Putin Has Already Suffered a Strategic Defeat
The question is how many people will die before the consequences of that defeat come to bear.
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1. War on the Rocks
It’s not a newsletter (though you can subscribe) but WotR has consistently valuable analysis. They translated and republished this piece from Jean-Baptiste Jeangene Vilmer after it originally ran in a European journal and the headline says it pretty well: “Putin loses no matter how this plays out. But we might, too.”
No matter how the war in Ukraine plays out, Putin loses. Even if Russian forces prevail on the ground and in the air, he loses. Even if he takes Kyiv tomorrow, he loses. Russia lacks the forces (and perhaps the will) to occupy Ukraine in the face of a restive civil society and guerrilla movement. And that would be on top of having already reinforced NATO, awakened Europe, isolated his country, ruined its economy, and alienated many Russians, including his “friends.” What happens next depends less on the military outcome of the conflict than on other factors he has already put in motion and that will further affect him.
It might seem presumptuous in the first week of a war to predict its outcome and second-order effects for Ukraine, Russia, and the West, but it seems Putin’s defeat is the likely product of five factors: the heavy price of a prospective military victory, the quagmire of an occupation, the strengthening of NATO and European defense, the international isolation of Russia, and the internal contestation which may lead to Putin’s fall. So Putin lost, but it does not mean we win.
This is very much the JVL view of the world. Even when things are going well, the tail risks can kill you.
The primary tail risk at this point is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to see a resolution to this war that does not include the removal of Vladimir Putin. This is a problem.
If there was a clear way for Putin to conclude his war against Ukraine while also retaining power, then he might choose it. But we are in a place where every scenario carries a real risk that Putin will be deposed:
The logical conclusion of all this is that the resentment and hostility and fear that Putin generates within the Russian elite constitutes a real risk for his maintenance in power in the coming weeks, months, and years. The probability of a palace coup or an oligarchic revolt is substantial. There may come a point where it appears to the population and the economic, military, and security elite, including within the Kremlin, that the only way to save Russia is to get rid of Putin.
And once Putin’s choices become not about Ukraine but about his own survival, then his decision matrix gets very dark, very fast. Because, as Vilmer puts it, “He may actually think that the only way out from this mess for him is to escalate.”
Vilmer lays out three possible forms of escalation:
Create a diversion by opening up a new front
It’s not hard to see how Putin could justify each of these—he blames NATO for supplying arms/intelligence to Ukraine. Or he accuses Ukraine of a terror attack against Russia. Or he creates international havoc through cyber warfare.
You should read the whole thing.
2. Lawrence Freedman
I linked to Freedman last week and I’m doing it again for any stragglers who haven’t yet signed up for his newsletter.
He starts from the same premise as Vilmer: “This is a war that Vladimir Putin cannot win, however long it lasts and however cruel his methods.”
This is correct. And before we go further it’s important to state why this is correct:
Because of the Ukrainians.
The Ukrainian will to resist was the essential component of Russia’s strategic defeat. It was this fierce will which spurred NATO, the EU, and the United States to coalesce and act. Without Ukraine’s valor, none of the rest becomes possible.
Ukraine has already defeated Vladimir Putin.
How did they do it? In the classic sense, actually. By trading space for time, and then using that time to win a political victory:
The Ukrainians have not tried to defend every inch of their land but instead have made their stands in the key cities, of which the two largest Kyiv and Kharkiv remain symbolically and politically the most important. They have traded space for time, and then used that time to strengthen their position.
Most importantly, they have mobilised and organised a popular militia to help defend their cities. Zelensky found the words to motivate his people and gain international support. The Ukrainian narrative speaks of solidarity, heroism, and sacrifice, with no suggestion that the coming days and weeks will be anything other than tough. This forms a stark contrast to the Russian narrative of festering grievances and phoney innocence, as Putin’s mouthpieces have been unable to provide convincing accounts of what Russian forces were doing and why, and left pointing to the unrelated crimes of others to justify their own.
With Putin’s Plan A (speed war; instant victory) and Plan B (traditional war bringing weight to bear) having failed, he has moved to Plan C while preparing for Plan D.
What is Plan C? Lay siege to Ukraine’s major cities and attempt to bomb civilians into submission.
And if that doesn’t work, Plan D: Perhaps a negotiated ceasefire in which Russia takes Crimea and the Donbass officially and Ukraine promises not to develop nukes. Or the declaration of martial law as Russia returns to real-deal Iron Curtain status. Or maybe something else. Like the escalation gambit, above.
3. Thinking About
Which leads us to Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s newsletter, in which he examines Putin’s mode of thinking:
A week ago, Vladimir Putin gave a speech meant to provide a rationale for an invasion that he had already ordered. Among much other nonsense, he claimed that Ukraine was about to acquire nuclear weapons. . . .
It is not just that there is no basis for this claim. It is contradictory and perverse.
Ukraine has no nuclear weapons, and no nuclear weapons program. Ukraine has done more for the cause of nuclear non-proliferation than any other country. In the early 1990s, Ukraine had the the third-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world, a legacy of the Soviet Union. It agreed to disarm itself entirely in 1994, in exchange for security guarantees from the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Russian Federation. In 1996, when its nuclear disarmament was completed, sunflowers were planted around Ukraine's empty silos as a sign of peace. . . .
It is not just that Russia has broken its promise to defend Ukraine, which was spelled out in something called the Budapest Memorandum in 1994. It is blaming the country that abandoned nuclear weapons for acquiring them, while itself holding the world's largest nuclear arsenal. And even as Russia does so, Putin is brandishing his own nuclear weapons in a way that is highly irresponsible, suggesting that their use would be acceptable in a senseless war that Russia began without provocation.
Like Russian propaganda generally, the attention to nuclear weapons is meant to shock and confuse, to create a psychological opening. We are supposed to yield to the pressure inherent in the subject, imagine that there must be some defensible element in what the Kremlin says, and make a concession that suits the Russian leadership. . . .
We are being invited to participate in the generation of nonsense. When we repeat contradictory and perverse arguments, we commit part of our minds to them, and start to become less reasonable ourselves.
Read the whole thing and subscribe. It’s something else.
I don’t want to leave you feeling hopeless today, so watch this.
Over the coming week in the Triad I’ll be talking about ways that we can give from here to help over there.
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You may have noticed that I’ve tried to avoid talking about Putin and this war in the context of America’s recent encounter with an authoritarian attempt. But when you look at Snyder’s explanation of “nonsense”—read this literally as two words: non and sense—it is impossible not to note the parallels with the pretexts given for the various attempts to overturn the American presidential election.
There is only one mode of autocratic thinking because, the autocrat seeks to impose his personal version of “reality” for real, actual reality. This is, at the heart, the fundamental impulse of all autocracies, everywhere.
Approximately 40% of Ukrainians have fled as refugees. Their homes, infrastructure and economic resources are devastated to near stone age conditions. The brave Ukraine military is winning stunning victories but being slowly degraded. Russia controls about 1/5 of Ukrainian land. And they have plenty more troops and assault equipment. They have not yet started strategic carpet bombing. And many US Republicans, along with authoritarian rulers in the global perspectives are whining about higher food and gas prices. Putin has personal security, and 322B$ of personal assets.
So….Putin is in a very powerful and secure position to advance his agenda.
If Putin does conduct a tactical nuclear strike, that does not automatically mean nuclear retaliation by the West. Conventional military force can still do a lot of damage, so I would expect retaliation through that channel. If Putin brings out the nukes, it becomes an existential crisis for the West, and may lead Biden and the Europeans to conclude that it is far too dangerous to allow such an escalation to go unanswered. Mutually assured destruction kept the peace for over 50 years, and may do so again.