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Putin is running out of options

Regime change is now as likely in Moscow as it is in Kyiv.

By Lawrence Freedman

As the Russo-Ukrainian War takes a darker turn, it is important to emphasise an essential point: this is a war that Vladimir Putin cannot win, however long it lasts and however cruel his methods.  

From the start, the Russian campaign has been hampered by political objectives that cannot be translated into meaningful military objectives. Putin has described a mythical Ukraine, a product of a fevered imagination stimulated by cockeyed historical musings. His Ukraine appears as a wayward sibling to be rescued from the “drug addicts and Nazis” (his phrase) that have led it astray. It is not a fantasy that Ukrainians recognise. They see it as an excuse to turn their country into a passive colony and they will not allow it. No Moscow-backed government would have legitimacy and Russia lacks the capacity for an indefinite occupation to keep such a government in place. 

This underlying strategic folly has been reinforced by the tactical ineptitude with which the campaign has been prosecuted. A quick and relatively painless victory, with Kyiv in Russian hands and the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky nowhere to be seen, might have allowed Putin to impose a victor’s peace of some sort, whether in promises of neutrality and demilitarisation, new constitutional arrangements, or even territorial concessions.

Instead, the Russian generals chose to show how smart they were by relying on speed and surprise to take key cities, using only a fraction of the assembled force, and not even bothering to gain control of the skies. The arrogance of the plan was exposed in the move against Kyiv. This involved flying in regular units to the outskirts of the capital to meet up with special forces and sundry saboteurs already in its precincts. This ended as an operational shamble. 

The failure of Plan A hampered the switch to Plan B. The Ukrainians were able to slow the movement of incoming troops by harassing them and forcing them to follow roundabout routes, including by blowing up bridges. Advancing Russian forces were split up, creating problems of coordination and enabling individual convoys to be ambushed by the defenders. Problems of logistics grew as supply convoys, including those carrying essential fuel, were unable to keep up with the forward units. On 28 February a massive convoy was reported – 40 miles long – and said to be travelling towards Kyiv. In practice it turned out to be a series of smaller convoys, jammed together because the road is blocked by vehicles that have broken down or run out of fuel. The Ukrainians do not need to go to great lengths to interdict this offensive force: it has stopped itself.

If only for reasons of prudence, and to avoid getting ahead of ourselves in the analysis, we must still assume that Russia will be more successful in bringing the weight of its military strength to bear. We get far more sight on social media of Russian prisoners, along with their abandoned and destroyed vehicles, than we do of the travails of Ukrainian forces (although one suspects that Russian media would not have been slow to present images of miserable Ukrainian prisoners had they been available). In the south, those forces moving in from Crimea continue to have more success. On 3 March reports out of Kherson, a port city on the Black Sea, suggested that Russians had taken control – a blow to the Ukrainian war effort.

Yet getting into a city is not the same as holding it. Control is a political not a military concept. 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.  

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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 been left pointing to the unrelated crimes of others to justify their own.

As a result the international community has been galvanised into action, promising to keep up arms supplies (assuming they can get through) and, crucially, imposing far more severe economic sanctions than most observers anticipated. Meanwhile, allies of Putin have kept their distance and, in some cases, have come out strongly against the Russia invasion. Hungary has fallen into line with its EU and Nato partners. China is not going to take the side of the West or impose sanctions, but it abstained in the UN Security Council vote and has insisted on the importance of Ukrainian sovereignty and protecting civilians. It is alarmed by the vulnerability of its citizens in Ukraine to Russian strikes. We know of other foreign nationals that have been killed, including from Greece, India and Israel.

Apart from the odd exception, such as the Assad regime in Syria, which owes its existence to Russian firepower, and Pakistan, which oddly took this moment to sign a new trade deal, Russia has minimal international support. Even Kazakhstan, where Russian troops were sent in January to help restore order, has refused to support Moscow. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Putin’s co-conspirator, provided a vital staging post for the Russian invasion, but even he may be dithering about the extent to which he wishes his own troops to be engaged, not least, one presumes, because this would add to his deep unpopularity.

Lastly, though this has yet to be of value, the Russians accepted the possibility of a negotiated ceasefire, as opposed to an imposed peace, by agreeing to talks at the border with Belarus. It is worth noting that Putin, prior to the war, showed no interest in direct talks with the Ukrainian government, not least because this would confer upon them some legitimacy. Putin’s spokesperson has acknowledged Zelensky as the true leader of Ukraine. In the past, Putin proposed only that the Ukrainian government talked to the separatist leaders from Donbas. A channel of sorts to the West is being kept up by the French president Emmanuel Macron’s conversations with Putin. China may now get engaged as a mediator. But in the end, any deal has to be negotiated directly with the Ukrainians. It is not for others to decide on their behalf what they should accept.

Putin has now been forced to move to Plan C. There are a number of elements, some of which are left over from plans A and B. Because there is an improvised, ad hoc aspect to what is going on now, it would be unwise to be too definite about what is to come.

On 27 February, Putin highlighted Russia’s nuclear strength and announced that he had raised the alert status of his deterrent forces a notch, which is still one level short of getting close to a war footing. There has been a lot of speculation about why he did this, which is normal these days when trying to understand any of his moves, and anxiety about where this might be heading, which is appropriate given his state of mind. The simplest explanation remains that in the face of growing material support from the West for Ukraine, and heightened sanctions against Russia, he wanted to reinforce the warning against foreign interference he made when announcing the invasion. He will be aware of proposals for Nato to announce a no-fly zone. This would be tantamount to a declaration of war as Nato aircraft would take on Russian, and for that reason has been ruled out by Nato leaders. At any rate, to fully protect Ukrainian cities a “no artillery zone” would also be required.

It is the strikes against cities that are the most alarming and upsetting aspect of this stage of the war. The attacks’ strategic effects remain difficult to gauge, but three points are worth noting.

First, a lot depends on the reaction of the population. Although it is a cliché to assume that civilians under bombardment become more defiant and learn resilience, that is not invariably the case. It depends on the extent of the bombing, the prior state of people’s morale, and the quality of their leaders. In this case, the cliché appears to be true. Kharkiv, the city that has suffered the worst, remains defiant. It is, supposedly, one of the most Russophile cities in Ukraine, where the Russians hoped to trigger a popular counter-revolution to the Euromaidan uprising of February 2014. No longer.

Second, it may be as the Russians claim: that some strikes are directed against key military and government targets, but no serious effort has been made to avoid civilian death and destruction. Even if some of the targets have a tactical purpose, this may reflect another fallacy, that destroying administrative buildings or media towers really makes a big difference to a war at this stage. Ukraine is being run from Kyiv’s metro stations and underground passageways, and on Zoom calls.

Third, to make a strategic difference, these attacks need to be related to other military moves. Here we come to the big choices that the Russian military must make. Artillery can be used, brutally, as an instrument of urban warfare, to demoralise the defenders, to remove defensive positions and create pathways for an offence. But we know, from Stalingrad to Grozny, that defenders can fight among the rubble. Even at that desperate stage, urban settings remain a challenge for an invading force. Units can get lost and isolated, caught in city streets, with reliable intelligence difficult to acquire. If Russian commanders want to keep their casualties down, this is an uncomfortable prospect.

[See also: Putin’s miscalculation in Ukraine could lead to his downfall]

Furthermore, to emphasise an earlier point, and as we have seen in areas where Russians have moved in, presence is not the same as control. There are numerous images now of Russian troops being confronted by large crowds of angry, unarmed residents and unsure what to do. It is one thing to kill civilians from afar with artillery and missile strikes, but another to have to look people that could be your relatives in the eye, in a street similar to your home town, and shoot them out of the way. If they wish to hold what they have taken, the occupying forces will have to introduce the numbers able to impose curfews and deal with protesters while protecting themselves from ambushes.

The alternative might be to mount sieges. The population can be forced to spend their time in bunkers while cities lose power, food and medicines become scarce, and the situation gets progressively more distressing. This may end up being, by default, Plan C, especially if Russians continue to struggle with efforts to get more than footholds in the major cities. Human beings can endure these conditions for some time but at some point this will lead to a humanitarian crisis. In this respect, calls for corridors to allow civilians to escape or just efforts to get in extra supplies while the cities are not completely surrounded can be expected.

A siege is unlikely to bring results quickly enough for Putin. His people are not suffering in the same way but Russia’s economy is now under siege. He can cope with this for the moment, and clamp down on dissent and independent news outlets. But the human and economic costs of this war cannot be covered up for long. People will discover what has happened to their sons and brothers, and how little their roubles can buy. Putin needs this war to be over sooner rather than later. He can’t afford to be too patient. Little about his demeanour has been reported, other than intense frustration.

If there was ever any possibility that this war would end with the complete subjugation of Ukraine by force of arms, this has now gone. Nor will it end with Russian forces being chased out of the country. Most likely there will be a negotiated conclusion, probably at the ceasefire talks. Although it is possible to conjure up some document in which Ukrainians promise not to do things that they would not have done anyway (such as develop a nuclear arsenal or be Nazis), and might even allow for major concessions such as accept the loss of Crimea, they must emerge from this ordeal as a free and independent country with no Russian troops on their soil.

Regime change is now as likely in Moscow as it is in Kyiv. Machiavelli posed the question of whether it is better for a prince to be loved or feared. His answer was that it was best to be both, but if a choice must be made it had to be fear. “If the subjects fear the ruler, that fear guarantees support. They ask themselves: ‘What will he do to us, if we are disloyal?'” Putin, who has isolated himself, in all senses of the word, risks now losing that aura of ruthless power that he has carefully cultivated. That aura meant that only the bravest of domestic opponents took him on and autocrats elsewhere embraced him as an exemplar to follow. We know that he still enjoys much popular support even though demonstrations against the war continue. What will matter most will be rumblings among the elite as they see the consequences of their leader’s recklessness. When we know more about how this war ends, we will understand better how his regime ends. 

Lawrence Freedman is a regular “New Statesman” contributor. This article originally appeared on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

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