Sycophancy is the curse of authoritarians. Vladimir Putin has wielded so much power for so long that all streams of information have become polluted. The inner circle draws its comforts and privileges from its skill at telling the leader what he wants to hear; the outer circle — wishing to move inward — observes, and learns to lie.
Sooner or later, the leader makes a truly bad decision that springs reality from the prison of lies. For Putin, that bad decision is the invasion of Ukraine. All of Russia is not as stupid as this decision would suggest — but the Russians who correctly perceived the patriotism of the Ukrainian people had no way to warn Putin. The Russians who knew about the weakness of their army had no avenue to inform Putin. The Russians who understood the latent strength of the West weren’t welcome around Putin. The Russians familiar with the unpreparedness of the civilian reserves weren’t consulted by Putin. All the leader heard was the groveling echo of his own misconceptions.
That Putin is now blaming the sycophants he created for failing to bend reality to match his delusions was predictable. One must be alert when walking in Moscow these days, given the hazard of plunging bureaucrats tossed from windows and chucked down stairways.
At the same time, though, the boss appears to be engineering one more lie to redeem all the rest, and the world will have to decide whether to accommodate him for the sake of peace. Under the watchful eyes of gun-toting Russian soldiers, the people of eastern Ukraine are being encouraged — bullied — to vote for annexation. Meanwhile, Putin’s mass conscription order, and his loose talk of nuclear war, are meant to let us know that he’s all in.
He appears to be maneuvering toward an offer to end his misbegotten war with new borders drawn by the sham annexation. Such a cease-fire would spare Putin further unhappy collisions with reality. He would not have to watch the disintegration of Russian military ranks once they are filled with unhappy draftees. Nor would he have to see the failure of Russian industry to replace the thousands of tanks, trucks and artillery pieces destroyed since the February invasion. He would be spared the expanding mismatch between Russia’s dwindling arsenal and Ukraine’s growing strength. He might get some relief from the economic sanctions that are beginning to pinch his increasingly discontented people, and he could resume the sale of natural gas and oil to Western Europe.
Is this a deal the United States should welcome — if indeed it comes?
That’s not an easy call. The proud resistance of the Ukrainian people, and the inspired leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky, have stirred hearts around the world. The Biden administration would probably pay a political price if it appears to thwart Ukraine’s desire to be entirely rid of Russian occupiers. After the poorly planned withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, accepting the Russian annexation might make the United States look merely expedient as a world leader, rather than principled.
Moreover, a deal with Putin to redraw Russia’s borders westward would reward reckless and murderous behavior. By launching a full-scale invasion of a peaceful neighbor, Putin single-handedly created the most profound security crisis in Europe since World War II. His indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainian cities, and the outrages committed by Russian troops, surely constitute war crimes.
Most of the world would see only justice in letting Putin’s folly run its course, crashing the Russian economy, decimating the Russian military and fracturing Russian society.
On the other hand, there are good reasons to seek the earliest possible way out of this fiasco. If Putin accepted a cease-fire after annexation, Ukraine would not lose much, in terms of territory, compared with preinvasion conditions. Perhaps some proceeds from Russia’s restarted fuel exports can be directed toward rebuilding Ukraine.
And Ukraine would have gained much in terms of national cohesion, patriotism and identity. The same Putin who began the year by denying the very existence of an independent Ukraine would end the year in the ignominy of being whipped by an independent Ukraine.
Nor is Ukraine the only factor in this difficult equation. A grinding war in the middle of Europe threatens to breed instability, as refugees test the reserves of host nations and ancient grudges reemerge in places such as the disputed border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Finally, there is the nuclear threat. Is Putin crazy enough to uncork the nuclear bottle? Unlikely. Would the Russian command follow his order to go nuclear in a cause they all can see to be hopeless? Unlikely.
But even a small chance of such a dangerous event should be avoided. The hard truth is that Putin’s endgame must be embraced, if it comes.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.
Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.