As horror mounts over Russia’s war crimes, the clamour for Vladimir Putin to be held to account is growing. Joe Biden has accused Russia of committing genocide in Ukraine and has labelled the Russian president a 'war criminal'. Even Emmanuel Macron – who is the Western leader who has done the most to try and talk Putin around – has said he has run out of patience with Putin. Yet Russia's leader remains unfazed: the 64th motorised brigade, which has been accused of committing war crimes in Bucha, the suburb of Kiev where mass graves were discovered following Russia's retreat, has in the last few days been awarded an honour in a presidential decree for its 'mass heroism'.
Putin's refusal to back down is infuriating. But while it's understandable that many in the West won't be happy until Putin ends up in the dock, we should be wary of ruling out a settlement with Russia. Fighting Putin to the bitter end is not likely to be in anyone's interests, least of all Ukraine's. Why? Because while some wars do end in an overwhelming victory for one side, history shows us that this is rare. We should prepare to be supportive of an uneasy stalemate – and the prospect of Ukraine reaching a compromise – official or unofficial – with Russia.
What might that settlement look like? One scenario is that we are looking at the next Kashmir: a contest that will evolve into a bitter, tense but durable 'peace' without any official covenant. Admittedly, this seems unlikely to happen in the next few months. The Russian and Ukrainian armies will surely continue to fight on the eastern front. Once those battles are decided, however, there is a chance that the costliest violence will die down. After all, much of the uncertainty and misperceptions that preceded the war will be settled. Further fighting will not only be destructive and wasteful, but it also sustains the case for sanctions against Russia to continue. For a president who has built his popularity on strong economic performance, these are powerful incentives for Putin to halt the violence.
For all its foibles, however, the Russian military remains vast and strong, and so Russia will likely occupy a swathe of Ukraine’s east and south. What’s more, Ukraine and its informal allies will probably refuse to recognise this claim. For years or decades – at least until Putin is out of power, and perhaps well beyond – it will remain disputed territory where Russia is in de facto control. Many sanctions will continue indefinitely, but perhaps not the ones most costly to the West.
This stalemate sounds depressing, but it has an upside: few people will be dying in battles. Farmers would plant their crops, children would go to school, and anger and recrimination would mostly be confined to the airwaves.
There are other bright points. A sanctioned and weakened Russia would be a warning to adventurous autocrats elsewhere. Nato is more unified than anyone believed a few months ago. That means that incursions against informal allies (like Taiwan) will be more painful than previously expected. This deterrence effect could make for a more peaceful world.
Granted, this 'peace' will not be without suffering. Putin will surely keep following the colonisation playbook and try to Russify occupied territory through continued immigration, forced expulsion, and reeducation (even if these policies failed him in the past). Also, as in India-held Kashmir, we should expect overwhelming levels of militarisation to dissuade any dissent. There will also be skirmishes, protests suppressed, and occasional guerrilla violence, if other occupied territories are any guide.
These sound like terrible downsides, but let's be frank: this sequence of events is probably one of the most optimistic outcomes. That’s because history also provides a second and darker scenario: one where, for ideological or principled reasons, Ukraine or Russia decides to continue the fight despite the costs.
On the Russian side, evidence has been growing that at least some politicians have genocidal aims and are eager to obliterate Ukrainian identity. Other military abuses probably stem from low morale and cohesion. If Putin and his inner circle do not turn away from these policies, or control their troops, then it’s easy to imagine a future where the occupied territories become ungovernable. An insurgency arises, leading to persistent low-scale violence for years.
Repression in seized lands would also make it difficult for Ukrainians and their Western supporters to accept a Kashmir-like stalemate. Genocide would make it impossible. Many free Ukrainians would continue the fight. Many Westerners would demand their governments escalate support. Suddenly guerrilla violence would morph into a proxy war on occupied soil. (Assuming all avoid the more perilous path where Russia and Nato directly battle.)
Putin and his inner circle could set this second dire scenario in motion if they let nationalism or their own insulation from reality cloud their judgment. This is a personalised autocratic regime, meaning this cabal doesn’t bear most of the costs of continued fighting. As such, Putin may need no help to take the most repressive steps and continue the war.
Certain Western statements could also convince Putin that the first scenario – a tense stalemate – isn’t possible. This could help steer him down the darker path.
Continued sanctions, permanent pariah status, or prosecution for war crimes: all these are reasonable punishments and effective deterrents to future autocrats. To Putin, however, settlement with Ukraine will be unappealing if he thinks the world will punish him no matter what. In 'The Art of War', Chinese general Sun Tzu counselled us to build a 'golden bridge' for our enemies to retreat across, not deepen a perilous chasm.
What a terrible trade-off to contemplate, but contemplate it we all must. Ukrainians can decide that some compromises are too repugnant, and fight on. That is their decision. No society must tolerate atrocities conducted against its people. Yet while it might make Western observers feel uncomfortable, if Ukraine opts for an uneasy settlement – which involves tolerating a war criminal like Putin – we should recognise this this might be the best anyone can hope for.
Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky, who seems to be seeking a peaceful stalemate, has offered hints that he recognises this may be the outcome of the conflict in the coming months. If Ukraine’s leaders support the idea of a golden bridge for Russia to retreat upon, westerners should be careful that their outrage and desire for justice doesn’t scuttle a settlement. It is too easy for those of us faraway just to see one side of the ledger: to desire lawfulness and vengeance, but not to pay the daily price of its pursuit.
Does Putin deserve to go on trial at the Hague? Probably. But that doesn't mean that pursuing justice in the court room is ours to decide alone.