When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, most of the Western world assumed that his army would readily conquer the nation within a few weeks. I was among them, putting me in the company of almost all informed military strategists, foreign policy experts, and laymen alike, who expected a swift, if ugly, Russian victory.
Putin clearly thought so too.
But we are now 33 days into the invasion and the Kremlin’s forces are bogged down in a grinding war of attrition. The Russian advance has been halted on all fronts; indeed, Ukrainian counterattacks have even pushed the Russians back in some areas. No major cities have yet fallen, despite relentless, cowardly hammering by far-off Russian artillery, much of it aimed at brutally flattening Ukraine’s cities and deliberately targeting civilians in order to inflict as much pain as humanly possible.
Yet still the blue-and-yellow flag is flying.
The credit for this unlikely stalemate goes to the Ukrainian people, whose tenacity and determination in fighting foreign aggression by a monstrous autocrat are an inspiration to the world. Untrained Ukrainians of all ages have taken up arms and stymied the Russian invaders, a conscript army plagued by low morale and a general mystification of what the hell they are even doing there. Ukrainian fighter planes have been flying so low in attacking Russian forces that at least one UAF Su-27 returned to base with a street sign stuck to its jet intake after clipping it on a strafing run. That is really putting the “close” in “close air support.”
The Russian troops have been further bedeviled by logistical problems and long supply lines that have made it difficult for Vlad to keep them supplied with fuel, ammunition, spare parts, and even chow, proving the old saw that tactics is for amateurs while logistics is for pros. More prosaically, in the US Army we say, “If Joe don’t eat, Joe don’t fight.” Goes for Ivan too.
At the national level, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, an actor and comedian who found himself the unlikely president of his country in its darkest hour since the 1940s, has established himself as a heroic figure, “the Jewish Churchill,” as some are calling him. (NB: Actually, some believe that Churchill is the Jewish Churchill, according to Mosaic law, given rumors that his mother Jennie was Jewish or partially so.)
We have also witnessed excellent statecraft by the Western powers, led by the Biden administration, distinguished by impressive control of the narrative and dominance in the informational battlespace, at least outside of Russia’s own borders. More concretely, the West has executed a well-coordinated campaign of non-military resistance and targeted economic sanctions, even at the price of mild domestic sacrifice—not America’s strong suit in the past. Among other things, those sanctions last week caused Russia’s Uralvagonzavod tank factory in the town of Nizhni Tagil in the Ural mountains—the largest such facility in the world—to shut down, largely because it can no longer get the computer chips that are essential to its product.
But silicon wafers are the least of it. On the ground in Ukraine, the Russian tank corps has been getting it even more viscerally, as the combination of man-portable light anti-tank weapons (like the Javelins Trump held hostage) and drones (particularly Turkish TB-2s) are wreaking havoc on it.
Haters have been trying to write the obituary of armored warfare since the end of the Cold War, but somehow the main battle tank manages to hang on. (It is worth noting that the Russian invasion of Ukraine occurred on the 31stanniversary of the commencement of the ground phase of the 1991 Gulf War, the largest armored assault since World War II and itself a famous refutation of the premature epitaph for armored combat.) But in Ukraine we may indeed be witnessing a sea change in armored warfare, and—at long last—the end of the supremacy of the main battle tank. (Ladies and gentleman, as an old grunt, I submit to you that the once and forever champion in the category of the Ultimate Weapon remains the infantry soldier.)
None of this is to say that Russia is beaten. On the contrary: faced with these setbacks, Putin is even more dangerous, and apt to intensify his brutal tactics—war crimes, as even Joe Biden has rightly begun to call them. That choice, should he make it, may prove even more self-destructive than the original decision to invade, but it doesn’t mean he won’t do it.
So as the operational situation evolves, a great many pundits are openly pondering how all this might end. Some of the scenarios are quite grim, and I am duly worried about them. But without speculating on the relative odds, we must acknowledge that another, more welcome possibility exists as well, largely as a result of those Ukrainian successes: That Vladimir Putin, realizing the epic error he has made, and the damage it is doing to Russia and to him personally, might simply declare victory and go home.
Am I predicting that will happen? No. But it might….particularly if Ukraine and the West continue to rack up wins that incentivize him to do so.
In just this first month of the war we have seen headlines that read “Putin has already won” and “Putin has already lost.” So let me be clear about what I mean and what I don’t by the question I am posing. Latter part first,
I don’t mean Putin has actually won the war. Very much the opposite. For Putin to declare victory would suggest that he is losing the war, and knows it, and needs to find a rapid, face-saving way out, one that simultaneously deflects recognition of that fact.
But given that he has near-total control of the Russian media, he is very much in a position to do so, simply by announcing to his people that Russia has achieved its objectives, Ukraine is “de-Nazified,” and he is bringing the boys home.
Do we doubt his ability to pull off this Orwellian trick? He has been able to convince his citizenry that Ukraine started the war, that its Jewish president is a Nazi, that Hunter Biden is running US-funded bioweapons labs inside its borders, that the citizens of Mariupol are bombing themselves, and more. So it’s not a stretch to think that the charade of a glorious Russian victory will not be hard to sell at home.
International opinion is a different matter, of course.
Even if he gaslights his own people, Putin won’t want to look weak or defeated on the global stage. Who does? The desire not to be humiliated is natural and universal, but it can’t always overcome reality, and the reality may well be that Russia cannot win in Ukraine. By that I mean not merely that it will ultimately be defeated in a long and grueling counterinsurgency—the long-term end state that I and many others have predicted—but that it cannot capture Kyiv, eject Zelenskyy from power (and likely from this mortal coil), and occupy the country at all.
Given that he was foolish and arrogant enough to start this war in the first place, and not exactly surrounded by stalwart advisors who tell him the truth, Putin may be very far from coming to that recognition. But it may eventually be forced upon him whether he likes it or not.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, war is hard. Surprisingly so.
A significant chunk of Russia’s armed forces is occupied in Ukraine, limiting its ability to project power elsewhere as needed or desired. That is tenable in the short term, but in the long run it will seriously constrain Moscow’s strategic flexibility, even more so than Washington’s lengthy quagmire in Southwest Asia did (or Southeast Asia before that). If Putin does come to realize that this campaign is doing him more harm than good, he may well decide to cut his losses while trying to put the happiest possible face on the withdrawal. Eventually even the great powers have to face reality, as both the USSR and US had to do in Afghanistan. Of course, in both those cases, it took ten to twenty years, respectively. Putin may traverse that arc faster, or he may not.
Or, at the other end of the spectrum, he may double down on his commitment to conquering Ukraine, even to the point of leveling its cites, starving its people, and perhaps even exercising his nuclear option, either at the tactical level, or the strategic one, or both, all of which would be a historic catastrophe. He might do so because he continues to think he can win, as numerous informed sources have reported. Or he might do so because, consumed with the sunk-cost fallacy, he calculates that the humiliation of losing is a price he cannot afford to pay. Or he might do so because he is living in the proverbial dictator’s bubble with no one but groveling sycophants and yes-men to give him advice. Or simply because he has lost his fucking mind.
So does this all come down to whether or not Putin is a so-called “rational actor”? Maybe. And the answer to that question is not at all clear.
Reporting from the critical port of Odessa, on the Black Sea, the former NPR correspondent Lawrence Sheets recently told Morning Edition’s Steve Inskeep that when Putin appears on Russian television these days, he seems unable to use his right arm properly, and walks with a limp on that side, suggesting that he may be suffering from a Parkinson’s-like neurological condition. Footage of him trembling and twitching has appeared in the Western TV as well. There have also been rumors that he has cancer, and is suffering from ill effects of his treatment. Even his famous, laughable obsession with macho displays of his fitness—judo, hockey, horseback riding, scuba, etc—has been linked to a lifelong need to prove his good health, he doth-protest-too-much-wise.
I don’t want to wish ill on another human being, but if Vladimir Putin dropped dead tomorrow, it wouldn’t cause me a moment’s hiccup in my daily Wordle. (Though that is squarely in careful-what-you-wish-for land. There isn’t exactly a long line of Jeffersonian democrats waiting in the Kremlin green room to succeed ol’ Vlad.)
But short of that, what is plenty worrying is the idea of an unwell, unpredictable, unstable dictator with his finger on the not-at-all figurative nuclear button.
NO SUBSTITUTE FOR VICTORY
Among respectable members of the American punditocracy, The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum, an Eastern European expert, continues to be among the most hawkish voices on Ukraine, as she was on Afghanistan, rejecting the idea that a decade-long insurgency resulting in the ejection of the Russian invaders would be a practical goal for the West to pursue.
Instead, in a piece titled “Ukraine Must Win,” she calls instead for outright Ukrainian victory right now, and describes its parameters:
It means that Ukraine remains a sovereign democracy, with the right to choose its own leaders and make its own treaties. There will be no pro-Russian puppet regime in Kyiv, no need for a prolonged Ukrainian resistance, no continued fighting. The Russian army retreats back over the borders. Maybe those borders could change, or maybe Ukraine could pledge neutrality, but that is for the Ukrainians to decide and not for outsiders to dictate. Maybe international peacekeepers are needed. Whatever happens, Ukraine must have strong reasons to believe that Russian troops will not quickly return.
That scenario may be achievable. It is certainly—surprisingly—much more within the realm of possibility than almost anyone thought three weeks ago. It is cheering to think that we are even discussing the possibility of Russia withdrawing with its collective tail between its figurative legs after just a month of fighting. (“Just a month”—if it’s a news story you’re reading in a café in Georgetown or Silverlake or Peoria, and not an in-your-face reality in a makeshift bomb shelter in Kharkiv.)
In any event, Ukrainian successes have undeniably strengthened Kyiv’s hand in potential peace talks.
As canny as he is eloquent, Zelenskyy has expressed his willingness to negotiate with Putin. But so far all Zelenskyy has offered by way of concessions is an expression of “neutrality” and a commitment not to seek membership in NATO, which was never really going to happen anyway, and therefore not much of a trade.
Moreover, as we have discussed, NATO expansion has never been anything but a fig leaf for Putin, so in that sense Zelenskyy is merely calling his bluff (or rubbing his nose in it). Putin’s real purpose in invading Ukraine, as Applebaum herself wrote pre-war, was to crush a powerful pro-democracy movement on his border and deter the same impulse across the Baltics—and more importantly, at home—something that the no-NATO promise does not achieve.
But it could still offer him cover for a strategical reversal of an ill-conceived and disastrous decision. I am not advocating appeasement, but all negotiations require giving the other guy a way out.
What Russia has offered thus far—the possibility of an end to hostilities if Ukraine surrenders the Donbass and recognizes its 2014 annexation of Crimea—has been bluntly rejected by Kyiv, and rightly so. What leader would sacrifice whole parts of his nation and its citizenry like that, rewarding aggression in the process? A pragmatic one, some might say. But the Russian-speaking Ukrainian populations in those regions, the very people whom Putin claimed would welcome his troops and take his side, have valiantly risen up and fought back against him, ferociously. They deserve far better than to be bargained away, even to save the sovereignty of the rest of the country.
Of course, it’s easy for me to say that, channeling my inner Applebaum. But if anything, the Ukrainian people and their leaders are even more steadfast and unyielding on that point than me, or her.
Another possibility is what the LA Times calls “a creative compromise: While (Ukraine’s leaders) won’t agree formally to Russia’s annexation of any part of their country, they will promise to pursue reunification only by peaceful means.” That means a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in which Zelenskyy accepts the de facto conquest of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea without saying that’s what he’s doing.
Distasteful? Yeah. But politics is the art of the possible. Zelenskyy is trying to balance the need to resist aggression—which means deterring it in the future by not submitting—with keeping millions of his people alive and free.
To that end, negotiations also benefit from pressure that brings the other side to the table under conditions favorable to ours. Zelenskyy has called for even more Western aid, which is his job, as it is the job of Biden and Johnson and Scholz and Macron to take other factors into account, like preventing a wider war while not signaling to Putin that, short of an attack on a NATO member, we are unwilling to confront him.
Not that anyone asked, but I would offer a qualified endorsement of that call for more military aid from the West: it is not for Putin to tell us what lines we may cross, after he crossed an enormous one. None of us, of course, is privy to what Moscow has privately told Washington regarding its red line, or vice versa. But I don’t need to be told that a no-fly zone, inherently entailing US engagement with Russian forces, is an escalation no one should want, just as any ratcheting up of Russian atrocities in Ukraine makes it accordingly less possible for the Kremlin to complain about the increasing overtness of Western assistance.
Putin’s battlefield failures therefore give the West the initiative, and a freer hand to act aggressively in aiding Ukraine. But they also push Putin into a corner, making him even more dangerous. We must capitalize on Kyiv’s surprising military success while still pursuing diplomatic solutions that have become more favorable, though still fraught, as a result.
CLAPPING ON THE ONE
One thing we can be sure of is that Putin will not be getting any “tough love” advice from his own cowering advisors.
In the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell recounts a surreal passage from Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, about the Iannucciesque extremes to which the USSR’s cult of personality extended in Russia’s past.
Solzhenitsyn describes a Fifties-era conference which ended with a call for a tribute to Comrade Stalin, leading to a rapturous standing ovation “for three minutes, four minutes, five minutes,” as “palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching,” and “older people were panting from exhaustion.”
However, who would dare be the first to stop?
The secretary of the District Party Committee could have done it. He was standing on the platform, and it was he who had just called for the ovation. But he was a newcomer. He had taken the place of a man who’d been arrested. He was afraid! After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who quit first!
….the applause went on–six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks!
The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter…
Finally, after eleven minutes of vigorous, non-stop applause, “the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat,” with everyone else—consumed with relief—immediately following suit.
That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of his interrogation, his interrogator reminded him: “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!”
We’ll leave Solzhenitsyn’s exploitation by the American right, as a precursor to the contemporary GOP’s Christian nationalist pro-Putin wing, for another day. But that tale is instructive as evidence of how diseased and irrational an authoritarian state can become, making it a dangerous and unpredictable opponent.
So will Putin declare victory and go home? I doubt it. The recent intensification of Russian attacks suggests that he is in fact pursuing the opposite course, at least for now. I fear that he is indeed clinging to the disastrous belief that he can win, that in any event he can’t afford the damage to his authority that would accompany anything short of unqualified victory, and that no one around him is brave enough, or suicidal enough, to stop applauding and tell him otherwise.
Even so, we can increase the chances that, against those long odds, the rational Putin will return. We want the mind of the cold-eyed career KGB officer to prevail, not that of the barechested, Idi Amin-ish dictator, and we can hasten that by delivering him setbacks and losses—militarily, economically, psychologically—and making it clear that victory is not within his grasp, no matter how loud the ongoing ovation from his terrified myrmidons.
As I used to write at the end of all my undergraduate history papers, only time will tell. (Lazy all-nighter cliché or charming prose trademark? You be the judge.) We shall see if Putin will pursue a prudent course of cutting his losses, even if it is papered over with propaganda, or a scorched earth one that leaves Ukraine—and even broader Europe—in rubble and ruins. Opaque as the current Russian regime is, even the best neo-Kremlinologists can only guess.
We’ve all been wrong before.
Photo: Putin holds a trophy at a 2015 hockey game on the occasion of his 63rd birthday, in which he scored seven goals. Credit: Alexei Nikolsky/AP.
h/t Dixie Laite for rumors of Churchill’s Jewish ancestry.