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15 September 2022

Where does Putin go from here?

Russia’s flailing offensive in Ukraine exposes the failings of the strongman system he has built.

By Katie Stallard

As Russia’s defensive lines in north-eastern Ukraine collapsed on 10 September and Russian troops ran for their lives, Vladimir Putin was presiding over the opening of a new Ferris wheel in Moscow. “It is 140 metres high,” the president marvelled. “There is nothing like that in Europe.” He said it was important for people to have somewhere to go to “chill out with their family and friends”. He mentioned nothing of the extraordinary reversal his forces are suffering in Ukraine.

For all the macho posturing during his two decades in power, Putin is now delivering a masterclass in the weakness of strongman rule. His assault on Ukraine was poorly conceived and badly executed, predicated on magical thinking. He refused to believe that Ukraine was a real country, or that Ukrainians would mount any resistance. He expected Kyiv to fall within days, and imagined that he could subdue a country of 44 million people with only around 200,000 troops. There was either a colossal intelligence failure prior to the invasion or a failure to deliver accurate intelligence up the chain of command. In any case, this reflects the system Putin has created, and the responsibility for these failures is his.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the decade of economic turbulence that followed, Putin came to power at the turn of the millennium vowing to restore stability and national pride. He promised to put an end to the “disintegration of Russia” and to make Russia great and respected again. Aided by surging oil prices and a booming economy during his first two terms, with salaries and pensions finally being paid on time, the new president appeared to be delivering on his promises. He also showed no compunction about the use of military force. While Western leaders such as Tony Blair initially praised Putin and suggested he might prove to be a reformer, he launched a brutal campaign to quell the separatist rebellion in Chechnya, levelling the regional capital Grozny and causing dreadful civilian casualties. The lesson Putin appears to have taken from this and subsequent campaigns, from the Russo-Georgian War in 2008 to the military takeover of Crimea in 2014 and the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015, is that violence works.

Yet as Putin has consolidated and personalised power in Russia over the past 22 years, casting himself as the architect of the country’s stability and success, he has built a system that values loyalty over competence. This is an essential quality for ensuring regime security, but it is far from an effective method of governance, or for prosecuting a war. Beyond the performative displays of leadership on television and the talk of his vaunted “power vertical”, by which he affects to rule, Putin presides over a corrupt, dysfunctional bureaucracy and an inner circle of oligarchs and officials who compete for his favour and the opportunities for enrichment that follow.

If the consequences were not so terrible, it would be almost comical how much of a cliché Putin has become as he conforms to the stereotype of the ageing autocrat. Isolated in his gilded quarters, he berates his courtiers (often from one end of a very long table or from across a room), rails against his enemies, and obsesses over his place in history. He has long since confused his own interests with those of his country, and he cannot find a successor who can be trusted not to turn on him and his legacy, so he stays on long past his prime, marinating in his grievances.

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Perhaps his generals and intelligence officials had convinced themselves that Putin was right – that Ukrainians and Russians were “one people” – as he had written in his sprawling ahistorical essay in 2021 – and that the offensive in Ukraine would be short and victorious. Or perhaps no one wanted to be the person to tell the leader that his judgement, and his confidence in the Russian military, was wrong. When Boris Bondarev, a mid-ranking diplomat at Russia’s United Nations mission in Geneva, resigned in May, he delivered a withering assessment of the Kremlin’s preparations for the war and the system that had enabled it. “They got Ukraine wrong, they got the West wrong, they basically got everything wrong,” he told the New York Times. “We diplomats of the Foreign Ministry are also at fault for this, for not passing along the information that we should have – for smoothing it out and presenting it as though everything was great.” The main criterion for sending information to Moscow, he said, was that it was “certain to be liked”.

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There is no reason to believe that this situation will improve with Russia’s recent failures in Ukraine. As their situation deteriorates, the more desperate Putin’s lieutenants will be to save their own skins and to divert the blame towards other parts of the intelligence apparatus, other commanders and the West – already portrayed as the mastermind of any Ukrainian success on Russian television. Meanwhile the chorus of disapproval from Russian nationalists on social media platforms has intensified, as they urge Putin to escalate his offensive and declare a state of war and full national mobilisation. But even then, it would take months to train and equip a functional fighting force. The Russian military is haemorrhaging troops, equipment and morale.

It is clear to international observers – and some Russian commentators – that Russia cannot defeat Ukraine on the battlefield. But this does not mean that Putin will accept a Russian defeat. In June, he compared himself to the 18th century Russian emperor Peter the Great by invoking his Great Northern War against Sweden, which lasted 21 years, insisting that he too was fighting to “return” land that rightfully belonged to Russia. The following month, he warned that his offensive in Ukraine was only just getting started. It is always possible that the Russian losses in recent days will cause Putin to reassess his approach, but the likely outcome is more of the same. He will order his forces to regroup, adjust their objectives, target more civilian infrastructure, and grind on at the cost of countless Ukrainian and Russian lives, and perhaps his own political future. Meanwhile, those around him assure him that he is right.  

[See also: How will the Ukraine war end?]

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This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke