A historic debacle

Yuri Kochetkov/Pool Photo via AP

Ask yourself this. What’s the best-case scenario for Putin in Ukraine at this point?

We’ve spent 20 years laboring under the myth that he’s a leader of unusual strength and cunning. The foulest fringes of the American right idolize him, wishing that America could be led by such a man.


How is his folly in Ukraine not one of the biggest strategic fiascos of the past 50 years already, less than a week in?

As far as I can see, the best-case scenario for Putin — emphasis: the best-case — is that Russia bombs Ukraine into rubble, kills Zelensky, installs a puppet ruler whom every surviving Ukrainian will dream of killing with his bare hands, and commits to an unwinnable long-term military occupation to protect the new puppet regime.

How does Russia pay for that occupation? How overextended will its military become by having to police Ukraine? How many Russian soldiers will die there?

How long can Russia’s economy cope with the strain of the unprecedented sanctions that have now been applied? The more brutal the attack on Ukraine gets, the less appetite there’ll be in the west for lifting those sanctions once Kiev has fallen.

Consider how suddenly the tectonic plates of international relations have shifted just in the past 72 hours. Germany announced a historic rearmament after 77 years of pacifism and may be shifting back towards nuclear power to reduce its dependency on Russian energy. Sweden and Finland, which have resisted joining NATO for decades so as not to provoke Russia, are moving towards membership with popular support. Switzerland has broken with its long tradition of neutrality and is poised to freeze Russian assets. The EU is sending weapons, including fighter jets, to Ukraine.


Ukraine just applied for membership in the EU, a supreme rebuke to Putin’s insistence that Ukrainian is properly part of the Russian east rather than the American west:

Putin’s foremost goal in his 20 years as ruler of Russia has been to weaken and ultimately shatter NATO, clearing the way for him to build a new Russian empire in eastern Europe. Whatever happens in Ukraine now, that goal is up in smoke, undone by less than a week of military folly. NATO has seldom been more united or more popular. Even the most anti-NATO American president of the post-war era is demanding credit for the alliance’s success today:

Contrast morale in Russia and Ukraine less than a week after the invasion began. Russia looks like this…

…and Ukraine looks like this:

Zelensky, whom Putin derided as the head of a Nazi regime, is now seen as an international hero. The Russian military, the terror of the west for decades, looks incompetent. Meanwhile, Putin’s mega-rich oligarch cronies are begging for peace as the west targets their assets. Western companies are bailing out of their Russian investments, some of which are enormous. It’s anyone’s guess how restive ordinary Russians will get once their wealth is incinerated as the penalty for a war they never believed would happen in the first place.


How is this not one of the great strategic catastrophes of modern history *even if* Russia proceeds to steamroll Ukraine’s resistance? Short of mass desertions by Russian troops in Ukraine, what could have gone worse?

Russia may “win” this war in the sense that they’ll end up controlling Ukraine — for awhile — but from the standpoint of Putin’s grander ambitions it’s an unholy rout. Historian Yuval Noah Harari declares defeat on Putin’s behalf:

With each passing day, it is becoming clearer that Putin’s gamble is failing. The Ukrainian people are resisting with all their heart, winning the admiration of the entire world – and winning the war. Many dark days lie ahead. The Russians may still conquer the whole of Ukraine. But to win the war, the Russians would have to hold Ukraine, and they can do that only if the Ukrainian people let them. This seems increasingly unlikely to happen.

Each Russian tank destroyed and each Russian soldier killed increases the Ukrainians’ courage to resist. And each Ukrainian killed deepens the Ukrainians’ hatred of the invaders. Hatred is the ugliest of emotions. But for oppressed nations, hatred is a hidden treasure. Buried deep in the heart, it can sustain resistance for generations. To reestablish the Russian empire, Putin needs a relatively bloodless victory that will lead to a relatively hateless occupation. By spilling more and more Ukrainian blood, Putin is making sure his dream will never be realised. It won’t be Mikhail Gorbachev’s name written on the death certificate of the Russian empire: it will be Putin’s. Gorbachev left Russians and Ukrainians feeling like siblings; Putin has turned them into enemies, and has ensured that the Ukrainian nation will henceforth define itself in opposition to Russia.


It’s not even clear that Russia can take Kiev near-term. Is the shaky Russian military prepared for sustained urban combat with a well-armed and determined population? If Kiev turns into Stalingrad, what sort of resistance will arise in Russia to continuing the war?

There’s no victory at this point that isn’t pyrrhic. How does this end?

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