The folly of giving Putin an "off-ramp"

What happens if Putin decides that he is losing in Ukraine? He will act to protect himself by declaring victory and changing the subject. He does not need an off ramp in the real world, because that is not where his power rests. All he needs to do is change the story in Russia’s virtual world, as he has been doing for decades. This is just a matter of setting the agenda in a meeting. In virtual reality there is always an escape route, and for this reason Putin cannot be “cornered.” (Neither, for that matter, can the actual Russian army in actual Ukraine. When Russian units are defeated, they just cross back into Russia).

Putin’s power is coterminous with his ability to change the subject on Russian television. He does this all the time. Think about how the war began. Until late February of this year, the entire Russian media was clamoring that an invasion of Ukraine was unthinkable and that all the evidence was just warmongering by the CIA. Russians believed that, or pretended to. Then, once Russia did in fact invade Ukraine, war was presented as inevitable and righteous. Now Russians believe this, or pretend to. In 2015, when Russia’s last invasion of Ukraine failed to meet all of its objectives, the Russian media changed the subject from one day to the next from Ukraine to Syria. This is simply how Russia is ruled: invasions and storytelling about invasions. If the invasion doesn’t work out, the story changes.

If defeated in reality, Putin will declare victory on television, and Russians will believe him, or pretend that they believe him. He will find a new subject on which to fasten their attention. This is the Kremlin’s problem, not ours. These are internal Russian mechanisms in which outside actors are essentially irrelevant.

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