Vladimir Putin has gambled his future, and his place in Russian history, on the outcome of his war in Ukraine. It is clear now that the swift and total victory he imagined – and some Western observers feared – was a fantasy. Kyiv has not fallen. Volodymyr Zelensky has not fled. Ukrainians defiantly continue to fight the Russian forces. Yet Mr Putin is equally determined to avoid any scenario that might look like a defeat.
“Russia cannot afford to lose,” the former Kremlin adviser Sergey Karaganov told the New Statesman’s Bruno Maçães in a widely noticed interview on 28 March. “So we need a kind of a victory.” Mr Karaganov repeatedly referred to the possibility of a Russian “escalation” if Mr Putin felt that he was losing the war. When pressed as to whether he was alluding to the use of nuclear weapons, Mr Karaganov responded: “I wouldn’t rule it out.”
These are not empty threats. During a televised meeting with his defence minister and the head of his general staff on 27 February, shortly after the start of the war, Mr Putin ordered his nuclear forces to be put on high alert. He has called international sanctions against Russia “akin to an act of war” and threatened any country that attempts to interfere with his “special military operation” in Ukraine with “consequences greater than any you have faced in history”. While it is important not to be cowed by the Russian president’s ominous warnings, it would be a mistake to dismiss this as mere bluster.
The gruesome images of murdered civilians that have emerged from formerly occupied towns such as Bucha, outside Kyiv, have demonstrated what the Russian military is capable of in pursuit of victory. There will likely be more revelations of atrocities to come from cities still under Russian control, such as Mariupol and Kherson in southern Ukraine.
But while these atrocities are sickening, they should not come as a surprise. From Chechnya to Georgia to Syria and now Ukraine, Mr Putin’s 22 years in power have been characterised by his willingness to use violence to get what he wants. He has long put his own interests above those of the Russian state, insisting that he is defending Russia from its enemies in the West. He tells his citizens that Russian troops are fighting “Nazis” and saving innocent civilians from “genocide” in Ukraine, and that those who say otherwise are “national traitors” and “scum” who must be cleansed from society.
Russian state television, from where the majority of the population gets its news, assures viewers that the Russian military would never harm civilians. It claims Ukrainian nationalists are burning down their own cities, and footage of the massacre in Bucha is “fake”. We should be wary of polling carried out under these conditions, but according to the independent Levada Centre, Mr Putin’s approval rating has risen sharply since the start of the war, up from 69 per cent in January to 83 per cent in March. It is misguided, then, to believe that popular unrest will force an end to this war.
Yet, this does not mean there is nothing that can be done. The West must make every effort to ensure the fighting does not spread beyond Ukraine and trigger an even larger conflagration. Within those confines, the Ukrainian military must be supplied with the ammunition and weaponry it needs to keep up its resistance. Russian energy exports must be sanctioned to sap Moscow’s capacity to continue fighting this war. Western leaders must also pressure China to distance itself from its strategic partner and condemn its atrocities. It is unconscionable for Beijing to continue the pretence that it is a neutral observer given the horrors that have come to light.
By all accounts, Mr Putin is obsessed with history and sees himself as a great leader who will be remembered alongside the tsars. He will not tolerate a humiliating defeat in Ukraine, but it is increasingly clear that he cannot win on the terms he once envisaged. He must now be convinced that he cannot hope to sustain this war in the long term, and that the only way to secure his legacy and claim anything approaching a “victory” is to call an end to the fighting. Otherwise, a long war and a dark future lie ahead, not only for Russia and Ukraine, but also Europe.
[See also: The new Iron Curtain]
This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special