperialism and militarism after its surrender in World War II. France came out better off for having lost the Algerian War, because that defeat enabled Charles de Gaulle to put his country on the path to becoming a modern, economically dynamic nation that is deeply integrated with the rest of Europe. Likewise, after its defeat and humiliation in Vietnam, the US under Ronald Reagan reinvented itself economically and technologically to become the undisputed victor of the Cold War.

Russia, too, is no stranger to this type of experience. Its defeat and humiliation in the Crimean War led to the abolition of serfdom in 1861, when 23 million people were freed (almost six times the number freed in the US following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863). Forty years of rapid economic development followed. Then, Russia’s defeat and humiliation in the Russo-Japanese War led, in 1905, to a revolution the same year and the establishment (albeit temporary) of a constitutional monarchy.

In 1916, Russia’s losses to Germany precipitated the fall of the tsar and the establishment of the liberal provisional government under Alexander Kerensky in February 1917. Unfortunately, Kerensky was unwilling to accept humiliation and continued the war effort, leading to further losses and the catastrophic Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917. But then, the Soviets’ defeat and humiliation in the Polish War in 1921 prompted Vladimir Lenin to introduce the partly market-based New Economic Policy. The policy ended mass starvation, and could have given Russia a sustainable path to economic development, had the subsequent rise of Joseph Stalin not closed it off.

Finally, defeat and humiliation in the Afghanistan War led to the fall of the Soviet Union and an all-too-brief period of democratisation, during which Russia at last showed respect for its neighbours. Again, as in the case of Germany after World War I, the return of Russian revanchism was caused not by the loss of territory or great-power status, but rather by the hardship that followed the collapse of the Soviet economic system.

Was the West at fault for not providing more support to Boris Yeltsin’s Russia? I believe it was, though there were also powerful domestic forces pushing for the kleptocratic model that prevailed. Ultimately, a more ordered, less painful transition of the kind seen in the Soviet-bloc countries in Central Europe may not have been feasible.

In any case, there’s ample historical evidence that humiliation for imperial or aggressive polities often yields significant benefits in the medium to long run for both their neighbours and themselves. Some will argue that the short-term risks of humiliating one of the world’s main nuclear powers are too great. But that argument ignores the likelihood that having succeeded once at an invasion followed by nuclear blackmail, Putin would do the same again—and again.