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What do US and European leaders see as the endgame in Ukraine? If they’re thinking about it, they’re giving little sign. And if their answer is defeating Vladimir Putin, they need to ask themselves another question: What does that mean? Moved, as they should be, by the astonishing bravery of Ukraine’s people—and by their own voters’ outrage at Russia’s aggression—Western leaders are intent for now on denouncing the Russian president, broadening their sanctions and enforcing what they’ve already deployed. A note of celebration attends their expressions of unity and economic power, which seem to have taken them by surprise.

Still, there remains enormous uncertainty about how events might unfold, and the question of what it means to defeat Putin needs to be asked. It’s thinkable that Putin’s misjudgement—of Ukraine’s resolve, the West’s will to push back and of Russian public sentiment about the war—might lead to his overthrow at the hands of Russians. So perhaps ‘defeat’ means regime change.

It’s an alluring prospect, but for the US and Europe to work explicitly to that end would be highly risky. Putin is reportedly erratic and under enormous pressure. For the moment at least, he commands the biggest nuclear stockpile in the world and he’s already threatened to use it. The notion that he’s bluffing, or that his generals wouldn’t let him launch a strike, is hardly comforting.

The US and its allies are alert to this danger even as they escalate their economic warfare. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, fighting for his country’s freedom by any means necessary, has called for the US to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine (drawing the US into direct combat with Russian forces) and the EU to admit Ukraine as a member immediately (which would make it a formal defence partner).

For the moment, both have been ruled out. Yet if Western allies really were willing to pay any price to rescue Ukraine and repel Russia’s invasion, these escalations might actually make sense.

They aren’t willing yet. Depending on what Russia does next, however, they might change their minds. For now, the allies are purporting to make a distinction: They will impose drastic economic measures avowedly intended to destroy the Russian economy and (maybe) lead to the overthrow of its government. But they will not engage in actual fighting or commit to making Ukraine a formal ally.

If the regime-change scenario happens, this tension will be applauded as a necessary part of a brilliant strategy. If it doesn’t, the allies might regret failing to offer Putin an off-ramp.

The basic form of that off-ramp is clear, but getting it in place will not be easy. A plausible settlement might look like this: a withdrawal of Russian forces, a commitment by Ukraine to stay out of Nato and remain non-aligned, the ceding of the Eastern separatist statelets to Russia, and security guarantees to assure Ukraine of its independence from Moscow.

Supposing for the moment that Putin would go along with such a plan, the big political objection is obvious: He could present this as victory. It’s what he wanted from the outset, he could say. It’s what the allies refused to discuss—and it took Russian arms to bring Ukraine and its friends to their senses. For Ukraine, it would feel like defeat: Our sacrifice was for this? And for Western politicians, it would be a hard thing to explain.

But they and Ukraine’s government need to weigh the alternatives. Are they sufficiently confident that Putin can be overthrown, or made to yield unconditionally, without a wider war, perhaps involving nuclear weapons? Is drawn-out low-level warfare confined to Ukraine really in Ukrainians’ best interests? Is the outright subjection of Ukraine, if Putin prevails despite everything, better than Finlandization? And how long can Western allies maintain their sanctions once the toll on their own economies and financial systems becomes more apparent?

Of course, if Putin were offered an off-ramp and chose to use it, he’d claim victory. But he and everybody else would know the score: Provoking disgust all across the free world turns out to carry enormous strategic costs. Economic warfare can be much more powerful than previously believed. Freedom-loving people can’t easily be cowed by threats. Autocrats have to worry about retaining domestic support. If an off-ramp had been offered and taken before Putin chose war, these lessons—all of which work to the advantage of the US, Europe and Ukraine—would not have been learnt. Putin might plausibly have pocketed the concessions and started planning his next move. If a climbdown is offered and accepted now, that’s much less likely. Putin might not admit it, but he’d be chastened. And Russians would know it.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering economics, finance and politics.

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