Is Putin on the brink of an extraordinary defeat?

29 March, 08:03 PM
Vladimir Putin (Photo:Alexander Vilf / REUTERS)

Vladimir Putin (Photo:Alexander Vilf / REUTERS)

The Ukrainian side have presented their ideas for a potential peace, including agreement to give up on NATO membership, accept neutral status but in exchange for security guarantees from meaningful Western military powers, the US, UK, France, Turkey and Germany (?), plus also pushing the issues of Crimea and LPR out into the long grass. 

Ukraine rejects demilitarized status but agrees to no permanent NATO military bases in the country. The Ukrainians suggest all the above will be put to the Ukrainian people in a referendum, but only after Russian troops return to their positions as per February 23.

Seemingly, the Russian side have gone away to present the Ukrainian plan to the boss, Putin. Meanwhile, they have signaled some “goodwill” by suggesting a military withdrawal of sorts from around Kyiv and Chernihiv. Note this came after the Russian military high command had already indicated that they were going to reorient the military campaign away from Kyiv to Donbas, and that it was always about Donbas all along. LOL.

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I have numerous concerns/question marks here for me.

Ukrainians I speak to are adamant, that they are winning, will win and why concede ground to Putin now? Society is energized and focused on winning this war.

First, the above looks a lot like a huge Ukrainian win, in a David versus Goliath contest, against Russia. So I wonder if the Ukrainian population will buy all this and will approve any such peace plan in a referendum. It might actually be a tough sell. What happens if the referendum is rejected? I guess then it buys Ukraine months to rebuild its defenses for the next offensive from Russia.

Second, and important I think in determining if Ukrainians will vote for any peace deal, the security guarantees have to count for something. Those guarantor states really have to make it clear that if Russia attacks again, that they will put boots on the ground in Ukraine, and enforce a no fly zone against Russia. In effect this has to be close to NATO Article 5, and are these NATO members really up for that? Ukrainians will be suspicious after the security guarantees given in the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 which were not actually worth the paper they were written on. Ukrainians are not that stupid.

Third, Moscow might have stepped back from its three front offensive, now focusing on Donbas, but it has still signaled that this is about the whole of Donbas, and looking at the map it only holds something less than half the Donbas. 

This might suggest the Russian side is just buying time to regroup before it launches a fresh offensive in Donbas, aimed at the bulk of Ukraine’s military force, the JFO fronting up in Donbas against Russian troops - and appearing vulnerable now to encirclement if Mariupol eventually falls.

But assuming that Putin takes the above Ukrainian peace offer, from so many levels this looks like a simply catastrophic defeat for Putin, and I worry if he is able/willing to take that on the chin and move on.

Let’s just look at this:

a) Putin’s image as a tactical/strategic genius is in tatters. In the run up to the war the main argument used by the Kremlin to explain why they would not wage war in Ukraine was because they were not that stupid to do exactly what the Yanks wanted them to do, and get dragged into a war in Ukraine, similar to those wages by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. Guess what, Putin really was that stupid. Even more stupid, as despite knowing the risk, he still did it. Putin’s reputation would hence be in tatters. It is actually.

b) The way Russia has conducted this war, launching an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation, with indiscriminate bombing of cities and civilian targets, has made Russia and Putin international pariahs, and likely for long to come. The reputational damage has been immense. And the lies in the run up to the war means that nothing the Kremlin says can be believed.

c) Putin has left Russia exposed to devastating economic sanctions. Given b) above, and calls for war reparations, sanctions are unlikely to be quickly eased, even should there be a peace agreement reached quite quickly now. What was notable about this crisis was the coming of age of ESG and its link into sanctions. Large international companies have been forced by international moral outrage to cut business ties to Russia, even where activities are not formally sanctioned.

This has multiples the impact of formal sanctions. As a result, it’s not unreasonable to think that Russia could suffer a real GDP decline of 15-20% this year, with dollar GDP dropping by perhaps half a trillion dollars. Again, I think big international companies will be slow to re-engage with Russia even in a best case scenario.

This suggests the Russian economy will be weighed down for years to come, and will be slow to recover losses caused by this conflict. It may also have to pay huge reparations to Ukraine for the costs of war, paid out from its assets now frozen overseas.

d) Russia has been exposed as a military threat to peace and stability in Europe. The West will adjust its posture as a result and we should expect a massive increase in NATO defense spending to counter the perceived threat from Moscow. And if Moscow intervened in

Ukraine because of the NATO security threat via Ukraine, and NATO encroachment on its borders, that military threat will become even more real and significant for Moscow now.

e) Putin’s invasion has united the Ukrainian nation as never before. Opinion poll showed 90% plus opposition to the invasion. And it is simply incomprehensible here why the Russian military would bombard Eastern and Southern arrears of Ukraine, mostly Russian speaking, and historically more favourably inclined towards Moscow as reflected in their voting intensions overture past 30 years. Never again.

His intervention has served exactly the opposite of his over-riding purpose which was to bring the Russian and Ukrainian people “back” together, and stopping the constant move West since 1991 and the collapse of the USSR. He has now inevitably accelerated that process. Ukraine will likely become more Western, and will be helped in this process by likely huge Western financial inflows.

He has increased the chances of Ukraine’s successful economic and political development and being thereby a model for Russia and Russians - again, exactly the opposite of what he intended.

f) Ukraine might not be a NATO member, but it will continue to re-arm, and now at an accelerated pace. It will increase its ability to resist Russian attacks. And if Russia failed in this invasion it is even less likely to be successful in that regard in the future.

g) The alliance with China has been exposed to be worth little more than the paper it was written on. When push came to shove China appeared reluctant to back Russia with arms and financing for fear of annoying the US. In Putin’s hour of need, Xi simply was not there. Now perhaps Xi thought that Putin overstepped the mark, and had become a liability to China.

Putin has been exposed as a leader with few worthwhile international friends, while the world rallied in support of Ukraine. On the UNSC the tally was 140+ for Ukraine and less than a handful for Putin.

 h) The Russian military which had been bigged-up from recent successful interventions in Syria and Libya has been exposed as a Potemkin army. Poor tactics, failing equipment, bad intelligence and low morale. Even facing lower end Western equipment, Russian kit has suffered devastating losses. The impact will be both to weaken the military threat as a tool to diplomacy but also likely weapons sales that are critically important to the Russian economy.

i) And all this costing likely tens of thousands of Russian casualties. The dead and injured will be returning home to tell tales of how they were beaten by those brave Ukrainians and how their leaders sent them into an un-winnable battle. Why? For affirmation of the de facto occupation of Crime and DPR and LPR?

Now people can say that, given Putin’s domination of the media and info landscape, none of this matters as he can sell all the above as actually a huge victory for Moscow. But thousands of body bags and an economy that will be in the doldrums for years to come with declining living standards and an accelerated brain drain will send a very different story.

I am just not sure if Putin can live with the above peace, or if Russians will allow him to live in office for that much longer. Can he risk peace at this stage, or does he see a lower risk from another escalation from here? We simply don’t know. 

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