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Opinion Does the exit ramp look more attractive to Putin now?

A sculpture with a headband of Ukraine's flag is seen at a checkpoint in the capital of Kyiv on March 26. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin protested to Kremlin visitors Monday that his adversaries were trying to “win on the battlefield” and “destroy Russia from within.” For once, he wasn’t just being paranoid.

Western resolve is hardening in the Ukraine war. For months, the Biden administration beseeched Putin to find an “exit ramp” from the confrontation. Now, the United States’ openly stated goal is to help Ukraine beat Russia and to disable Putin’s war machine so that it won’t threaten neighbors in the future.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a man careful with his words, stated it plainly Monday after a trip to Kyiv to bolster Ukraine’s resistance: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Austin repeated that message Tuesday after talks with NATO allies in Germany.

This is a high-stakes strategy — efforts to degrade another country’s power by military and economic means usually don’t end well — and I asked the White House to elaborate on the comments. “We want Ukraine to win,” a National Security Council spokesman responded. “We intend to make this invasion a strategic failure for Russia. One of our goals has been to limit Russia’s ability to do something like this again.”

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The West’s assessment as it tightens the screws was bluntly stated Monday by Secretary of State Antony Blinken: “Russia is failing; Ukraine is succeeding.” That’s certainly true after the first two months of war, but the bloodiest days of this campaign might lie ahead. The questions going forward are whether the pressure strategy will succeed in crippling Putin, and at what cost.

The Russian army has been mauled, so far. The most precise damage assessment I’ve seen comes from Ben Wallace, Britain’s defense secretary. He said in a speech Monday that 15,000 Russians have been killed, 2,000 armored vehicles destroyed, and 60 helicopters and jet fighters downed. Russia’s massive invasion army of 120 battalions has suffered a 25 percent loss in combat strength, Wallace said. That’s a body blow.

A rough composite portrait of the human beings represented by these numbers comes from Mediazone, a Russian independent media group. Researchers analyzed 1,744 specific Russian death reports. They found heavy losses among elite paratroopers, marines and special forces. At least 317 of the reported dead were officers; 44 had the rank of lieutenant colonel or above. The fallen soldiers were disproportionately from the poor regions of Dagestan in the Caucasus Mountains and Buryatia in eastern Siberia.

The Biden administration says it has been warning Russia for months about the consequences of invading. But Putin evidently didn’t take the admonitions seriously. He rolled his tanks and missile launchers toward Kyiv on Feb. 24 expecting a quick capitulation. When that failed, he relaunched the campaign as an assault on the southeastern region known as the Donbas.

“Never again” is the West’s mantra in this war, as it was after 1945. To defeat Putin, the United States and its NATO allies are pumping weapons and ammunition into Ukraine at an astonishing pace. But the truly decisive tactic will be to choke out the Russian war machine through economic sanctions.

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This economic strangulation is only beginning, but a Biden administration official described some early effects. U.S. exports to Russia have fallen 80 percent from a year ago; items subject to export controls have fallen 99 percent by value. Precision-guided missiles that rely on foreign semiconductor chips won’t be replaced once supplies are exhausted. Tank production at two Russian plants has stopped because of lack of foreign parts, according to Ukrainian reports.

Russian sources of income are slowly evaporating, a European official told me. Buyers are shunning Russian oil in tankers at sea. A brain drain is accelerating; 50,000 to 70,000 computer specialists have fled the country, a Russian tech group reports, and 100,000 more are expected to leave in April. The official predicted that Russia’s economy will contract this year by 8.5 percent to 15 percent.

Russia’s global power is waning in other ways. Moscow’s candidates were defeated this month in elections for four United Nations bodies. Russia was suspended from the U.N. Human Rights Council. The International Telecommunication Union rejected Russian candidates for four study groups assessing communication issues. Kremlin dreams of technology leadership are dying on the plains of Ukraine, along with its soldiers.

What are the dangers as Russian casualties mount, the economic squeeze tightens, and Moscow gradually loses the power to invade its neighbors? Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned Monday that “NATO is, in essence, going to war with Russia through a proxy,” and he invoked the danger of nuclear conflict. “The risk is serious,” he said. “It should not be underestimated.” Austin dismissed Lavrov’s rhetoric as “very dangerous and unhelpful.”

Superpowers sometimes lose ill-considered wars. That happened to the United States in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and it might be Russia’s fate in Ukraine. The exit ramp surely must look more attractive to Putin now than it did several months ago.

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