The invasion of Ukraine has led to an unexpected strengthening of creaking political and military bonds among Western powers and whetted their appetite for regime change in Moscow, something that many, perhaps even most, would have shied away from before Putin began raining his missiles on Kiev. Pictured: Russian President Vladimir Putin makes a speech in Red Square during a Victory Day military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II, on June 24, 2020 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Sergey Guneev - Host Photo Agency via Getty Images )
What do you do when you have called a victory parade but have no victory to parade?
This is the question that Russian President Vladimir Putin faces as his faction factory prepares to churn out a gigantic street show in Moscow with Tsarist eagles with varvels bearing Volodya's coat of arms.
The answer is that Putin is likely to keep the parade on May 9 and invent a victory to go with it. Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, an erstwhile chum of Putin, even claims that Tsar Vladimir will declare victory in his war against Ukraine in tune with his cheat-and-retreat tactic of one step backwards to prepare for the next two steps forward.
We shall soon know whether Orbán's prophesy is anything but wishful thinking. Rather than signaling the end of hostilities, Putin may announce a widening of the perimeters of a war he no longer controls.
But one thing is certain: Putin has used partial or even imaginary victories before to camouflage tactical defeats. He did that in 2008 after invading Georgia and annexing South Ossetia and Abkhazia and repeated the tactic in 2014 after invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea.
This time, however, Putin may find his cheat-and-retreat tactic more problematic. In invading Ukraine again he made two big mistakes. First, he set himself the goal of conquering and reshaping Ukraine as a whole as a vassal state if not a mere province of Mother Russia.
Secondly, he marketed his aggression as a defensive imperative against Western "conspirators" trying to carve Russia into several mini-states.
The invasion has led to an unexpected strengthening of creaking political and military bonds among Western powers and whetted their appetite for regime change in Moscow, something that many, perhaps even most, would have shied away from before Putin began raining his missiles on Kiev.
Thus even if Putin were to declare victory and thus signal the end of hostilities, at least for the time being, there is no guarantee that Western powers would simply abandon their declared, at times contradictory, war aims.
US President Joe Biden has publicly called for ending Putin's domination of Russia. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss says the Western aim is to so weaken Russia that it is never again able to invade another country. French Minister of Finance and Economy Bruno Le Maire says the aim of the war is to "destroy the Russian economy." Other senior Western officials speak of bringing Putin and his close associates to justice on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The British government has already asked a commission to start working on that scheme.
Just a few months ago all the talk in Western capitals was about a possible ceasefire followed by negotiations to bring a quick end to hostilities as a priority. Now, however, that priority has faded into diplomatic fog as Western leaders compete with each other to supply more weapons to Ukraine and impose more sanctions and Russia, moves that are bound to prolong rather than shorten the war.
The problem is that, though regime change in Moscow seems to be the ultimate aim of Western leaders, none has spelled out a credible strategy to achieve it. This may be due to a desire to use diplomatic ambiguity as a political weapon against Putin. But its side effect could be the prolongation of a war that cannot produce total victory for either side.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's address to the Ukrainian parliament last week signaled a worrying confusion in Western policymaking circles which seem unable to treat the need to end the war and the necessity of regime change in Moscow as two separate, though obviously interlinked, issues.
Denying Putin a way out of the hell-hole he has dug for himself may be prolonging the war and the humanitarian tragedy it has created. Whether we like it or not, Putin is still capable of using his looming defeat in Ukraine as a prop in a narrative of victimhood thus prolonging his own hold on power.
However, by focusing on the need to end the war as quickly as possible, even if that might save Putin face, we would leave him with a severely weakened military machine, a crippled economy and a partially deflated ego balloon. This does not mean abandoning regime change as a strategic goal. It is clear that without closing the Putin chapter, Russia will not be able to return to the international family of nations as a normal member obeying at least some of the rules. The aim is not to humiliate let alone crush Russia, a nation that will ultimately pay the price of Putin's misguided adventures.
We have witnessed similar dilemmas before.
Some Western analysts had argued that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a permanent threat to regional security or even world peace and that regime change in Baghdad ought to be treated as a priority. But once Hussein had triggered the Kuwait war, the priority became the end of the war and of Iraqi occupation. Regime change was relegated to a lower rung but not forgotten, and eventually achieved once Hussein, thanks to his megalomaniac management of misery as a life-style, had lost much of his domestic constituency. When the time came for regime change even his elite Republican Guard went AWOL.
In former Yugoslavia, too, regime change was postponed as a priority in favor of ending the Serbian war against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. The Clinton administration unrolled the red carpet for Slobodan Milosevic, alias "the butcher of Belgrade" and even offered him a sort of victory on a diplomatic platter in Daytona. Ultimately, however, it was clear to all that there could be no end to war in the Balkans without sending Milosevic and his associates to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
Like Hussein and Milosevic, Putin dreams of surrounding Russia with countries with regimes that resemble his, ignoring the fact that reality was developing in the opposite direction with Russia or Iraq or Serbia, ending up resembling the geopolitico-cultural sphere in which fate or events of history has located them. Putin invaded to prevent Ukraine from becoming European, not knowing that Russia itself will eventually have to bury its Slavophile illusions and adopt the "Westernization" strategy supported by such unlikely partners in a dream as Peter the Great, Herzen, Turgenev and Belinsky.
So, if Putin's parade could be a prelude to peace, no one, not even Volodymyr Zelensky, whom Tsar Vladimir dismissed as a Merry Andrew if not a clown, should try to rain on it.
One is curious to see if the letter Z, the symbol of Putin's elusive victory, features in the Moscow Victory Parade or will Tsar Vladimir remember Shakespeare' naughty line: "Thou whoreson zed, thou unnecessary letter!"
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.