Putin desperate to salvage something out of Ukraine debacle

Vladimir Putin and Russia deserve to be humiliated on an epic scale, and right now, that’s just what they’re getting, with Ukrainian forces advancing and reclaiming vast swaths of previously conquered territory. But there’s a catch to this good news for Kyiv, NATO, and the U.S., and it’s that every Russian defeat makes Putin and his cronies more desperate to salvage something out of this wide-ranging military debacle.

A few weeks ago, I noted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine tended to disappear from the U.S. news cycle for weeks at a time. Some readers responded that the war had been in a stalemate, and thus had little “real news.” But the past days have brought real news, as the Ukrainian counter-offensive is picking up real momentum and regaining significant chunks of lost territory. 

Ukrainian forces kept pushing north in the Kharkiv region and advancing to its south and east, Ukraine’s army chief said on Sunday, a day after their rapid surge forward drove Russia to abandon its main bastion in the area.

In the worst defeat for Moscow’s forces since they were repelled from the outskirts of the capital Kyiv in March, thousands of Russian soldiers left behind ammunition and equipment as they fled the city of Izium, which they had used as a logistics hub.

Ukraine’s chief commander, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, said the armed forces had regained control of more than 3,000 square km (1,158 square miles) since the start of this month.

Moscow’s almost total silence on the defeat — or any explanation for what had taken place in northeastern Ukraine — provoked significant anger among some pro-war commentators and Russian nationalists on social media. Some called on Sunday for President Vladimir Putin to make immediate changes to ensure ultimate victory in the war.

It’s not the Ukrainian boasts by themselves that are convincing; it is the Ukrainian boasts coupled with images from the front and the lack of a Russian counterargument.

In many ways, this is terrific news; the war is turning into just about the largest-scale humiliation of Vladimir Putin and Russia imaginable. Putin and the Kremlin no doubt deserve to be humiliated; the world will be a safer place if regimes from Beijing to Tehran see that an act of territorial aggression can rapidly turn into a disaster, costing fortunes in blood and treasure. (Estimates of Russian military casualties — the combined number of dead and wounded — range from 60,000 to 80,000; for perspective, the U.S. suffered 58,220 casualties during the entirety of the Vietnam War.)

There is a religious dimension to this conflict: Putin sees himself as a saintly, heroic, messiah-like figure, smiting evil enemies and preserving all that is good and holy. Mounting, worsening defeats might just get Putin to doubt that God is on his side.

We’re left with the same questions as at the beginning of the war. The U.S. doesn’t want Russia to win, but we would prefer the war wasn’t being fought at all. A Russia that is utterly defeated in Ukraine is a wounded dog — desperate, angry, irrational, and capable of lashing out in unpredictable ways that could turn out badly for everyone.

No less a figure than CIA director William Burns said in a speech this past April at Georgia Tech — ahem, excuse me, some folks write in and complain when I don’t call it “the Georgia Institute of Technology” — that, “given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks that they’ve faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons.” At the time, he said that the CIA had seen no serious moves in that direction, and that the agency would be watching closely for any signals that this sort of devastating attack was in the works.

If Putin decides to use low-yield tactical nuclear weapons, he will have the option of leaving portions of Ukraine devastated but minimally irradiated, or using the effects of an electromagnetic-pulse attack over a wide area of Ukraine to effectively destroy all kinds of electronic equipment.

Putin expected a quick and easy war that would ensure he would be remembered as “Vladimir the Great.” What does he do in the face of the prospect of being remembered as “Vladimir the Defeated”?

Contemplating some sort of nuclear action on Putin’s part, the Wall Street Journal editorial board says today that, “We hope Western leaders have been mulling how to respond, rather than thinking it can’t happen.” Dare we hope for some sort of coherent deterrence plan? Because the plan to deter the invasion didn’t amount to much.

Putin likely thinks that his forces are losing because of the aid Ukraine is receiving from NATO, and that his best shot of neutralizing NATO is to freeze central Europe this winter. Even if the Germans, Italians, French, and Poles aren’t freezing in their apartments as 2022 turns into 2023, their factories will grind to a halt under skyrocketing energy prices. Putin may well believe that by spring 2023, the largest European NATO powers will be ready to force territorial concessions upon Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukraine.

Is the Biden administration prepared for all-out energy war in Europe in the coming months? Its track record is not encouraging.

Many in the West would like to see Putin deposed; a key question would be what, if anything, Putin’s successor learned from the colossal waste of human lives in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin is the man who takes over if Putin dies, but he is in that job precisely because he has no ambitions of ever occupying the top spot.)

In Western eyes, the lessons are clear: The countries of eastern Europe must set their own destiny, remaining politically independent and choosing their own economic, geopolitical, and security alliances. Wars of conquest will never work; the combination of economic sanctions and expedited arms exports will turn any territorial occupation into a bloody quagmire. Oh, and considering the effectiveness of American-made High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, if you’re a foreign country’s defense ministry who happens to have a hostile neighbor, “I recommend you buy American.”

But Russia may not be willing to accept those lessons and may choose to believe some alternate narrative. Nations are made up of human beings, and human beings love to hunt for scapegoats. The Russian invasion was indeed poorly planned, with far too many over-optimistic assumptions of Ukrainian surrender. The much-hyped modernization of the Russian military may have been a giant scam with the usual Russian corruption. After Putin dies, it will be safe for Russians to openly discuss his flaws — his arrogance, his dismissal of alternate views and reliance on yes-men, his unrealistic expectations.

It is likely that in the aftermath of a Russian defeat, a lot of Russian citizens will choose to believe that they could have won, if it hadn’t been for NATO, or incompetent generals, or grifting defense contractors, or those meddling kids.

Finally, if Ukraine is on the verge of achieving a decisive victory before winter, if not winning the entire war, we can count on President Joe “minor incursion” Biden to take a victory lap. Almost everyone will forget that in early August, some unnamed Biden administration official leaked to the New York Times’ Tom Friedman that there is “deep mistrust” between Zelensky and the White House.

This administration wants to stand at arm’s length from Zelensky when the war is going badly or stuck in a stalemate, but hugs him the moment the Ukrainians start winning again.

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