The Ramstein dilemma

Why the only way to freedom in Europe lies through helping Ukraine

The Ramstein dilemma
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky speaks via video to participants in the meeting of defense ministers at the US airbase in Ramstein, Germany, 20 January 2023. Photo: EPA-EFE/RONALD WITTEK

The biggest disappointment of recent days is that the negotiators at Ramstein have not agreed on delivering Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. They did not refuse the delivery, but they did not agree on it either. They will think about it some more — while the bodies continue piling up.

The world seems to have understood that Ukraine must win this war, that Putin cannot be allowed to emerge victorious — Western leaders have often made such statements. This understanding is fuelled not that much by sympathy for Ukraine, but rather by the realisation that Putin’s regime is a menace to the whole of Western civilisation; that if Putin reaches his goal of destroying Ukraine he will not be satiated, just as Hitler was not satiated with annexing Austria and the Sudetenland, but will continue “returning what is his”. That is, the world has understood that no amount of appeasing can provide a peaceful coexistence with Vladimir Putin.

However, within this understanding there exist differences of opinion. One could give Ukraine everything it needs for a swift and decisive victory. This would lead to a fairly quick liberation of all Ukrainian territories, including Crimea. Or one could provide Kyiv with limited arms, enough to deter Putin and engage in positional warfare, but not enough for Ukraine to triumph on the battlefield.

A decisive victory for Ukraine seems to scare the West. Their fears are clear. The liberation of Crimea, the destruction of the front line, the elimination of military assets on Russian territory will almost certainly provoke a deep political crisis within Russia.

Vladimir Putin, who lacks electoral support and sports the legitimacy of a mafia boss, will completely lose his authority with his own elite — a process which has already been set in motion — and with it, his power. This will hardly upset anyone, since it is much easier for the West to deal with a successor than with Putin himself. There is no guarantee, however, that Putin’s withdrawal from power will occur peacefully, and how violent and bloody the new Time of Troubles will be is anybody’s guess. Presumably it is not the fate of Russians who will suffer in this chaos that worries the West, but the possibility of the wave of violence spilling over into Europe — indeed a risk that has to be taken into account.

But the main thing that worries Western leaders is that, if cornered, Putin might start a nuclear war. While this fear is now less pronounced than before — both estimates of Russia’s nuclear capacity and Putin’s capability to ensure such an insane order is followed have changed — the risk of nuclear Armageddon is something responsible Western leaders cannot simply sweep under the carpet. They do not want war to come to their countries and take the lives of their citizens, as important as helping Ukraine may be.

This is why some people in the West find the second scenario more attractive: a war that goes on for many years, in which neither of the sides can claim a decisive victory, be it Putin taking Kyiv or Ukraine returning Crimea.

The idea is that such a war will weaken Putin economically, militarily, and politically; that in any case he will be weaker then than he is now. The goal — lessening the danger posed by Putin’s regime — will not be reached as quickly as in the decisive Ukrainian victory scenario, but it should minimise the risks. As for the countless deaths that will ensue — that is sad, of course, but what about our national interests and the upcoming elections? There are always some elections upcoming, and charity begins at home anyway. We will help, of course, but in limited batches.

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This strategy is not only immoral, since it is an attempt to reach a goal at the expense of countless of lives — of foreign nationals, but lives nonetheless — the longer the war goes on, the more Ukrainians and Russians will die. It is also erroneous, having its root in a misunderstanding of Putin’s regime.

A senseless, protracted war will, of course, weaken Putin, but it will not force him to capitulate or relinquish power, be it of his own will or by force.

As the death toll rises and the quality of life plummets, the populace will grow more discontented, but Putin’s harshly authoritarian regime denies its citizens any opportunity to influence the government. At least as long as Putin has the forces to crack down on protests. And he has them — along with a readiness to have demonstrators machine-gunned. One can hope, of course, that his forces will refuse to obey orders, as has been the case in some countries, but the possibility of such a development cannot be calculated, meaning that one should not count on it.

No matter how massively the economy might crash, military plants will continue working — Putin would rather have his people starve than stop producing weapons. Indeed, sanctions will ensure that this weaponry will be of low quality, but even then, it can wreak plenty of havoc all over the world. As for Putin’s elite, it will only revolt if everything comes crashing down; slow deterioration will not make them spring into action (as we can observe now). The only thing Putin knows how to do is to ensure his own security. Whereas his hatred for the West will only grow stronger, and permanent martial law will become his only way of staying in power. This will leave Russia poor and archaic, but politically stable and even more aggressive than now. And sooner or later, the West’s main fear will come true – a direct military conflict between Russia and NATO will break out.

This goes to show that the second option cannot be successful. As for the risks associated with Ukraine’s swift victory — the more decisive the victory, the more insignificant they will be, since this opens up the possibility that Putin will not be allowed to order a nuclear strike against the USA and Europe, or to ensure that such an order is followed. Yes, the risks are not nil, but I believe there is no other way out.

Zelensky said to the US Congress: “Your money is not charity, but an investment in the future”. Ukrainians are fighting not only for themselves — they are saving the whole world. And the world has no way of evading a menace unparalleled for 80 years other than to give Ukraine the weapons that will bring it to victory.

Editor in chief — Kirill Martynov. Terms of use. Privacy policy.