The war neither side can afford to lose

Not knowing where his botched war on Ukraine goes next might force Putin to just dig in and wait

Victory Day: Vladimir Putin  in Moscow on Monday. Seldom in the Putin era has the day taken place against a background of such uncertainty for the president and for Russia itself. Photograph: Anton Novoderezhkin/ Kremlin Pool/ Sputnik /EPA

Victory Day: Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday. Seldom in the Putin era has the day taken place against a background of such uncertainty for the president and for Russia itself. Photograph: Anton Novoderezhkin/ Kremlin Pool/ Sputnik /EPA

 

On Monday in Red Square, Vladimir Putin gave his Victory Day speech – an annual address to mark the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany. Putin’s selective history of the “Great Patriotic War”, a two-dimensional account that admits only of Soviet heroism, serves as a useful unifying myth for the regime.

But if the politicised history and military bravado of the May 9th event are by now familiar, seldom in the Putin era has it taken place against a background of such uncertainty for the president and for Russia itself. That is because there was another victory that Putin rather conspicuously was unable to declare.

The world watched in vain for signs of how the Kremlin sees its war on Ukraine developing.

Only this week Putin saw Finland abandon its postwar policy of military non-alignment and move a step closer to Nato membership

But apart from an acknowledgment of Russians killed on the battlefield and the recital of well-worn grievances that seek to portray Russia as the victim of western belligerence, Putin gave little hint as to his plans in Ukraine.

There is a good chance he has no idea where the war goes next. If there is one lesson we can take from the past 11 weeks, it is that the popular portrayal of Putin as a grandmaster of the geopolitical chessboard with the ability to bend world events to his will was hopelessly wide of the mark.

A botched war marked by strategic incompetence, military ineptitude and political miscalculation has punctured that illusion. If Putin had not spent the past two decades systematically closing down the public sphere at home, he would be paying a domestic price for the humiliation. That might also foreshorten the war.

Up in smoke

The problem is that Putin cannot afford to lose. Having adjusted his war aims downward, at least for now, by consolidating his forces in the east of Ukraine and giving up on seizing control in Kyiv, he is also seeing his larger strategic objectives – sowing divisions in the West, weakening its institutions and pushing Nato back – all go up in smoke.

Only this week Putin saw Finland abandon its postwar policy of military non-alignment and move a step closer to Nato membership, which will result in Nato’s shared border with Russia doubling by more than 1,300km.

US director of national intelligence Avril Haines told a Senate committee this week that Putin wants to capture the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and establish a land bridge between Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, and the Donbas. But she said the US does not believe Russia can take control of that area, including Odesa, without a large-scale mobilisation or military draft.

There is a mismatch, Haines suggested, between Putin’s ambitions and Russia’s current conventional military capabilities, and that “likely means the next few months could see us moving along a more unpredictable and potentially escalatory trajectory”.

So while Putin digs in for a protracted, attritional phase, the West does just enough to enable Ukraine to keep his forces at bay

Putin has two other options, however. He could simply settle for what he has and declare victory by annexing the Donbas, 80-90 per cent of which is currently controlled by Russian troops, according to the Ukrainian government. He could claim to have degraded Ukraine’s military capabilities. But announcing annexation does not make that territory any more secure.

It would probably spur more western military support for Ukraine. With Russia’s advance in the east showing signs of stalling and western allies promising big shipments of heavy weaponry, Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba reflected Kyiv’s growing confidence when he told the Financial Times that it had upgraded its own war aims and now believed it could retake areas seized by Russia in 2014. “Victory is an evolving concept,” he said.

New offensives

Alternatively the Kremlin could decide simply to hunker down, hold its positions in the east and wait for western resolve to weaken, then choose its moment for new offensives.

Putin, who unlike western counterparts is not preoccupied with electoral cycles or especially worried about open public dissent, must feel he can wait out the other side. Internal western divisions so far are largely superficial, but as global economic costs rise, the energy crisis worsens in the winter and Ukraine begins to fade from the headlines, that solidarity will face harder tests.

Putin may also assume that western populations will eventually tire of the cumulative costs of the war.

But while Putin cannot afford to lose, nor can the West. Allowing Russia to take control of a sovereign European state would profoundly destabilise the continent and send a message of weakness that Putin and others would be quick to exploit. So while Putin digs in for a protracted, attritional phase, the West does just enough to enable Ukraine to keep his forces at bay.

The result for now, as Samuel Cranny-Evans of the Royal United Services Institute said this week, is that Ukraine is not losing and Russia is not winning. No wonder Putin had so little to say in Red Square on Monday.

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