One thing has become clear about the war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin cannot win. But he also cannot lose.
The fact that he can’t win has been clear almost from the start of the war in February. The Russian plan had been to shoot straight for the capital of Kyiv, cause the government there to flee and then install their own rulers. But nothing worked out the way the Kremlin hoped.
The Russian tanks got stuck. Their supply chains ground to a halt. The new billion-dollar military communication system turned out to be faulty. Just one problem that comes from living in a country where kickbacks and corruption end up making pretty much everything unworkable. Senior generals were identified when they used conventional landlines and duly taken out. And of course the Ukrainian President Zelensky did not flee. The former comedian turned out to have a dose of the Churchill in him. He stayed and fought and is fighting still, rallying his countrymen all the time.
Then in recent days the Ukrainians made some truly remarkable advances. A massive Ukrainian counter-offensive has seen Russian forces pushed back from territory they had previously gained. Nobody expected that the Ukrainians could do it. But now the Russians find themselves on the defensive in the east and the south of Ukraine. Not quite the September that the Kremlin was hoping for.
In a sign of desperation, Moscow this week announced a partial mobilization of the Russian population. Putin’s plan is to throw up to 300,000 barely trained citizens at the Ukrainian war. It is a traditional Russian tactic, as it happens. If you have nothing else to defeat your enemy, the Russians always fight to a stalemate or more by simply having more cannon fodder than anyone else.
Of course news of the draft has sent young Russians fleeing the country and there have already been over 1,200 protestors arrested.
It is a bad sign for Putin. But some of the jubilation in the West is slightly misplaced. But then there are some people in the West who seem willing to fight to the last Ukrainian so long as they can weaken Moscow.
The problem is that a cornered Putin is the most dangerous Putin. A fact that he made clear this week when he issued a chilling threat to the West. The war in Ukraine is a completely unnecessary and avoidable war. But for Putin it is existential. Not for his country, but for him. That is why he used his speech this week to present the war as existential for all of Russia. In it he claimed that the West was seeking to “weaken, divide and ultimately destroy our country.”
But it was what he said next that was most worrying. “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff.” For a nuclear power like Russia these are not comforting words to hear. Most people took it as a direct nuclear threat against the West. And certainly in recent days some of Putin’s more bellicose defenders have been making blood curdling threats about the Western cities they could hit.
This is why I say that although it seems clear that Putin cannot win the war in Ukraine, neither can he lose it. Or at least he must not be made to look like he has lost it. The war already looks like it will drag into next year at least. And that includes the upcoming winter when Putin is hoping that gas shortages and sky-high energy bills in Europe will cause at least one of the European powers to break the blockade on Moscow. We shall see whether or not that happens and whether Putin is indeed able to pick apart the Western alliance this winter. But assuming the war drags into next year at least, Putin may find himself in an increasingly tight corner.
Of course the Western leaders, including President Biden, seem eager to see Vlad in just such a place. The ongoing provision of arms to the Ukrainian forces is testament to that. But if Ukraine’s victory ever was complete then Putin would not hesitate to present this as an assault on Russia itself. Because he knows that if he is forced into a humiliating defeat he will most likely finally lose his grip on power, which for him would most likely prove terminal. He would never get to enjoy that vast, ugly palace of his on the Black Sea. In fact he’d be more likely be buried under it.
So for Putin it is crucial that he is able to withdraw from this war without it being a total humiliation. Who knows exactly how he can do this? Maybe he can just claim at some point that the “special military operation” to liberate Ukraine for a government of imaginary Jewish Nazis has been completely successful. Maybe he will even have a victory parade through Red Square. Whatever happens though it will be necessary for Putin to have something to point to which allows him to avoid utter humiliation.
Naturally not everybody likes this line of thinking. Zelensky himself has said that the Ukrainians will not cede an inch of their territory. But that is the sort of negotiating position you would have to start from. More war-mongering are the people outside Ukraine who seem to think that a total and utter humiliation of Putin would be a wonderful thing to see.
I would beg to differ. A wounded, humiliated, fearful president who just happens to have the largest nuclear arsenal in the world is not someone to treat lightly.
There are things we might like to happen, and then there is what ought to happen. At some point, peace is going to have to be restored. But strangely enough the best way for it to happen will be for both sides to be able to declare victory to their own side.
And as for the rest of the world? Well we will know what really happened.