I haven’t written much about the Ukrainian War recently because very little has changed in terms of strategy since the early months of this conflict, when three overarching facts accounted for virtually everything. And still are.
Fact #1: When a war of this magnitude breaks out, the crucial question a foreign affairs columnist asks himself is simple: where do I need to be? Do I need to be in Kiev, Donbass, Crimea, Moscow, Warsaw, Berlin, Brussels or Washington?
Since the beginning of this war, there’s only been one place to be to understand the timing and direction of this war: inside Vladimir Putin’s head. Unfortunately, Putin does not grant visas to his brain.
This is a real problem, because the war was born entirely in his head – with virtually no input from his cabinet or his military commanders, as we now know – and certainly without any wishes expressed by the majority of the Russian people. That’s why Russia will be stopped in Ukraine, whether it’s winning or losing, only when Putin decides to stop.
This brings us to fact number 2: Putin never had a plan B. It is clear that he thought he could enter Kiev without difficulty, take over the city in a week, install a lackey as president, shove Ukraine in his pocket and finish off any further expansion of the European Union, NATO or Western culture towards Russia. Then he would cast his shadow over all of Europe.
And that brings us to fact number 3: Putin has put himself in a no-win, no-lose, no-stop situation. There is no longer any way to dominate the entire Ukraine. But he cannot afford to be defeated after all the Russian lives and resources he has consumed. Therefore, he cannot stop.
To explain, in other words, why he never had a plan B, Putin has adopted as a standard the punitive and often indiscriminate bombing of Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure, in the hope that he will somehow manage to drain enough blood from Ukrainians and exhaust Kiev’s western allies to hand him a big enough slice of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine that he can present it as a major victory.
Putin’s Plan B consists of disguising that his Plan A has failed. If this military operation had an honest name, it would be called Operation Avoid My Humiliation. For that very reason it is one of the sickest, most senseless wars of modern times: a leader destroying another country’s civilian infrastructure until he can hide the fact that he has been an absolute asshole.
You can see from Putin’s speech on Victory Day in Moscow on Tuesday (9) that he is looking for any shred of explanation to justify a war that took off from his personal fantasy that Ukraine is not a country of true, but part of Russia. Putin said his invasion was provoked by Western “globalists and elites” who “speak of their exclusivity, pit people against each other, divide society, provoke turmoil and bloody conflicts, sow hatred, Russophobia, aggressive nationalism and destroy traditional family values”.
Wow. Putin invaded Ukraine to preserve Russian family values. Who would say? This is a leader looking for a way to explain to his people why he launched a war against an insignificant neighbor that he believes is not a real country.
One might ask: why does a dictator like Putin think he needs a disguise? Can he not make his people believe what he wants? I do not think so. If you look at his behavior, it seems that Putin today is scared of two subjects: arithmetic and Russian history.
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned writing about autocratic countries is that no matter how tightly controlled a place is, no matter how brutal and ironclad its dictator, everyone speaks.
People know who is stealing, who is cheating, who is lying, who is having an affair with whom. It starts with a whisper and often doesn’t go beyond that, but everyone talks. It is clear that Putin is also aware of this. He knows that even if he manages to dominate a few more kilometers of eastern Ukraine and keep Crimea, the moment he suspends this war his people will do all the cruel arithmetic calculations in his Plan B, starting with subtraction.
The White House reported last week that an estimated 100,000 Russian fighters have been killed or wounded in Ukraine in the past five months alone, and approximately 200,000 have died or been wounded since Putin launched that war in February 2022.
That’s a huge number of casualties, even for a large country, and Putin is concerned that his people are talking about it because, in addition to criminalizing any form of dissent, in April he rushed through a new law that punishes the evasion of mandatory military enlistment. Now, anyone summoned who fails to show up will struggle to conduct banking operations, sell goods or even obtain a driver’s license.
Putin wouldn’t be doing all this if he didn’t fear that the whole world is whispering about how badly the war is going and how to avoid participating in it. Read the recent article by Leon Aron, historian of Putin’s Russia and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, published by the Washington Post about Putin’s March visit to the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
“Two days after the International Criminal Court charged Putin with war crimes and issued an arrest warrant,” he wrote, “the Russian president went to Mariupol for a few hours.” “It was filmed visiting the ‘Nevski microdistrict’, inspecting an apartment and listening to the grateful occupants for a few minutes. As he left the premises, a voice is barely audible in the video: ‘It’s all lies!”
Aron told me that the Russian media later deleted the “it’s all lies” from the audio, but the fact that this was left out initially may have been an act of subversion by someone in the official Russian media hierarchy. Everyone talks. And that brings me to another thing Putin is aware of: “The gods of Russian history do not forgive military defeat,” the historian said.
In the modern era, “when a Russian leader ends a war clearly defeated, there is usually a regime change”. “We saw this after the first Crimean War, after the Russo-Japanese War, after Russia’s setbacks in World War I, after Khrushchev’s withdrawal from Cuba in 1962, and after the quagmire that Brezhnev and company got into in Afghanistan, which hastened the arrival of Gorbachev’s revolution of perestroika and glasnost. The Russian people put up with a lot, but despite their renowned patience, they do not forgive a military defeat.”
It is for these reasons that Aron, who has just written a book about Putin’s Russia, argues that this conflict is far from over and that it could get worse long before it is over. “Right now there are two ways for Putin to end this war he cannot win and cannot abandon. One of them is to continue until the exsanguination of Ukraine and/or until the West grows tired of supporting Ukraine.”
And the other, he argued, “is to force a direct confrontation with the US – to bring us to the precipice of a nuclear duel – and then to step back and propose to a frightened West a comprehensive agreement that would include a neutral and disarmed Ukraine and continued Russian control of Crimea and Donbass”.
It’s impossible to get inside Putin’s head and predict what his next step will be, but I’m worried. We know he knows his plan A failed. Now he will do anything to produce a Plan B to justify the losses he has accumulated on behalf of a country where everyone speaks and where defeated leaders do not retire peacefully.
#Vladimir #Putin #Worlds #Dangerous #Idiot #Thomas #Friedman