Foreign Affairs in Wonderland: Stanovaya and imaginary “peacemakers”

November 24, 2022

Each Ukrainian success on the battlefield is followed by two things: a ferocious terrorist attack on civilian infrastructure by Russia, and a slew of articles preaching capitulating to Putin in the West. This time, it’s in Foreign Affairs, and is a fantasy short-story penned by Tatiana Stanovaya.

Let me begin by summarizing her “argument” in all its glorious absurdity:

  1. Whether you are Putin, an uberhawk dreaming of conquering all Ukraine, or just a run of the mill member of the Russian elite (maybe even an average citizen), withdrawal of Russian forces to pre-invasion lines would be considered a defeat, which would “not only mark the end of Russian influence over Ukraine but also usher in a humiliating new geopolitical reality for Moscow.”
  2. Since everybody sees the war in Ukraine “not as expansionary but as a war for self-preservation,” everyone has no choice but to support it even if they would like it to end — all they need is some sort of guarantee that Russia would endure — these are the people Stanovaya calls “realists” and potential “peacemakers” in contrast to the uberhawks who just want to use nukes/total mobilization to conquer Ukraine
  3. The West must, therefore, “strengthen its voice in the Kremlin” by having a “Russian-U.S. dialogue over Moscow’s strategic concerns. This dialogue would be designed to firmly guarantee to Moscow that Russia would continue to be a stable, autonomous state. The United States could do this by agreeing to discuss the future of NATO. The West would also have to offer Russia guarantees that Ukraine will not be used as part of a Western “anti-Russia” project, as Putin alleges.”

That’s it. All of it. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and read the original. Of course, stripped to its essentials, it’s very easy to see the patent incoherence of the entire line of thought, but I think it’s best to let the author do that for me:

“But under the current circumstances, Putin believes he has no choice but to continue bombing and attacking Ukraine. And unlike many of Russia’s elites, Putin believes that Ukraine is still doomed.”

That is, Putin has no choice because he’s hemmed in by domestic politics, but at the same time he thinks he can win. Since his belief in victory is sufficient to continue the war, as I have argued previously, what role does the inability to back down due to domestic constraints play?

To scare the West into capitulation because, “as the defeats pile up, Moscow will become more unhinged.” It’s the old Putin is cornered, and the more he is failing, the more we have to press the Ukrainians to capitulate to this demands. If this does not sound like any war termination strategy, it’s because this line of reasoning is unknown to history. You have to give it to Putin-versteheners: they seem to have invented a whole new logic of war.

To see why, let’s look at the building blocks of Stanovaya’s “argument” more closely.

“Withdrawal of Russian forces to pre-invasion lines would be considered a defeat.” Yes, absolutely. If this is how the war ends, it will be considered a defeat, which it would be. I also happen to believe that it would be considered a defeat by the vast majority of Russians, not just the elites. (Scratch almost any fervent anti-Putinist Russian and you will find “Crimea is Russian!” underneath.)

But so what? Wars do not end because one side believes it has avoided defeat. They end when continuing the fight seems worse than ending it on terms that the other side would accept. Stanovaya, like almost all people pounding the virtual pavement with “Give Peace a Chance!” placards, seems utterly unaware of the studies of why wars end. To assert that most of them end in negotiations — as many of these people do as if this is some magic talisman that will automatically imbue their calls for negotiations with value — is just a statistical triviality. Most wars do end in negotiated settlements, but the trick is to understand why the end when they do. If one does not understand the reasons why some terms work at ending the fighting but others do not, then negotiations are just performance theater devoid of any meaningful content. They have no chance of ending hostilities.

Short of government collapse or a decisive military rout, continuing the war is always a political choice, and reflects the belief that fighting is likely to yield a better outcome than any possible deal that the opponent is prepared to agree to. To oversimplify a bit, there are several major reasons one might hold such beliefs:

  1. Mutual optimism: the war-fighting expectations of both sides are incompatible — that is, whatever each side believes it can obtain by fighting exceeds the concessions the other side needs to meet its own war expectations. This can happen if both sides believe that they would win with high enough probability: Ukraine, because of its high morale and superior Western weapons/aid; and Russia, because of its seemingly inexhaustible supply of men and likelihood that Western support would collapse. It can happen if both sides believe the costs would be acceptable: Ukraine, because it can weather the winter despite the energy crisis; Russia, because it can weather the sanctions. That there is such disagreement over the likely trajectory of the war is evident in the strategies pursued by the two warring parties: Ukraine is focusing on battering the Russians in the field, while the Russians are focusing on strategic attrition designed to collapse Western support and, perhaps, internal support for continuing the war. In other words, each side is concentrating effort on the strategy that it believes is more likely to deliver victory (in the sense of being able to dictate terms to the other side).
  2. Commitment problems: a peace agreement will have a very low value — and so would be ineffective in stopping the war — if the sides cannot trust each other to uphold it. The Russians have repeatedly denied Ukraine’s right to exist, and insist that its sovereignty is only to be defined by the Kremlin — as a result, the Ukrainians do not believe that the Russians would uphold any peace deal that does not give them their war aims — it will merely be a breather that the Kremlin would use to regroup and try again. Leaving Russian forces on Ukrainian territory, especially on post-invasion conquered lands, is providing the Kremlin with the place from which to launch the new effort. Giving Russia guarantees of “neutrality” for Ukraine is merely ensuring that no aid would come the next time this happens. On the Russian side, if one believes that the West is using Ukraine to destroy Russia, it is difficult to even imagine what sort of guarantees might be necessary to assuage that fear; at least guarantees that preserve an independent Ukraine.
  3. International politics: a peace agreement that makes it possible for third parties to take advantage of the belligerents would also supply obstacles to effectiveness. If Russia obtains anything resembling “victory” (that is, any advantage over its pre-invasion status), then it could tell the story that it faced down “the West” and won. Worse, this story would be correct. Consequences that follow could be either an attempt to return to “business as usual” — which is what it would have to be for Stanovaya’s argument to work — or a consolidation of the West to deal with a resurgent Russia and a potentially emboldened China. The latter would make peace very similar to the one we have with North Korea or Iran, and so not very different from what we are doing right now to sanction Russia for the war. Correspondingly, the Russian incentive for peace is weaker the more they believe the outcome will be closer to the latter scenario. The problem is that if the outcome is closer to the former one — Western unity dissolves and countries start making separate deals with Russia — then the war-party in Russia will be strengthened as well because this is precisely what their strategy is for winning. An attempt to encourage the “peacemakers” would almost certainly be against the will of the Ukrainians, which means we will have to coerce them by threatening to withhold aid — this is also music to the ears of the hawks in the Kremlin.
  4. Domestic politics: the “selectorate” that is responsible for keeping the government in power believes that peace would be worse than continuing the war. This is the one that Stanovaya latches upon — as all “Putin is cornered” people do — so I will discuss it below in full.

The point of this list is to remind readers that for war to end in a negotiated settlement, multiple problems have to be resolved. In the current phase of the conflict, none of them are even close to being solvable. Even worse, attempts to negotiate now would most likely encourage the hawkish Russian foreign policy and strengthen the Kremlin rather than lead to conflict resolution.

Let us now look at the domestic politics argument in Stanovaya’s interpretation. She sees two groups vying for control of Russian foreign policy — the uberhawks, who believe the war is winnable but that it requires mobilization Russia, and even possibly using nuclear weapons, and the realists, who believe the war is lost but who also think that admitting this by withdrawing from Ukraine would destroy Russia. Stanovaya wants the West to give chance to these “realists” to become “peacemakers” or else they would support the suicidal policy of the Kremlin, and the war would become truly nasty.

According to this argument, if Putin were to attempt to withdraw, he would be punished by the uberhawks and the “realists” — by the first, for failing to win, and by the second, for causing Russia to fall.

The first problem here is that the “realists” appear to be nothing of the sort. It’s one thing to yell “Crimea is Russian!” but it’s quite another to have your relatives return in body bags from Ukraine for your right to vacation in Crimea. The abstract notions of an “end of Russian influence over Ukraine” or a “humiliating geopolitical reality for Moscow” would have a serious difficulty contending against inability to pay bills or get medicine. One need not satisfy the geopolitical aspirations of a nation poisoned by three decades of fairy-tales about a lost empire and stolen riches in order to convince them that the war is not going to help them achieve these goals. Stanovaya implicitly accepts Putin’s premise that the war is winnable — otherwise one is at a loss to understand how Russia can both lose the war but satisfy these aspirations.

The second problem is that Stanovaya seems to underestimate Putin’s ability to stay in power. I simply do not understand where all these analysts are getting the idea that Putin’s rule can be shaken by what happens in Ukraine. Yes, there will be people upset with the outcome. Yes, there will be some who might even hold him responsible. But so what? Not for nothing has the regime spent two decades snuffing out civil society, honing its instruments of repression and propaganda, and generally ensuring that it can deal with domestic disturbances when needed. If Putin escalates, it will not be because he is forced to do so because some uberhawks would otherwise dethrone him or because “realists” would be too upset about the “geopolitical reality” — it will be because he believes this is how he can achieve his goals in Ukraine. Uberhawks who start blabbing about “nuking Kyiv” when Putin does not want them to would disappear instantly, first from the airwaves, then from freedom, and finally from life. Just witness the magic consolidation of uberhawk public opinion about the withdrawal from Kherson, which — I can’t tire of reminding everyone — many of these analysts predicted would result in the catastrophic defeat for Putin & maybe even his ouster. Instead, it passed almost unnoticed after several days of wailing and gnashing of teeth on Telegram.

It is not domestic politics that is pushing Putin to continue the war, it is Putin continuing the war despite increasing domestic resistance to it (support for the war has been eroding even in the fake surveys, and Russians are unable to save or even expect to be able to afford any major purchases).

The third problem is that what Stanovaya takes as evidence of latent desire for peace is nothing of the sort. The “patriotic” bloggers and personalities that she cites have a new mantra (the Russians call it “методичка”, by which they mean the “script” given to them by the Kremlin to ensure consistency in the propaganda messaging): Russia needs a breather to focus on internal problems, especially corruption. Now, one cannot possibly say with a straight face that any Russian would be surprised that there’s deep corruption at every level of their society. To think that the regime that created it and that thrives on it would be the one to solve it, on the other hand, is a lot less believable. Contrary to what Stanovaya implies, the calls are not for peace so that Russian society can better itself — that would indeed be wonderful if it were true — but a ceasefire so that the government can fix the problems in the military and economy that the war has revealed, so that Russia could achieve it’s true potential, after which it will certainly be “Kyiv in 3 Days.” The people who called for abandoning war mongering in order to do proper domestic reforms for the better lives of Russians, like Navalny, are long dead. They are certainly not to be counted among the personalities that Stanovaya cites. Instead, they are “realists” who say that the war cannot be won with the resources currently committed to it, and perhaps even with the resources Russia can commit without some domestic changes. The implication is not, however, that they want peace.

The Russians we must deal with are the Russians that exist, not the fantasies concocted by people who crave peace at any cost, especially if that cost would be paid by someone else, like the Ukrainians. We must play the hand we have been dealt, and this means that even “realist” Russians aim at seizing Ukrainian lands or exercising control over Ukraine. One answer is what Stanovaya and the Mearsheimer camp have: give them what they want or else it will get worse for us.

But the other answer is to abandon the fantasy and come back to the harsh reality that there is no magic silver bullet that can end the war overnight.

To see the absurdity of what Stanovaya & Co. are peddling, consider the terms she believes me must countenance in order to strengthen the imaginary “peacemakers” in Russia: a “guarantee that Russia would continue to be a stable, autonomous state,” a “discussion of the future of NATO,” and a “guarantee that Ukraine will not be used as part of a Western ‘anti-Russia’ project.”

Let’s now translate this into something specific. How could the West guarantee Russia’s stability and autonomy? I mean this very seriously — how? Since the only things we are doing now are trying to end the European dependency on Russian energy, implementing sanctions to degrade the Russian economy’s ability to sustain its war effort, and supplying aid to Ukraine, I would have to guess that Stanovaya means that we have to change some or all of the above. In other words, stop “pumping Ukraine full of weapons” as Russian propagandists like to say, drop the sanctions “that are hurting the West more than they are hurting Russia, which is even thriving under them” as same idiots claim, or let the gas flow to Europe, along with Russian money and influence in European politics. How else would we “stabilize” Russia or “guarantee its autonomy”? This is just plain silly on its face.

It might not be immediately obvious what Stanovaya is, in fact, proposing. To get a sense of the moral depravity of the things she believes need to be done to incentivize these putative “peacemakers,” consider the following:

  1. Since she claims that even returning to the pre-invasion status quo would be a defeat, the agreement would presumably have to avoid that — this means leaving vast amounts of Ukrainian territory in Russian possession. The population there is not nearly as supportive of Russia as the one had been in Crimea back in 2014 (where there were a lot of Russian military retirees, for example), and after eight months of vicious war, the resistance would be significant. I already expect that the liberating ZSU will uncover evidence of widespread atrocities in the annexed territories for the simple reason that Russia had more time to orchestrate something more systematic there in order to implement its program of de-Ukrainization. The campaign to root out the resulting resistance is going to cause a massive humanitarian disaster. Many will be tortured and disappeared, many will be deported, many will have to suffer to see their children taught to hate who they are. Stanovaya is proposing that we abandon millions of Ukrainians to this fate.
  2. Rendering Ukraine “safe” for Russia — in a sense that the Russians would consider it safe — would require that we abandon Ukraine to Russian control. There is just no other way to do this, which is what Russians euphemistically call “neutrality.” There is no such thing as neutral Ukraine when its neighbor believes it has no right to exist. This would require not just abandoning Ukrainian territory to Russian annexations, but also rendering the government of rump Ukraine impotent and unable to defend itself. Of course, the result would be a pliant regime that does Moscow’s bidding. Whether the Russians would be content to let a veneer of independence exist or would prefer to snuff it out with some “voluntary” union, I would not dare to bet on.
  3. Discussing the future of NATO is another one of these irresponsibly vague slogans, so let’s ask what Svatovaya seems to mean by it. The closest I can get is that she either believes the Mearsheimer nonsense about how fear of NATO made Putin invade Ukraine or, more charitably, she ascribes such belief to Russians. In either case, however, the implication is the same: NATO would have to tread carefully around Russia lest we upset their tender sensibilities and fragile sense of security (an odd thing for the country boasting to have the “second army in the world”). This means that NATO would have to let Russia behave as it sees fit for its “security” needs in its neighborhood, and we know perfectly well what this entails. Woe to you if you are a country within five hundred miles of a Russian border, and if your name is not China.

In practice, the call to strengthen the “peacemakers” is equivalent to a call to surrender.

But, one could ask, is there an alternative?

Yes, there is. Starting with the recognition that Svatovaya’s basic assertion that Russians would consider even a retreat to pre-invasion borders a defeat, let’s assume that we could prevail on the Ukrainians to accept that as a starting point in the negotiations (I am not saying that they should, I am saying let’s imagine a realistic scenario). Given that Russia would be very much dissatisfied with this peace, and assuming that the sanctions will not all be lifted after that (and I expect that many would stay for a long time), peace would require that Russia be denied the ability to overturn it. This means permanent weakening of the Russian current regime — which is why the sanctions would have to stay until it changes, which might take years — and strengthening of Ukraine so that it would be “tough nut to crack.” The latter requires modernization of the Ukrainian military to NATO standards, full support for the necessary equipment and systems along with training, security arrangements for Ukraine in the form of NATO membership or bilateral treaties with the USA, UK, and the EU, and organization of Ukrainian society on a military footing such that large portions of the population are trained and ready in reserve. More specific proposals would likely include a demilitarized zone along the border with Russia and Belarus, probably most of it on the Russian side.

Observe that these ideas require that Russia be pushed out of the occupied post-invasion territories as a precondition to starting negotiations, as well as a firm commitment to support Ukraine in that, and possibly toward the liberation of all its 1991 territory unless Russia agrees to end hostilities. This is necessary because otherwise the mutual optimism problem would prevent a ceasefire — the Russians have to believe that they cannot achieve their goals at this moment at an acceptable cost. The commitment problem is solved by deterrence rather than satiating Russia — the Kremlin will not resume the war not because it would not want to but because it would remain unprofitable to do so. As long as the regime remains, the West is likely to stay on alert as well because of the known irredentist tendencies of that regime. This should produce a fairly substantial support for Western unity over the long term, especially since the energy dependence on Russia will be reduced and eventually eliminated in the EU entirely.

The only question in this scenario would be the domestic one, and here I stand by my grim analysis — Putin can remain in power even if Russia is pushed completely outside of Ukraine’s 1991 borders. The result will be a transition to a full blown fascist state of permanent encirclement like North Korea. But unlike North Korea, which is small and whose borders are easily controlled, the reality in Russia would be a gradual collapse of state authority as it devolves to the regions. The Kremlin is unlikely to lose power in a popular revolt or even a palace coup but it is likely to slowly and imperceptibly lose it anyway to various elites that never challenge it openly and yet work for their own benefit and against the center. It is very difficult to prevent such a collapse because there is really nobody to repress and nothing in particular to sanction. It is a death by a million paper cuts — each innocuous on its own, but collectively leading to the decay of the administrative apparatus and state authority. It is how the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia disintegrated, and I think this is likely in store for Putin’s Russia as well.

5 thoughts on “Foreign Affairs in Wonderland: Stanovaya and imaginary “peacemakers”

  1. She wrote much the same in a blood-curdling Twitter thread in which she boldly asserted that there’s a faction within Russian elites wanting “total war” including nuclear use “to the end of the world if necessary.” A serious professor challenged her on this (define the membership of this group, how many of them exist, what does she mean by this being a conversation within “Russian society”) and she never came back to her.
    I have seen she trades on credibility as an analyst at Carnegie Moscow but what you’ve written seems to puncture her position which has been echoed by a chap called Gabuev. It’s this whole Putin is cornered, Putin will pull the temple down around his head before retreat narrative and I find it deeply deeply irresponsible we are not having serious conversations about Putin as a political leader first and foremost.


  2. The entire civilized world abandoned the monarchy more than a hundred years ago. However, the Russian Federation cannot and does not seem to want to give up autocracy even now in the 21st century. What conclusion can we draw from this. RF is not part of Western civilization. The Russian Federation is a colonial country, the existence of which, until recently, was supported by Western countries (EU) for its own benefits. It is so simple.


      1. And of course, let’s not forget about America, which economically raised China, which, like any child, wants to surpass its parent. And now China, with the help of the Russian Federation, is trying to weaken the West. Everything else is just rhetoric.


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