Putin is losing, let him lose

19 May, 10:29 AM
Russian dictator Vladimir Putin (Photo:Alexander Nemenov/Pool via REUTERS)

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin (Photo:Alexander Nemenov/Pool via REUTERS)

I guess we are all now just realizing what an epic defeat Putin’s war in Ukraine really has been for the Russian President and Russia.

Few, if any of his wartime goals or objectives have been delivered, and in fact, on many of these, his actions have achieved exactly the opposite of what he wanted.

Let’s just look down the list of his likely objectives:

1. De-Nazification of Ukraine

Well as is now well known, Ukraine was not full of Nazis in the first place and was certainly not run by a Nazi regime in Kyiv. Ukraine has no more Nazis than any other country in Europe but given the Z trend in Russia, it seems to have a whole lot less than Russia itself.

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In reality, Putin just did not like an administration in Kyiv which would not be deferential/subjugated to Moscow.

 So Kyiv’s independence was sold at home as Nazism, I guess the Russian narrative is that they were the bastion against Nazi Germans and hence anyone standing against Moscow is tarred with the Nazi brush.

That’s all just bollocks but I guess that’s the warped Kremlin mindset these days. The reality is as many Ukrainians died at the hands of Nazi Germany, and likely as many at the hands of Soviet troops (see Synder’s Bloodlands).

But if de-Nazification was just a euphemism or excuse for regime change in Kyiv, Putin has failed spectacularly. His attempt to capture Kyiv and decapitate the Zelensky administration in the first few days of the war failed dismally. 

Militarily his forces suffered an overwhelming defeat in the battle for Kyiv and have since been forced to withdraw from hence they came - from Belarus to the north of East thru Sumy and now Kharkhiv.

Zelensky has proven a remarkable wartime leader. His bravery and skill in communication both abroad and at home have strengthened his position.

Opinion polls show Zelensky is hugely popular.

 Meanwhile, any support for stronger ties to Russia has evaporated because of the brutality used by Putin and Russian forces. Therein support for historically pro—Russian political parties in Ukraine has collapsed with the bulk of these supporters allying with Zelensky, as has Opposition Bloc leader Yuri Boyko.

2. Reunifying the Russian and Ukrainian people as one, and whence they both came

So if this invasion was about unifying the Russian and Ukrainian people as one - as Putin tried to imply in the essay he scripted last summer - it has also spectacularly failed. His actions have unified the Ukrainian people against him and Russia and solidified their desire to move West and join NATO and the EU. 

Ukrainian national identity as separate from Russian is now much more vibrant and clear cut - because Putin himself in his rhetoric has tried to wipe Ukrainians off the land where they live. Ukrainians have seen Russian actions as genocide and are now clear cut as to who they are (Ukrainians) and who they don’t want to be (Russians).

Putin has in effect lost Ukraine to Russia likely for generations to come and certainly never while he remains in power.

3. The ensure the failure of Ukraine as a state

Part of Russia’s game plan if not to bring about regime change in Kyiv was to take so much territory and take/degrade sufficient economic infrastructure as to make whatever territory was left in the control of Kyiv economically and militarily unsustainable. 

At this point, Russia has succeeded in taking significant amounts of territory in Ukraine - in southeast Ukraine in Kherson and Zaporizhiya oblasts and some more territory in Donbas. But looking at Ukraine as a whole these are still relatively small with 80%+ of Ukrainian territory remaining in the hands of Kyiv. 

Even the territories Russia currently holds may not be sustainable/defensible against a revamped Ukrainian military. Importantly Ukraine still has outlets to the sea in Odesa and Mykolaiv, albeit naval blockades need to be broken.

However, even if these blockades are not broken Ukraine and Ukrainians have surely shown during their remarkable conduct of this war that the country is sustainable - and their hard work and innovation will make it so. 

And their courage under fire has the West to ensure substantial sums will be made available for reconstruction and perhaps more importantly Ukraine may well be rewarded with an EU accession perspective with EU candidate member status. 

As the experience of Central Europe has proven, an EU accession perspective can be a really powerful driver of investment and development. And unlikely Ukraine would have been really given this perspective if Putin had not invaded.

Putin has made Ukrainians better understand their own identity, and strengthened the concept of Ukraine as a state.

He has actually increased the chances of Ukraine succeeding and being successful.

4. Demilitarization of Ukraine

Putin has stated this as one of the objectives of this war - to degrade Ukraine’s military capability, particularly its offensive military capability to hit Russia.

Well as a starting point it should be noted that Ukraine had shown zero appetite to attack Russia at any point from Russia’s own annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Donbas on/from 2014/15 and despite great provocation. Russia has been doing the attacking and its forces have invaded Ukraine and struck Ukraine with missiles launched from Russia and not the other way around. And even now after coming under a Russian invasion, Ukraine has shown great restraint in not attacking Russia proper in scale.

But in terms of degrading Ukraine’s military capacity, it is evident that Ukraine has suffered serious military casualties and losses. Perhaps these are as large as those claimed for Russian forces.

We simply don’t know at this stage. However, Ukrainian forces have proven far more capable than anyone imagined - in skill, innovation, morale, and sheer manpower/willingness to fight. Its military capabilities appear to have been enhanced by combat experience and Western training - the latter stepped up since February 24. And true, Ukraine will have had large amounts of military kit destroyed.

However, because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is now receiving huge amounts of higher-tech military kit and financing than in was getting before February 24. Western opposition to supplying Ukraine with military hardware has evaporated and there will no be little bar on re-arming Ukraine.

So once hostilities cease, Ukraine is likely to have a much larger and more capable military than before February 24.

And by contrast the war has exposed the Russian military as a Potemkin Army - poorly armed, poorly trained, poorly supplied and with low morale. Over the past twenty years Putin had cultivated an image of the Russian military as having been modernized, highly tactical - punching above its weight - and intelligent. Absolutely the opposite has been proven.

Not only has the Russian military suffered colossal losses in military equipment and manpower, but its very image is now in tatters. It was beaten by a much smaller and on paper less capable military force.

As military capability is a key driver of Russian arms sales and “hard power” - seen in Syria, Libya, et al, its failings have been laid out in full international view to extreme embarrassment to the Putin regime.

Points 2-4 I combine to call Ukraine’s State of Israel Moment - under attack/invasion Ukraine survived/proved its right and ability to exist and succeed and its battle for survival forces innovation which will drive its development.

5. Stopping NATO enlargement/encroachment on Russia’s borders

Well again I don’t agree that NATO enlargement was a threat to Russia - or likely in Ukraine’s respects. Indeed, prior to Russia’s troop build up on Ukraine’s borders in 21-22 a majority of Ukrainians were not in favor of NATO membership.

But because of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine a majority of the population now want NATO membership. And a further set back now for Russia is Finland and Sweden seem set on securing NATO membership. Ukraine itself wants to join but even if this does not occur NATO will continue to upgrade Ukraine’s military capability to its standards.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine, its use of energy as a weapon, has concentrated minds in the West and the realization has finally dawned that Russia is a threat and Putin is the problem. Putin has unified NATO and given it a new purpose. NATO defense spending will now step up massively and Russia now faces an arms race on its borders which faces with a sanctioned and internationally isolated economy, Russia cannot win.

In this respect Putin’s failed intervention in Ukraine in 2022 has a feel of the failed Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the late 1970s/80s and how the arms race then with the Reagan and Thatcher administrations eventually led to the collapse of the USSR. The same fate surely awaits Putin’s Russia unless he backs down now.

Outlook?

Putin is losing this war. If his minimalist objective is now to take all of Donbas, he even seems to have failed here - laid bare by recent catastrophic defeats of Russian troops trying to cross the Siverskyi Donets river.

He seems to have finally taken the Azovstal steel plant - but not by conquest but after a surrender was negotiated by the UN. The Russian military even failed to take a few hundred Ukrainian troops holed up in the complex, greatly outgunned and outnumbered.

Perhaps the deal to relieve Azovstal could mark the end of this conflict. On Russian media there is just the first signs of reality sinking in, see below.

Notably Putin also failed to push for general mobilization in his annual May Day Victory speech as some had predicted. It shows weakness - he knows to win this war Russia has to be prepared for all out war and then likely many, many more casualties that ultimately the Russian population, weighed down by sanctions is just not prepared to take. This would risk regime change in Russia, let alone Kyiv.

Is he looking now for peace? Will Ukraine be prepared to accept this, when they are winning and Putin is showing weakness? 

Putin has talked tough - warnings by the Kremlin and Russian state owned media about using WMD.

But the West has crossed Putin’s red lines - arming Ukraine - but Putin has not escalated that aggressively with NATO. He has seemed to blink. Even his reaction to planned NATO membership now for Finland and Sweden has been muted.

But any peace deal here for Ukraine has to involve the full withdrawal of Russian forces to positions occupied before Feb 24. Some in Ukraine might go further - all of Donbas and Crimea liberated. But even going back to Feb 24 settings would be a huge win for Ukraine and a massive defeat for Russia and Putin.

Russia can try holding onto the land corridor to Crimea but experience elsewhere in Ukraine over the last 80-odd days would suggest that Russian forces will be vulnerable and exposed defending territory they now hold in Kherson and Zaporizhiya, with hostile local populations. Can Moscow even sustain any of their gains post Feb 24? It seems unlikely.

In conclusion, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine seems to have been nothing other than a catastrophic failure for Russia. Perhaps Putin is realizing that now, looking for face saving of ramps. But there is little to suggest that Ukraine is willing to accept that - nor should it when it is Ukrainian territory, illegally occupied by Russia, that some are arguing should be conceded to Moscow as part of any of ramp. Why should Ukraine be made to pay for Putin’s mistakes?

Putin is losing, let him loose and maybe he will learn from his mistake in invading Ukraine.

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