Imperious Russian President Vladimir Putin may have just had his worst week since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he says was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.
Its vaunted army, including a tank force once considered one of the best in Russia, crumbled in the face of a Ukrainian offensive in eastern Ukraine. Some Russian soldiers fled after ditching their uniforms and donning civilian clothes they had stolen from the men, according to local residents.
In southern Ukraine, Russian units defending the strategic city of Kherson struggled to hold their positions in the face of persistent Ukrainian attacks.
Putin even faced what looked like tough questions from his most important ally, the Chinese president. Xi Jinping.
“We understand your questions and concerns” regarding Ukraine, he told Xi during a summit meeting in the Central Asian city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
When Putin ordered his army to invade Ukraine in February, he saw a historic opportunity to bring together the core of the Soviet Union and seemed to anticipate a quick victory.
This plan failed when Ukraine, backed by Western military aid and US intelligence, halted Russia’s attempt to seize its capital, Kyiv.
Today, Putin’s plan B, the conquest of eastern and southern Ukraine, is also on the brink of failure.
Some cheerleaders hailed Ukraine’s win at Izyum, an important railway junction in the east, as a turning point in the war. That’s it premature. Russia holds about a fifth of Ukraine’s territory and has more troops than it can deploy, although their quality is uncertain.
“Despite the euphoria, it’s not over yet,” Alexander Vershbow, former US ambassador to Russia, told me last week. “Putin is obviously furious that his commanders have failed…but that doesn’t mean he will give up. There are many ways he can still get worse.
So what can we expect from Putin now? Vershbow offered a forecast.
Putin will not capitulate; it would mean the end of his reign.
It will likely intensify the death and destruction that Russia has inflicted on Ukrainian civilians.
Putin’s career has been marked by success in wars waged against weaker adversaries. He came to power in 1999 by ordering a winter siege of Grozny, capital of the Russian republic of Chechnya, in a savage war to suppress Muslim separatists. In 2008, I sent the army to neighboring Georgia; in 2014, I sent troops to eastern Ukraine and annexed the Crimean peninsula.
In these wars, his forces often inflicted casualties on civilians as part of a deliberate tactic.
Its approach in Ukraine followed the same pattern. It just didn’t work that well against a well-directed, well-trained, well-equipped opponent.
“We are going to see another escalation in brutality,” Vershbow said. “They have already launched heavy bombardments of civilian infrastructure. … Some [Russian] officials say they want to drive millions of Ukrainians out of the country.
Putin’s goal, he said, is to “turn this back into a war of attrition…and hope that over time, war weariness will cause Ukrainians to quit.”
To do this, some of Putin’s warmongering supporters demanded total mobilization, that is, a plan to reconstitute the army and an official declaration of war.
But Putin’s aides said conscription was not on the cards.
The government continued to reassure Russians that it was a limited “special military operation” and even forbade describing it as a “war”.
“He’s still desperately trying to avoid mass mobilization,” Vershbow said. “A project would send protesters to the streets of Moscow. Even then, it takes months and months to train new troops.
Michael Kofman, a Russian expert at the CNA, a defense think tank, suggested that Putin could opt for a “partial mobilization”, extending the draft contracts of current soldiers and recruiting recent veterans with the necessary skills. .
“Partial mobilization is possible, but they may be bad troops,” Vershbow said.
When it comes to nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, most military and foreign policy experts say Putin is unlikely to use them unless his survival is directly at stake.
“The problem with most escalation options, up to and including nuclear weapons, is that they can simply unify Europe, portray Putin himself as a Hitler monster, and speed up Western arms deliveries to Europe. Ukraine,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a former National Security Council official. now at Columbia University.
Putin’s other hope is to win the war not on the battlefield but in Western Europe, where Moscow has cut off natural gas supplies to squeeze Germany and other consumer countries that have sent arms to Ukraine.
So far, the energy war has had surprisingly little effect. A recent poll found that 70% of Germans support continued aid to Ukraine, despite rising gasoline prices. In the United States, the Gallup poll found a similar level of support, 76%.
The real test, however, will come this winter, when the need for gas to heat homes increases.
On both fronts, Putin hopes that inflicting pain on non-combatants can bring him victory. He thinks that the Russians are better fighters than the Ukrainians and more resistant in winter than the Europeans or the Americans. The challenge for the West is to prove him wrong.