How Putin can lose
And why he mustn’t win
It’s been clear for years that Putin is brutal, self-interested, revisionist and bent on restoring Russia’s prominence on the world stage.
But it still came as a shock when he launched his invasion of Ukraine. It wasn’t just aggression against a sovereign state; he’s done that before. It was the breadth of the assault, advancing from North, East and South simultaneously in an apparent attempt to erase Ukrainian nationhood in a single overwhelming blow.
I remember meeting people in the Baltics and Nordic countries over recent years and being surprised at how present they felt the Russian danger to be. I took this to be paranoia given those countries’ history, understandable but probably overblown. No longer. Now, instead of trusting in Russia’s slow decline under an ageing autocrat and turning our attention towards a rising China, we’re weighing the risk of nuclear war.
This is very much what Putin wants. Russia, once again, is calling the shots and wrongfooting the West. In most other ways though, the conflict is not developing as he planned.
It’s clear he believed Ukrainian resistance would collapse and western allies would dither. In both cases, so far at least, the opposite has been the case. Ukrainian resistance has been ferocious, fearless and tactically superior to Russia’s aggression. It has repelled the assault on the capital, consolidated the Ukrainian sense of nationhood and raised the president, Volodymyr Zelensky, onto the global stage as an inspirational leader. Putin is now seeking to grind out a victory in Eastern Ukraine and along the Black Sea coast, but this assault, though more focused than the original invasion, appears likely to descend into a long attritional campaign in which Russia will continue to lose troops and equipment at a disproportionate rate. Ukraine has been supported strongly and from the start by the western powers and their allies, who within hours of Russia’s incursions applied swingeing sanctions to Russian trade and financial flows and to figures associated with the regime.
In fact, so far Putin seems to have achieved the opposite of his aims. Germany has ditched decades of accommodation and taken up an aggressive stance that would have been unimaginable just a few months ago. It has suspended Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that would consolidate German dependence on Russian gas supplies, and it’s aiming to substitute all Russian energy supplies by the end of the year. It has promised to divert a greater share of its budget to defence — something that all the hectoring of Donald Trump failed to achieve but that Vladimir Putin has brought about in a matter of days. The post-war guilt that inhibited Germany’s role in regional defence is ebbing away by the day.
Further north, Sweden and Finland look likely to put aside their reticence and join Nato within months, doubling the length of Nato’s border with Russia. Meanwhile, plans are afoot to strengthen Nato capacity from Tallinn to Bucharest. Considering that the expansion of Nato was one of the pretexts for Putin’s invasion, here, too, he’s getting the opposite of what he set out to achieve.
Putin’s broader aim was to demonstrate, and accelerate, the decline of what he dismisses as a moribund Western system. He has long argued that those western values of democracy, the separation of powers, openness and freedom of expression are a sham, and that in truth the West is corrupt, hypocritical and immoral. Demonstrating the overriding divisions and disloyalties among the western allies, as it seems he hoped to do, would provide an advert for his preferred system: of centralised rule where racial loyalty and national interest trump internationalism and universal human rights. Once again, so far at least, the conflict is tending to demonstrate the opposite. The Russian system seems to have created a delusional leader isolated from reality, moving from one misjudgement to another.
So as things stand today, it looks for all the world like Putin is losing. And it may well be that he is. But there’s a long way to go, and the outcome is still uncertain.
It’s not easy to say even what losing would look like. There was a question of whether Putin’s miscalculation would persuade a key base of support to turn against him, whether his trusted inner circle, his security apparatus, his wider administrative infrastructure, the oligarchs or his people. Events so far suggest that, for one reason or another, none of these constituencies are yet willing to turn.
Without internal opposition, Putin can only be defeated in two ways. The first means convincing him personally that the costs and risks of continuing the conflict outweigh any available gains. In these circumstances, he can be coaxed towards realistic negotiations. This would require Ukraine and its western backers to inflict such losses on Russia in terms of personnel, equipment and territory that the pain begins to register at home or to degrade Russia’s fighting ability in this and other conflicts. In other words, Russia could fight on, but Putin would not consider it worthwhile to do so.
The second route to ending the conflict is for Ukraine to fight Russia’s forces to a standstill, inflicting a military defeat that leaves Russia unable to make war effectively.
Which of these is more likely? Neither looks particularly promising at this stage. Putin will take some persuading that he should cut his losses, not least because it would be hard for him to hold on to power in such circumstances. And power, along with the attendant perks, is indispensable to him. So if he can’t be forced to a compromise he has to be fought to a defeat. But Russia’s resources are immense, both in terms of the soldiers and equipment it has available and the reserves and resupplies its vast territory and economy could continue to produce. Overcoming these resources would take years and exhaust Ukraine long before it was achieved, unless western forces can decisively tip the scales.
So instead of one of these outcomes, we have to consider a third scenario: an eventual capitulation by Ukraine and its western allies and some form of victory for Russia. Whatever the exact form and timing of this outcome, it would presumably involve some loss of territory for Ukraine, Donbas at the very least and probably the Black Sea coast as far as Crimea too, or perhaps all the way to the Moldovan border. This would give Putin sufficient political cover to claim vindication for the losses suffered, and leave him in control of a third of Ukraine’s territory.
This would be bad news for all of us, not just for Ukraine.
The Cold War saw the two competing powers seeking to establish buffer zones: nominally independent territories whose governments were pliant to the will of the power they bordered. Loosely, America’s ‘back yard’ and Russia’s ‘near abroad’.
At the end of the Cold War, Russia lost the ability to impose its will on these buffers and in the space of a few years the US and the structures it dominates rushed into the vacuum. It is Putin’s contention that this loss of ability was temporary, and that, while China has consolidated a third Great Power to the east, Russia itself remains a global player with the right to a sphere of influence and the capacity to assert one.
A ‘victory’ in Ukraine, albeit a more limited one than Putin aimed and hoped for, is a step towards that goal. The clear implication is that a limited Russian victory would not establish a new status quo. Like his earlier actions in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, it would just be another turn of the screw. A victorious Putin would turn his attention to undermining Ukraine’s ability to thrive, hacking away at its economic foundations, destabilising its politics and terrorising its people.
He would aim to freeze Ukraine’s development and erase its distinct national identity, to shift its political orientation away from the Western alliance and neutralise the fearsome defensive capacity it has demonstrated over the past couple of months. His eyes would be on Transnistria, Moldova and the Baltic states, and to widening the fractures in the EU and transatlantic alliance. The spectacle of a victorious Putin taking a firmer grip on his sphere of influence under Nato’s nose would give a fillip to authoritarians everywhere. It would embolden dissident voices within the EU, strengthen the populist current that has become so prevalent in Western politics, and offer a useful blueprint to China in its patient stalking of Taiwan.
Such an outcome would be catastrophic for the west and for the world order built around democratic values and the rule of law.
It isn’t usually productive to take a binary view of the future, where two starkly contrasting scenarios are set against each other. The future usually turns out to be muddy and ambiguous, with variables we haven’t considered leading to compromises we didn’t foresee. But at this point I think western strategists are coming to the view that this is a war Putin cannot be allowed to win.
Lloyd Austin, the American Secretary of Defence, said this week that the Ukrainians “have the mindset that they want to win; we have the mindset that we want to help them win…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.” Our own defence minister, Liz Truss, has called it a “strategic imperative” to push Russia out of “the whole of Ukraine”, presumably including Crimea. This is a shift in emphasis, from helping Ukraine to resist advancing Russian troops to driving the invaders back.
Joe Biden may have jumped the gun when he adlibbed last month that ‘Putin must go’, but official policy seems to be catching up with him. The US$33bn package of military aid he is pushing through Congress is more than five times Ukraine’s entire military budget for 2021, and a potential game-changer.
So it seems to me that, weapons and tactics aside, the Western allies, and particularly the US and the UK, are reorienting their policy toward applying sufficient leverage to hold Putin at bay indefinitely. The aim seems to be to neutralise Putin as a threat to his neighbours and the wider world by tying him up in a war of attrition that saps his fighting capacity and his economic base. If this policy succeeds, Putin will be forced back onto one of the two defeat scenarios I set out earlier: suing for a negotiated peace or being driven out of power. How long will this take, whether the western alliance will stay the course, whether Ukrainian forces and resolve can hold out, and whether (ok, I accept this is a big issue to leave to the end) whether Putin will use Russia’s nuclear arsenal as a last resort are questions that remain to be answered.