In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
The Congress of Paris

What If the Russian Autocrat Cut His Losses in Ukraine? It Would Not Be Unprecedented

September 01, 2022
Simon Saradzhyan

Though Ukraine’s efforts to stage a counter-offensive in the south continued to fall short of the city of Kherson as of Sept. 1, one might nevertheless ponder: What if the Kremlin’s unthinkable scenario happens and Russian forces in Ukraine suffer a major setback? Should that happen, there would be two realistic options for Putin to choose from: (1) escalate so that the setback fades in a larger campaign for larger purposes; or (2) cut his losses. Of these two options, the first one would be more probable, while the first one would be unlikely, but not impossible. If dealt a major military setback on the Russian-Ukrainian fronts, Putin may, indeed, decide to cut his losses, which already include 5,500 to 20,000 Russian soldiers killed in action and an up to 9.6% contraction in GDP this year.

Putin wouldn’t be the first autocrat to cut his losses after a major military loss. Russian emperor Alexander II1 (whose image, by the way, has adorned Putin's antechamber in the Kremlin) had to exercise that option in 1856. On March 30 of that year, the Russian monarch signed the Treaty of Paris, which, among other things, “obliged Russia to surrender southern Bessarabia,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. In addition, “the Black Sea was neutralized, and the Danube River was opened to the shipping of all nations,” per the treaty, which ended the Crimean War (1853 to 1856), with which scholars of the current Russian-Ukrainian war may, perhaps, draw some parallels.

Alexander II had to sign the treaty as it became clear that Russia was losing the war his father and predecessor, Nicholas I2 (whose portrait has also hung in Putin’s presidential study) dragged Russia into. As Britannica puts it, the war “was more directly caused by Russian [Nicholas I’s] demands to exercise protection over the Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman sultan,” though it was the Turks who formally declared war against Russia (they did so rather than accept the Russians’ demands). A coalition of Western states (not unlike today), namely France, Britain and Piedmont-Sardinia, sent troops to help the Ottomans while the Austrian empire provided support.

It was the seizure by French troops of a key height at Sevastopol (Malakhov kurgan) in September 1855 that forced the Russian troops on the peninsula to blow up some forts, sink ships and abandon Sevastopol (Nicholas I had died by then and Alexander II was ruling Russia at this time). “After Austria threatened to join the allies, Russia accepted preliminary peace terms on Feb. 1, 1856. The Congress of Paris worked out the final settlement from Feb. 25 to March 30,” according to Britannica. Some of these concessions did not last, however, as we know from history that imperial Russia eventually reestablished control over Bessarabia and the entirety of Crimea as part of its renewed expansion drive.


  1. Alexander II (April 29, 1818 - March 13, 1881) reigned from March 2, 1855, to March 13, 1881.
  2. Nicholas I (July 6, 1796 - March 2, 1855) reigned from Dec. 1, 1825, to March 2, 1855.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Image is in the public domain.