Let’s assume that France is trying to play good cop to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s bad cop in a joint effort to bring Vladimir Putin’s brutal war to the earliest possible conclusion. In that case, how might a good-cop, bad-cop scenario play out?
Austin took the hard line in remarks to reporters on April 25. He was in Poland with Secretary of State Antony Blinken after the two men visited Kyiv to demonstrate U.S. support for Ukrainian independence. With Russia reeling and regrouping after the failure of its February invasion, Austin called on the West to further sap Putin’s strength. “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,” he said as the United States’ top diplomat looked on in apparent agreement.
Since that time, Russia has indeed become weaker. Although its indiscriminate bombing of Ukraine continues, the Russian air force has given up any pretense of achieving air superiority. The army has pulled back from Kharkiv and is struggling to protect its supply lines to Izyum. The navy, after the sinking of the Moskva, its Black Sea flagship, is cowering out of range of Ukrainian missiles, thus ending any realistic prospect of an amphibious assault on the port of Odessa.
Those are a few of the tactical failures. At a strategic level, Russia is faring even worse. Major Chinese tech firms are reportedly shying away from sales to Russia, signaling that Beijing won’t be bailing out its errant ally. Finland has asked to join NATO, with Sweden likely to follow — adding further strength to the alliance the Russian dictator had hoped to shatter. And Putin’s Victory Day display of muscle was a dud amid reports of Russian soldiers refusing to join the fight.
Enter the good cop. In a speech shortly after Putin’s Victory Day fizzle, French President Emmanuel Macron offered an olive branch to Moscow while gently, and obliquely, scolding Austin. “We must, together, never cede to the temptation of humiliation, nor to a spirit of revenge,” Macron said, adding: “We are not at war with Russia. We are working in Europe for the preservation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and for the return of peace on our continent.”
The point of a good-cop, bad-cop routine is to give a bad guy an illusion of control, a sense that he is choosing his destiny. The bad cop drives home the hopelessness of the miscreant’s situation. Then the good cop says: Let me help you keep your dignity. You don’t have to deal with the tough guy over there. You can choose to deal with me.
Make no mistake, however: The good cop is still on the side of the cops. France has supplied self-propelled artillery and thousands of shells to help arm the Ukrainians. It promises to send more. France has condemned the Russian invasion at the United Nations, has joined the stiff sanctions that are choking Russia’s economy and has sent forensic experts to help collect evidence of Russian war crimes. The alliance remains strong.
The good cop is offering Putin a way out. A graceful exit. The problem is Putin’s bloody-minded recalcitrance. He can’t bring himself to admit that he has blundered on an epic scale, at the cost of many thousands of lives, many ruined cities and the future of Russia as a global power.
The curse of totalitarian governments is that they kill people for telling the truth; do that enough times, and you end up with a nation of liars. Putin was lied to about the readiness of his military, lied to about the strength of the Ukrainian government and lied to about the weakness of the West. Now he is lying to himself about having viable alternatives other than surrender.
Whether to weaken Russia further is not principally a question for the United States. It’s a question for Vladimir Putin. Every day he continues to fight in Ukraine, he weakens Russia. Putin would be wise to accept the French invitation to negotiate the terms of his capitulation. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence remaining that he is capable of wisdom.