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13 May 2022updated 12 Jul 2022 4:40pm

When will Vladimir Putin realise it is time to cut his losses in Ukraine?

After failing to secure a victory in battle, the Russian president’s options are dwindling.

By Lawrence Freedman

Among the Kremlin’s many regrets about the conduct of its war in Ukraine one might be that expectations were allowed to build up around the annual parade to mark the end of the Great Patriotic War on 9 May. The link first emerged in March when there were reports that this had been set as a deadline for victory, or at least some notable military achievements, that could be celebrated by Vladimir Putin. But in the absence of any significant achievements, the date began instead to be approached with a different sense of foreboding – as a moment when Putin would be obliged to escalate. This might involve turning the “special military operation” into a full-scale war, with the accompanying mobilisation of reservists and conscripts, or announcing an intent to annex Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson, or, especially alarming, raising again the prospect of nuclear war.

When 9 May came Russian forces still had little to show for all their exertions, not even the complete capture of Mariupol. Nor, however, were there obvious forms of escalation available that would actually improve Russia’s strategic position. The territory that might be annexed was not yet securely in Russian hands, and there was not a lot that Putin could do in the short-term to resolve the deep predicament he faced.

His speech, and the accompanying parade, were lacklustre affairs. Nuclear missiles made their customary appearance, but there were fewer troops marching than usual, with most of the army currently engaged elsewhere. Instead of an exhibition of strength it was confirmation of Russia’s lack of spare capacity. Instead of presenting an army on the verge of a military triumph this one appeared depleted. There was not even a flypast, excused on the grounds of the weather although the skies were clear above Moscow. Aircraft had been practicing in a “Z” formation, picking up what has become Moscow’s favoured symbol of this war. The Z was taken from the markings on Russian vehicles assigned to duties in Ukraine. It is now mostly seen on burned out wrecks or abandoned vehicles, so perhaps it has lost some of its shine. It was generally far less in evidence than expected. Perhaps the lack of victories under the banner of “Z” has turned the symbol into something of an embarrassment.

Putin’s speech acknowledged casualties and praised those caring for the wounded. He did not explain his war aims. The war was presented in defensive terms. This was his account of its origins:

“Another punitive operation in Donbas, an invasion of our historic lands, including Crimea, was openly in the making. Kiev declared that it could attain nuclear weapons. The Nato bloc launched an active military build-up on the territories adjacent to us. Thus, an absolutely unacceptable threat to us was steadily being created right on our borders. There was every indication that a clash with neo-Nazis and Banderites backed by the US and their minions was unavoidable. Let me repeat, we saw the military infrastructure being built up, hundreds of foreign advisers starting work, and regular supplies of cutting-edge weaponry being delivered from Nato countries. The threat grew every day. Russia launched a pre-emptive strike at the aggression. It was a forced, timely and the only correct decision. A decision by a sovereign, strong and independent country.”

It is not hard to take this apart, not least because it fails to mention the impact of the build-up of some 190,000 troops in the months leading up to the war, which would have made it an odd time for Ukraine to embark on a military adventure of its own. There is no evidence of this imminent threat that required urgent pre-emptive action.

It does, however, provide a definition of victory that might be in reach. So long as the Donbas is spared punitive action, Crimea is defended and Ukraine abandons thoughts of nuclear weapons then Russia will have succeeded. Putin described an imaginary threat for which he therefore might accept an imaginary solution. As it happens these are all matters that Volodymyr Zelensky would be prepared to discuss with Putin, although it would be difficult for the Russian President to meet as an equal a man he has dismissed and derided as a Nazi presiding over an artificial state.

Another reason why the Kremlin might regret the focus on 9 May was the effect of contrasting the heroic performance of 1941-45 with the rather the dismal performance of 2022. Putin has deliberately created a cult around the Great Patriotic War and has used the annual parade in the past to show off his military power and to forge a sense of common pride and purpose. It is also a reminder of a time when Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia were not separate states but together members of the Soviet Union (the hammer and sickle of the Soviet flag has become almost as prominent as “Z” in the symbolism of this war).

By appropriating the history for his own political purposes, claiming that the war against Ukraine is somehow an extension of the one that ended 77 years ago, Putin has subverted and demeaned the memory. This is especially the case when attacks on infrastructure and residential buildings, tolerance of war crimes, along with the original crime of aggression, are justified as if true Nazis are being fought and punished. As Zelensky recalled in his own message, Ukraine lost eight million people to the Nazis and has as much right to the memory of this war as does Russia. By using the term “Nazi” as a generalised category for all people who the Kremlin doesn’t like the term loses its specific meaning. When the hapless Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, tried to explain how the Jewish Zelensky could be a Nazi he got himself mired in anti-Semitic tropes about the holocaust.

[See also: Why the Russian military should be very worried]

The desperation to sustain the connection between the two wars reflects the singular character of the victory of 1945, not only because of the resilience and intense sacrifice that lay behind it, but because Russia’s history offers few comparable military achievements. Russia does not commemorate 11 November as the end of the First World War, as we do for our annual service of remembrance, because by the time of the armistice in 1918 popular discontent with the losses and economic pain had led to the 1917 revolution and the Bolsheviks seizing power. The new Soviet Union signed its own separate peace treaty with Germany at Brest-Litovsk the previous March which, if it had not been opportunistically annulled at the time of the later German surrender, would have meant that nearly all of Ukraine would have become part of Germany.

The 20th century had begun with a humiliating defeat at the hands of Japan. In 1939-40 as Germany (helped by its pact with Moscow) occupied European countries, the Soviet Union struggled to defeat Finland, taking heavy losses for little gain. It did not lose the Cold War through battle, although the inability of Soviet forces to cope with the insurgency in Afghanistan did not help. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia was humiliated by the secessionist Chechnya in one war and then only won the second by adopting brutal tactics. They made heavy weather of a limited war with Georgia in 2008. More recently they had success against Ukraine in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014-5 and then in Syria, but these were on a modest scale. Russian military history is therefore at best patchy. The war of 1941-45 stands out because it was huge in all its dimensions, from forces committed to casualties, and the extent of both the initial setbacks and the eventual victory.

[See also: Putin and Zelensky offer contrasting visions of the future]

The victory left an abiding image of a military steamroller, a mass army crushing all before it through its sheer weight. This image shaped the early strategies of the Cold War. For Germans who had been pushed back to Berlin inexorably by this steamroller, it was impossible to imagine being able to fight the Soviet military on its own terms. For this reason, when they joined Nato in the mid-1950s, the West Germans stressed the importance of nuclear deterrence. A conventional battle on their territory would most likely leave it ruined before it was lost. The ability of Moscow to overwhelm its opponents was confirmed by the suppression of the Hungarian rebellion in 1956 and Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring of 1968. Even after the Cold War the image of the steamroller did not go away. When, as in Chechnya, the military performance left something to be desired, Russian tactics were remorseless, flattening enemies when they could not be outfought.

The strength of this image was evident on the first days of this war, and it has not quite gone away even though Ukraine has not been rolled over. Its influence on the Russian generals helps explain the arrogance behind their initial plans, as if Ukrainian forces would crumble once confronted with a Russian offensive. Even when on 25 March the Russian Ministry of Defence announced that it was going to abandon the assault on Kyiv and other northern cities and focus on the Donbas, the natural response was to assume that the steamroller would at last be activated. The spies of the FSB took the blame for the early failures to catch President Zelensky and the poor intelligence on Ukraine’s willingness and ability to fight. They were pushed aside to allow the military to take charge, with more realistic objectives, a more coherent command system, and a chance to rectify some of their earlier tactical and logistical errors.

It is now apparent that there is no steamroller. The second phase of the war has been underway for a month now and the Russians have made few gains. The encircling movement to eliminate the substantial Ukrainian force in the Donbas has yet to take place. The achievements that have been made have been minimal while Ukraine is starting to see some successful counter-offensives pushing up from Kharkiv and eating away at Russian positions in Kherson. The Russian have amassed whatever forces they can muster for this latest push, with little left in reserve, and it does not appear to be sufficient. Equipment is still being lost at an alarming rate. Meanwhile, advanced artillery pieces from Western countries are being employed by Ukraine, which is likely to add to the attrition of Russian forces. It is not surprising that there are reports of Russian commanders refusing to put their troops into exposed positions.

It is possible that this second phase of the war around the Donbas will follow the same pattern as the first phase. The first step is for it to become apparent that the Russians cannot win. Then the implications of a draw for a negotiated solution are discussed, before the position of Russian forces becomes unsustainable and they have to withdraw. Except that this time withdrawal means accepting defeat. If that is an intolerable prospect for Moscow then the rational next step is not to escalate in some way but to offer a ceasefire as soon as possible, with the hope of then securing the minimum defensive objectives or at least causing tension between Zelensky and his international supporters if the offer is refused.

The current consensus is that this war will go on for some time because Ukraine cannot agree to the loss of any territory to Russia while Putin has invested so much in this war that he cannot back off. It is possible that a stalemate will develop in the Donbas and the fighting will subside to a lower level that both sides can sustain over time, but it is as possible that Russian forces will at some point face a calamitous and humiliating defeat. It may be that the bombast and confidence is already draining away from the Kremlin’s appreciation of how this war might develop over the coming weeks. It can still do immense harm to Ukrainian people and property through artillery and missile strikes, and it is still mounting a blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and cutting off its trade. But Ukraine has already absorbed immense pain without giving up and may soon have the upper hand in the battle for the Donbas. Warfare can impose its own political logic.

Putin was under no obligation to make a major strategic announcement on 9 May. The date acquired significance because of the importance of the war against Germany in the ideology of Putin’s Russia and the need for decisions about what next to do in the war against Ukraine. But now that the 9 May has passed, and with it the burden of living up to the triumphs of 1945, Putin might find that instead of contemplating how to make this war a whole lot worse for everyone his time would be more usefully spent working out how to cut his losses.

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

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