Putin Should Reverse Course to Save Russia’s Strategic Interests

March 7, 2022 Updated: March 8, 2022


Russian leader Vladimir Putin has gotten himself into a strategic hole with his invasion of Ukraine. He is determined to keep digging, that is, sustaining and escalating the war with Kyiv.

That is a critical mistake for two reasons. First, as war continues his isolation grows. Second, this leaves him with only one great power ally, China, and so his dependence upon Beijing deepens.

Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine is a strategic error. From Putin’s perspective, victory in Ukraine will remove the threat of NATO membership, although that possibility remains if a rump Ukraine survives in some form west of the Dnieper River. Victory will also yield a friendly regime in Ukraine that will be certain to be as closely allied as Belarus under Alexander Lukashenko. Putin will have achieved his aim of recreating a greater Russia.

These are tangible advantages despite the costs in Russian and Ukraine dead, the physical damage to Ukraine, and the bite of economic sanctions for Russian leadership and people. Putin has made Russia a pariah. In the longer term, if Putin stays in office, those sins are likely to be forgiven by the Russian people as Ukraine is absorbed into Russia, and the Russian people adapt to life under the sanctions and in a pariah state.

But it is a strategic mistake because Putin is now dependent on Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The true cost of Russia’s Ukrainian war is to mortgage Russia’s future to the Chinese regime. Xi is going to require greater fealty to China’s ideological vision for the future, “the common destiny of mankind,” that places China at the center of world politics, with all others, including Russia, in a subordinate position.

China will tighten its control of Russia’s economy through imports and investment, employ China’s currency as the dominant one in Sino-Russian financial transactions, negotiations, trade, and haven for the wealth of Russian oligarchs. More importantly, Xi will require that Russia tighten diplomatic and military relations with China.

The diplomatic price to be paid will include placing pressure on Russia to reduce or end its support for India, weaken its presence in Central Asia, cede dominance over Mongolia and North Korea. Most importantly, it will be to balance against the United States and its allies in Europe but also in the Pacific, including Japan.

The Second Belt And Road Forum For International Cooperation - Day Two
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Chinese leader Xi Jinping during the Tsinghua University ceremony in Beijing, China, on April 26, 2019. (Kenzaburo Fukuhara/Pool/Getty Images)

Russia’s military will serve China’s interests. China will seek to employ the Russian military in a mercenary role to fix Western attention on threats in Europe and compound Western strategic decision-making by generating a two-front major war problem for Western leaders.

This strategic problem will involve conventional military power—the world is witnessing Russia’s today—but also nuclear capability. The latter greatly complicates U.S. nuclear war planning and the ability of the United States to provide a credible extended deterrent to its allies. This altered strategic landscape makes it more likely that Japan will develop its own nuclear capabilities.

Russian power in subservience to Beijing’s interests will help China weaken the U.S. and the Western liberal order, but it is not in Russia’s interests. Russia is the junior partner in the alliance relationship, and it is not one that will be able to resist China’s demands as its own actions—the maladroit decision to invade Ukraine—have left it isolated from the West.

Putin’s actions have made Russia not a just a pariah in the West, but a slave to the dominant power in the East. That is a singular achievement for a Russian leader—in fact, it is one not matched in Russian history since Moscow was under the rule of the Golden Horde.

What Putin must do is reverse course before he is trapped by the Chinese regime. He should end the war in Ukraine by negotiating its end, perhaps taking a face-saving amount of territory with the possibility of future negotiation to create a permanent modus vivendi with Kyiv. Such an agreement would open the door to an exchange of territory between the two states as the basis for a stable relationship. Over time, this would also provide a path to improve relations with the West.

If Putin cannot achieve these goals, then he should remove himself from power. He should permit a Russia leader who is able to repair the relationship with the West to assume leadership.

Of course, Damascene conversions are rare in world politics. It is just as unlikely that Putin will surrender the reins of power to another leader as it is that he will reverse course. The consequences of his decisions are grave. The Russian and Ukrainian peoples will suffer the costs of war, its aftermath, and, for the Russians, of economic sanctions.

The long-term interests of Russia—to maintain its status as a great power independent of the West as well as from China—is lost. Russia will be subordinate to China for as long as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is in power. The CCP’s demands of Russia will be considerable and will place the security and sovereignty of Russia in peril.

Putin has chosen and done so poorly. To alter course would require the statesmanship of a Bismarck, and there is no danger Putin will be mistaken for him. Putin waged war to create a greater Russia. By so doing, he allowed China to colonialize Russia in all but name.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Bradley A. Thayer is a founding member of the Committee on the Present Danger: China and is the co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.”