The Ukrainian War: What Happens When You Have a War That Both Sides Absolutely, Positively Can't Afford to Lose?

By Guy Burgess

March 4, 2022



This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog


Last year, as part of our continuing exploration of the hyper-polarized conflicts that are tearing apart the United States and so many other liberal and illiberal democracies, we published an essay, "What Happens When We Have an Election That Both Sides Absolutely, Positively Can't Afford to Lose?"  In it, I argued that people who believe that the other side is trying to deny them a livable future are likely to see the conflict as a desperate struggle for survival that they simply must find some way to win. Under such circumstances, the taboo lines that normally prevent people from resorting to morally reprehensible forms of political combat rapidly erode to the point where they may even collapse into vicious hatred and violence—as we saw to a small degree in the attack on the U.S. Capitol, and we are seeing to a much greater degree in Ukraine.

The other thing that we have been writing about extensively over the last year is the importance of defending liberal democracy from what we call "bad-faith actors"  — those people who deliberately seek to inflame and then profit from the inevitable divisions that permeate all societies. In this context, we have written about political movements on both the left and the right that are based on the demonization of opposing identity groups. We have also been exploring the cognitive biases and financial incentives that are producing media ecosystems that are profiting handsomely from the distribution of inflammatory content.


We have also viewed with alarm the degree to which some bad-faith actors have been able to use provocative, divide-and-conquer strategies as part of a larger effort to seize and solidify authoritarian control of whole societies (while also destabilizing national and international rivals). In this context, Vladimir Putin's kleptocratic rule of Russia, his ongoing invasion of Ukraine, and his aggressive campaign of international political destabilization represents an extremely serious threat to liberal democracies worldwide.  (Similar threats could, of course, arise in a number of other countries.)

The Ukrainian invasion has, understandably, brought widespread attention to these long simmering fears. The now prominent question asking "What happens if Russia wins" does much to explain the surprisingly strong Western (and Ukrainian) response to the invasion. The strength of this response, should, however, lead us to ask another, similarly consequential, question — "What happens if Russia loses"?  From Putin's perspective (which is quite different from Russia's perspective), this is a war that he absolutely, positively can't lose (without placing his regime and himself, personally, in grave danger). 

To what extent Putin invade Ukraine because he thought hyper-polarization had so destabilized the US and other Western countries that they couldn't counter him effectively? 

This raises an obvious question, why did Putin put himself in such a dangerous position? It seems likely that, in part because of the success of his political destabilization efforts, he concluded that the West was so hyper-polarized and politically dysfunctional that it wouldn't be able to possibly mount an effective response. After all, if bad-faith actors were able to transform the pandemic threat into just another fake-fact driven flashpoint for intensifying political acrimony, it would seem reasonable to expect that they could do the same for the Ukrainian crisis (especially, if it drags on long enough to require citizens to make require real, long-term sacrifices). And, indeed, this seems to be happening a bit, as some Republicans in the U.S. are currently downplaying the crisis, while most of Europe and President Biden are treating it as a very serious threat, not just to Ukraine, but to the West more broadly. The need to counter Putin strongly does have enough support, however, that the financial sanctions being placed on Russia are already extremely severe.  So in that sense, so far, Putin seems to have erred in his calculations,

We now have an extraordinarily dangerous conflict in which the prospect of imminent defeat could easily force the parties to resort to increasingly extreme and dangerous tactics.

The result is that we now have an extraordinarily dangerous conflict involving nations with sophisticated and capable nuclear-armed militaries, as well as the ability to employ a wide range of unconventional 21st-century weapons including disinformation warfare campaigns, economy-wrecking economic sanctions, curtailment of vital energy supplies, cyber attacks on critical infrastructure, and sabotage. This is also a situation in which the prospect of imminent defeat could easily force the parties to resort to increasingly extreme and dangerous tactics — tactics that could prove extraordinarily costly to all concerned (including, most obviously, the Ukrainian people).

This leaves us in an extremely difficult situation in which we simply must find some way of successfully balancing five competing priorities.

We need to balance five priorities:

1. Resisting Putin

2. Minimize sacrifices and chances of catastrophic war,

3. Giving Putin a face-saving way out,

4. Acknowledging and correcting the West's contribution to the problem and

5. Repairing and strengthening liberal democracies.

  1. Resisting Putin's brand of aggressive 21st-century authoritarianism along with related, and potentially even more dangerous, authoritarian models being developed by China and, perhaps, others.
  2. Opposing this aggression in ways that minimize the sacrifices that this struggle will require (because too much sacrifice will likely weaken resolve), as well as minimizing the risk of truly catastrophic war (spurred by continued escalation on all sides).
  3. Providing Putin (the bad-faith actor in this situation) with a face-saving way out of the bind that he has put himself in. (If we don't do that, he is likely to keep on escalating in an ever-more desperate and destructive attempt to prevail).  
  4. Recognizing and correcting things that the West and even Ukraine has done that may have contributed to the current catastrophe. We need to understand how Putin and Moscow feel threatened by NATO's expansion and how the crisis looks different to people from different perspectives. We then need to develop a strategy that recognizes and works through these differences views constructively and nonviolently.
  5. Repairing and then strengthening liberal democratic institutions so that they can do a much better job of living up to their ideals. This will, of course, require us to reverse the many Putinesque trends that have been infecting democratic politics in the U.S. and elsewhere. 

Ukrainian War Metagraphic – Source:; License: Public Domain


Doing these things will require leaders and peacemakers to be willing to abandon the illusion of glorious and decisive victory, and pursue, instead, the painful trade-offs needed to avert a much larger catastrophe.