The Putin Poison Pill

Pressure is growing on the Biden administration—both from its more traditional Democratic allies and hawkish Republican critics—to go bigger, faster, better on all fronts to help Ukraine’s fight against Putin’s war. Photo: Contributor/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
January 17, 2023

There comes a moment that can pierce even the muddy, bloody monotony of 21st century trench warfare and capture what nearly a year of war has meant for the Ukrainian people. On Saturday, a Russian cruise missile landed on a residential highrise in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro. The missile took out an entire nine-story entryway of the building, on the Victory Embankment, leaving a giant hole in the middle and killing—as of this writing—at least 45 people, one of the deadliest attacks on Ukrainian civilians in this horrific war. 

The stories that came out of that building were like something off of a grotesque New Yorker cover, or a modern Bosch painting. On one floor there was a 24-year-old woman, who had somehow survived in her bedroom on a middle floor, while her parents and cat disappeared with their kitchen into the abyss, clinging to a stuffed dinosaur, sobbing. (Her boyfriend, it later turned out, had been killed at the front a couple months prior.) On the eighth floor was a young man who had climbed up to search for his girlfriend, Eva, digging through the cement plates by hand until rescuers physically dragged him away. The cheery yellow kitchen shorn of an outer wall, now a diorama hanging perilously over a gray, wartime city. All weekend, social media circulated that image juxtaposed with a happy family—a mother, father, and three young girls—celebrating a child’s birthday in that very kitchen. The mother and daughters had gone out for a walk that Saturday and missed the missile’s arrival. The father wasn’t so lucky. 

In the meantime, though, the cruel banality of this war continues. Russia took credit—and a victory lap—for seizing Soledar, what was once a small town in the Donbas famous for its salt mines. But, like so many other prizes in the region, Soledar was swept from the face of the earth in its conquest. It was not Bakhmut, nine miles to the southwest—another small population point whose strategic importance has been overinflated so that the Kremlin can beat its chest when it seizes it—but it was close and, more importantly, it was something. Anything. A victory where none had been available to the Russians in months, in a now nearly year-long war that has, by any measure, been a failure. 

But the victory at Soledar was overshadowed by more Kremlin infighting, the kind that, before the war, rarely made it into the news. When the Ministry of Defense congratulated its men in uniform for taking the ruins of Soledar, Evgeny Prigozhin, the deeply terrifying man behind the Wagner private mercenary group, demanded that his boys get credit, too. Within hours, the Russian M.O.D. had amended its statement to thank the “courageous and selfless deeds of the volunteer assault troops of PMC Wagner.” It was the first time since Wagner sprung into existence in 2014 that its existence was officially acknowledged, let alone thanked, by the Russian Defense Ministry. 

Which, by the way, has its own issues. The fact that the command of the war in Ukraine has undergone yet another reshuffle in three months does not imply that the effort is going well—nor do the rumors that the Russian military is trying to fold Wagner into its ranks, while Prigozhin is trying to take none other than Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s job.

Measuring the Table

So where does this leave the Biden administration? In the fall, Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came out and said that it was time for Ukraine to seize on the gains it had made in retaking Kharkiv and Kherson and begin to negotiate. Or begin to negotiate about negotiating: “measuring the table,” as Milley is fond of saying. His argument is that the diplomatic treaties that have historically ended wars don’t come together overnight. It takes months, if not years, to lay the groundwork for the talks, in part because every logistical aspect—from where the talks will take place, to what issues are even up for discussion—is itself a point of intense negotiation. And so, given these time horizons, why not start “measuring the table” now? 

Though they disagree with his fall statement, people I’ve spoken to in the White House indicate that they agree with Milley’s fundamental military assessment of the war: It will be a World War I-type slog where very little territory changes hands, and they think it will look like that for about two years. And though they are fully willing to fund the Ukrainian war effort—and are confident in Congress’s ability to back them up—some in the administration don’t even disagree with Milley’s sense that it may be immoral to continue a war like that, sacrificing tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of lives, to not change the line of the front much at all—like in World War I. There are also some in the Biden administration who worry that if the line of the front doesn’t change and doesn’t change soon—that is, if the Ukrainians don’t break through and take a lot of ground and do so quickly, especially in Zaporizhzhya—it will become difficult to have a viable post-war Ukraine. 

Meanwhile, the pressure is growing on the administration, both from its more traditional Democratic allies and hawkish Republican critics in the national security/foreign policy space to go bigger, faster, better on all fronts. One Democratic source who is close to the Biden administration told me they are frustrated that the White House is not being more diplomatically aggressive. “Why haven’t we developed a diplomatic poison pill?” the source wondered. Let the Russians turn it down, the logic went, let them show clearly to the world what everyone inside the White House, State Department, and Pentagon already knows: the Russians have absolutely zero interest in negotiating. “My personal instinct would be to be more aggressive both militarily and diplomatically,” said a hawkish Republican foreign policy insider. “We should be more willing to give the Ukrainians weapons but also more aggressive in offering the Russians a way out, even if it will outrage the Ukrainians. I realize this is taboo to say, but I am not a big fan of letting a client state dictate our foreign policy.” (The idea here, the G.O.P. insider said, is similar to the Democratic insider’s: Let Putin spike the proposal. “He can reject it, but let him be the unreasonable party. At some point, someone inside that system will be reasonable. You can’t fuck up this badly at 70 and survive.”)

Other high-profile critics, like Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates, are pressuring both the administration and their own party not to waste time splitting hairs over why a Patriot system is okay to send to Ukraine, while ATACMS aren’t. Why is a defensive weapon okay but not the kind of offensive weapon Ukraine would need to retake territory—and end this war? 

This is especially relevant as fears of escalation have faded drastically in the last year. How could Vladimir Putin take on NATO if his armies, five months later, still can’t take Bakhmut, which, pre-war, had a population of 70,000? Moreover, the use of nuclear weapons seems less likely than before. The Russian side of the front, reinforced with newly mobilized bodies—poorly armed, but bodies that have to be fought through all the same—seems far less likely to collapse, which makes it less likely that Putin will feel cornered and faced with his own personal apocalypse. Furthermore, from what I’ve heard, both Beijing and Delhi, now Moscow’s sole customers for Russian energy, have made clear to Putin that if he uses even a tactical nuke, they are washing their hands of him. That has apparently had a restraining effect on him. 

Still, according to my sources both inside the White House and those outside who regularly talk to those on the inside, the line is still the same: Negotiating now would just set these lines as a baseline for round three of this war, so why not end it now? If this war goes on for another two years, the Biden administration will continue to arm the Ukrainians for as long as they want to fight. And they are confident that they will get the support they need in Congress to do so, thanks to their great, if unlikely, ally in this: Mitch McConnell.