Is Putin trapped?

Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

I phrase the headline as a question, wary of forming conclusions about the state of battle amid the fog of war, the temptation towards wishful thinking, and the reality that some information floating around online is doubtless pro-Ukraine propaganda. Maybe the reports of high Russian casualties and a slower than expected advance are well-meaning nonsense pushed by western intel agencies to boost Ukrainian morale.


But if they aren’t, it seems to me that Putin is trapped.

His decision to attack Ukraine is frequently described as a “gamble” but consider how much of a gamble it is. He didn’t merely place a huge bet, he bet on a trifecta. First, that Russia could take Ukraine quickly without much blood spilling. Second, that Zelensky would go wobbly and Ukrainian resolve would break, clearing the way for a puppet ruler to be installed without much resistance. And third, that the west would be too weak and divided to impose painful sanctions on Russia at a moment of high inflation, knowing how westerners will end up sharing that economic pain.

That first bet is still winnable, I suppose, but each day that passes makes it less likely. “We have indications that the Russians are increasingly frustrated by their lack of momentum over the last 24 hours, particularly in the north parts of Ukraine,” a senior defense official told Fox News. “We also continue to see indications of viable Ukrainian resistance.” A British defense minister claimed last night that Russian battle plans are way off schedule. Ukrainian air defenses are reportedly still operating despite Russia’s best efforts to eliminate them. Quote:

Within a day of entering Ukraine, Russian forces lost some momentum, senior American and British officials said, as Ukrainian fighters mounted a resistance. No population centers had been taken, a senior Defense Department official told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday. Nor had Russia yet managed to achieve air superiority over Ukraine, partly because the Ukrainians are using mobile systems and partly because Russian missiles have hit old air defense sites, which could show a flaw in Russia’s intelligence. The Ukrainian air defense and missile defense systems were degraded, he said, but the country’s air force was still flying planes and denying air access to Russia.

In addition, officials said, Russia was conducting most of its initial operations during the day, suggesting that its ability to fight at night — a hallmark of the American military — was less effective.


Read this thread from a member of the European Parliament with healthy skepticism, as it seems too good to be true. But if it’s even half right…


The second bet, arguably the most important, is already hopelessly lost. Zelensky has inspired the western world with his leadership during the crisis. By refusing to leave the country, he’s galvanized the resistance in Ukraine and beyond. There are reports of men from NATO countries in eastern Europe crossing into Ukraine to aid in the country’s defense. Even Putin’s repulsive nationalist bootlickers in western Europe, figures like Marine Le Pen, Eric Zemmour, and Matteo Salvini, have been sufficiently shamed by it that they’re now anti-war. I’ve never seen a rout like the one playing out at this moment in the battle for international public opinion. Russia has been crushed utterly.


The idea of a puppet regime taking power and ruling over a demoralized, placid Ukrainian population now seems ridiculous. Putin’s best-case scenario will require defeating a determined Ukrainian insurgency bent on ousting his satrap. Russia could be funneling troops and money down this sinkhole for years.

The third bet is on the brink of being lost, with potentially cataclysmic consequences for Russia’s economy. The country could be cut off from SWIFT in a matter of days, a move supported even by European leaders otherwise well disposed to Putin:

Orban is a nationalist, but Hungary knows from experience that Russian expansionism isn’t a great development for their country. Meanwhile, Germany spent weeks resisting pleas from Ukraine to provide weapons, even going so far as to block other NATO countries from delivering weapons in their possession that were German-made. But that rubicon has also now been crossed:

A strong surge of domestic support for the war would be a consolation to Putin but that’s absent in this case too. Russian state media has reportedly taken to suppressing information about the scale of the war, fearful of how the public would react if it knew Russia was attacking Ukraine far beyond the Donbas. And the calamity from sanctions is only just beginning to unfold. “Russians have been stunned at how quickly the economic impact of the war was being felt,” the Times reported this morning. “The ruble hit its lowest level ever against the dollar, which traded at about 84 rubles on Saturday compared to 74 a few weeks ago. That sent prices for imports surging, while sanctions on Russia’s largest banks wreaked havoc in the financial markets and new export restrictions promised to scramble supply chains.”


All of this has the makings of a debacle. For all the hype about Putin’s alleged strategic “genius,” he may now find himself in a position in which any move he makes will cause Russia’s position to further deteriorate. If he retreats, it’ll be an historic humiliation for a proud military power. If he escalates, the already ferocious international backlash will get worse. It’ll cinch Russia’s eviction from SWIFT, convince even reluctant European allies to boost their supplies of weapons to Ukraine, and possibly lead to domestic unrest in Russia.

How does this end?

This piece by Lawrence Freedman, which came recommended by the head of MI6 on Twitter last night, offers an answer. One way or another, it won’t end well for Putin:

Evident Ukrainian resistance, and of the costs of war for both sides, also raise the stakes for Putin at home. As a number of analysts have noted as Russia runs out of stocks of precision-guided missiles and gets drawn into urban warfare, the fighting could get brutal. The Chechen capital Grozny and the Syrian city of Aleppo were battered in Russian led campaigns, with direct targeting of civilians. Yet the level of vocal opposition in Russia (and the lack of enthusiastic support) is striking. It was odd for Putin to insist that Ukraine should really be part of Russia and then expect people to tolerate fellow Slavs – often their relations – being bombed. Putin, like most autocrats, has a residual fear of his own people, and may start to be concerned about how they might react to even more casualties of their own, brutality in Ukraine, and international condemnation…

Even if the government loses control of the capital and is forced to flee, and the command systems for Ukrainian forces start to break down, that does not mean that Russia has won the war. It is only a mind-set that fails to understand the wellsprings of Ukraine’s national identity that could believe that a compliant figure could be installed as Ukrainian president and expect to last for very long without the backing of an occupation force. Russia simply does not have the numbers and capacity to sustain such a force for any length of time.


He needs a face-saving way out, a peace deal that would allow him to retreat while claiming a moral victory, however farcical that might seem. But what would that deal look like? Some have suggested conceding the sovereignty of the separatist-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk, yet that should be a nonstarter under the circumstances. It would amount to rewarding Russia for the war by allowing them to formally carve off a piece of Ukraine in lieu of swallowing the entire country, a new Sudetenland “compromise.” And in light of Putin’s rhetoric this week, accusing Zelensky and his government of being “drug addicts” and questioning whether Ukraine has a national identity apart from Russia’s, there’s no reason to think he’d take that deal. The strategic “genius,” consumed with fantasies of conquest, may no longer be rational enough to take an off-ramp if one is provided to him.

But don’t take my word for that:

Some have speculated that Putin is secretly in poor health and wants to retake Ukraine to cement his legacy as a great Russian leader before he dies. Others have wondered if two years of isolation during the pandemic have made him lose his marbles, a terrifying prospect considering what weapons he commands. Either way, having committed himself to this folly and bet the trifecta, it seems more likely that he’ll escalate than de-escalate even as the pain of the war intensifies for Russia. And if he does, the most important combatants in this conflict will become his own advisors, the only people capable of intervening to prevent him from taking unthinkable steps. I hope they’re ready to rise to the occasion the way Zelensky has.


I’ll leave you with this, a metaphor for how the war has gone so far.

Join the conversation as a VIP Member

Trending on HotAir Videos