We will need a 'New Deal' to engage with a post-Putin Russia

Frankly Speaking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt sets out post-conflict policy options that could help persuade Russia’s opinion-formers to oust Putin and avoid a ‘global pariah’ future.

As missiles and artillery shells rain mercilessly on Ukraine, the question policy analysts should ask themselves is whether tougher Western sanctions are hardening rather than softening Russia’s resistance to peace talks.

It may seem premature to discuss Europe’s future relationship with Russia, but history tells us it’s not. When in mid-1944 British, American and Canadian troops were still fighting to gain a toehold in Nazi-occupied France, an international conference at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire was debating the new post-war global order. Eight decades later, we too must think ahead.

Sanctions to punish Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine should be no more than a first wave of clearly defined conditions for Russia once Putin has been ousted from the Kremlin. Not punitive conditions, but rules to ensure that this vast nation stretching so far around the northern hemisphere becomes a harmonious member of the international community.

The Russian economy will, once the growing list of sanctions begin to bite, be severely handicapped, if not on its knees

No one can know how or when Putin’s war will end but – short of a nuclear doomsday – end it eventually must. If there’s any consensus among analysts, it’s that he has launched a war that is un-winnable, however many battles the Ukrainians may lose. One way or another he himself will eventually go, so the rest of the world must consider options for handling a post-Putin Russia.

It will clearly be impossible to return to the pre-war relationship. The Russian economy will, once the growing list of sanctions begin to bite, be severely handicapped, if not on its knees. Despite the present confrontational mood, from a global perspective that’s not a desirable outcome.

At the same time, most of the 150 or so UN member governments that condemned Russia’s invasion in a General Assembly vote will want to ensure that another autocrat doesn’t succeed Putin. Russians must be persuaded to abandon their longstanding acceptance of ‘strongman’ regimes.

When the Soviet Union collapsed three decades ago it seemed that a new era of fruitful East-West cooperation lay ahead. For a while it did; investments in Russia’s industries and raw materials surged, and Russian generals frequented NATO’s Brussels HQ to discuss mutual security concerns.

Russia must be incorporated into a wider security framework

That spell was broken on both sides. Western triumphalism that Russia had ‘lost’ the Cold War was countered by stiff-necked refusal on Russia’s part to treat foreign investors even-handedly. Conditions ripened for ex-KGB officer Putin to take over and then consolidate his power by sapping Russia’s fledgling democracy.

There had been neither need nor appetite during the 1990s to fashion a new rulebook for post-communist Russia. That was left to market forces. But that cannot be the case with post-Putin Russia. A genuinely democratic Russia able to realise its full potential as an industrial and trading partner within the global economy would be a major asset in a world beset by the common problems of climate change, over-population and under-development.

So what might a post-Putin charter look like? It must obviously consist of economic, political and security elements, but should also serve as a review of the Bretton Woods arrangements that many of the world’s emerging economic giants now resent. In other words, a ‘New Deal’ with Russia must have China’s support too.

A new constitution guaranteeing democratic freedoms cannot be imposed on Russia, but attractive trade and investment terms can surely be made contingent on a far stricter adherence to the rule of law. That doesn’t mean ignoring the Russian security concerns that, however ill-founded, led to the Ukraine invasion. Russia must be incorporated into a wider security framework that also updates NATO’s founding Washington Treaty of 1949.

The most immediate argument for laying the groundwork of a post-Putin ‘charter’ concerns public opinion in Russia

The war in Ukraine has highlighted the global importance of Russia’s energy and agricultural resources, both of which are key not just to today’s international economy but also to tomorrow’s environment. The phasing out of hydrocarbon energy and the introduction of greener agro-technologies to reduce soil depletion and water wastage could be major elements of a wide- ranging agreement with post-Putin Russia.

What of the Bretton Woods institutions – the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization? Controversy has long swirled around all three, with their critics charging either that they are ineffective or misused by developed countries at the expense of poorer ones. “Never waste a crisis” could be the motto of those who will argue that the Ukrainian war’s aftermath will offer an opportunity to re-think these 20th-century structures and adapt them to the very different challenges of the 21st.

Whatever the outcome of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, many politicians around the world may opt for a return to ‘business as usual’. But a more far-sighted approach is not just preferable but probably unavoidable. The unbridled power of a single man and his small coterie in the Kremlin to wreak such havoc will be almost universally denounced.

The most immediate argument for laying the groundwork of a post-Putin ‘charter’ concerns public opinion in Russia. The tougher the sanctions and the louder the denunciations, the stronger seems popular support for Putin. The reliability of opinion polls there may be in doubt, but it’s plain that many Russians are closing ranks in defence of their country. Rather than threaten ordinary Russians with worse to come, it would be better to hold out the promise of a brighter future.

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