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Putin still wants to win

Simply “not losing” in Ukraine is not enough for Russia.

By Lawrence Freedman

In a recent article, Mark Galeotti, one of the best informed of all Russia-watchers, reported that Vladimir Putin had just enjoyed one of his best periods of his war with Ukraine. His views are not out of line with other commentators, all reflecting a more downbeat mood after the optimism earlier in the year that the Ukrainian counteroffensive would see the liberation of much more territory and add to the pressure on Putin to seek a way out of the war.

The starting point for the gloom is that Ukraine’s offensive operations, though not yet abandoned, have yielded only limited territorial gains, and as the winter mud makes movement difficult there are unlikely to be any major advances until the ground hardens next spring. The Russians have shown themselves to be adept at defensive operations and have improved their use of drones and electronic warfare capabilities. In recent weeks most attention has been focused on a Russian offensive, targeted on Avdiivka in Donetsk. This thus far has also achieved little, and at a high cost in Russian casualties, but the effort to hold it has required Ukraine to pull back forces from more promising operations elsewhere.

For the coming months Russia is in a better position in terms of shell production. The EU is falling short in its ambition to provide Ukraine with a million artillery shells and rockets by March 2024, while Russia is now on a war footing in terms of production and has benefited from an influx of North Korean shells. Because of the surge of expenditure on the war effort its economy is growing fast. Over time Moscow has found more workarounds to limit the impact of Western sanctions. Through financial incentives it is able to keep up the flow of new recruits to feed the front lines.

Political tensions in Russia are kept well below the surface. Critics are cowed, if not in exile or prison, and Putin is looking forward to his rigged presidential election in March. By contrast, the frustrations of the past year have unsurprisingly led to tensions at the top in Ukraine, notably between President Volodymyr Zelensky and General Valery Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief. Zaluzhny’s candid interview with the Economist in which he described the war as a stalemate irritated Zelensky, who wants to stay upbeat. Yet while stalemate may not be a good description of the situation, the problems to which Zaluzhny alluded are real.

Getting sufficient ammunition and recruits will be a challenge over the coming year. At the same time, the West has been distracted by events in the Middle East, which means that the effort required to support Ukraine has been lacking, especially when there is a need to get another bill to support Ukraine through a wholly dysfunctional US Congress. There have been reports that US military supplies otherwise intended for Ukraine, including 155mm artillery rounds, have been diverted to Israel, though this issue tends to be overstated as the two countries’ military needs are quite different.

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There are, as Galeotti notes, some contrary trends that might lead Putin to worry about short-term military advantages evaporating during the course of next year. The economy is already showing signs of overheating, leading to high inflation. He also notes recent polling which “for the first time found more Russians in favour of peace talks (48 per cent) than continuing the war (39 per cent) – and only 21 per cent thinking the economy will improve, while 43 per cent assume it will worsen”.

So whatever satisfaction Putin may feel at the moment, the issue is whether he can be confident that Russia’s relative position will strengthen even more over the coming year. Galeotti argues that Putin’s “real strategy is to attempt to outlast the West’s interest in Ukraine”. On that basis he claims that “not losing is tantamount to a win in his book”. While I largely accept Galeotti’s analysis, on this point I disagree. I don’t think “not losing” is the same as winning, and I’m not convinced that Putin’s strategy involves little more than playing for time.

Winning and losing

Put this the other way round. Is “not winning” tantamount to “losing”? This is not just about playing with words. While a true loss, confirmed by a decisive military defeat, would be considered conclusive, a continuing failure to win can create a sense of futility and corrode the commitment necessary to sustain a military intervention. This is how many Western interventions have ended.

I asked the day after the full-scale invasion whether Putin had “launched an unwinnable war”. Because Russia failed to prevail with the advantages of surprise and apparently overwhelming strength, as Ukraine fought back and gained support, a clear-cut Russian victory became even less likely.

Losing, however, is still a different proposition. What would a Russian defeat look like? At the very least it would mean that, having failed to achieve its objectives, Russia was obliged to withdraw its forces from Ukraine. This is the sort of defeat that Ukraine hopes to impose. It is also one that Russia has thus far been able to avoid because of the difficulty of dislodging it from all the territory currently occupied. An alternative form of defeat is rarely considered for Russia although it is often considered for Ukraine – that is the occupation of the capital and the installation of a compliant government. This reflects a fundamental asymmetry in the war: Russia’s objective is to subjugate Ukraine but it is inconceivable that Ukraine could do this to Russia. Ukraine is fighting to end the occupation; Russia is fighting to occupy.

It is always possible that failure in Ukraine could lead to upheavals in Russia. At one point this seemed to be happening with the mutiny by the Wagner mercenary group in June. But the future of Putin’s regime depends on events within Moscow and Russia more widely. The Ukrainian army is not going to march to Moscow and impose surrender terms on the Kremlin. A Ukrainian victory has therefore always depended on Russia deciding that it was not worthwhile continuing with the war and seeking a peaceful way out. This is why all proposed peace deals require Kyiv conceding territory and Russia somehow promising to leave the rump Ukraine alone in the future. Those designing these putative deals never envisage Russian territory being offered to Ukraine as a quid pro quo. They also fail to ask why and how a “peace” that leaves both sides dissatisfied is likely to be stable and not just be an interlude before the next round of fighting.

If this analysis is correct then the conclusion is frustrating. It is very difficult for Ukraine to achieve a definitive victory. Ending the war depends on a Russian decision to extract itself from a futile and calamitous war. This requires Putin not only to acknowledge an expensive failure, but also to abandon his war aims. He has given no indication of being prepared to do either.

“Not losing”, in the sense normally understood, of avoiding an unambiguous military defeat, is therefore not really the issue. There was a point, in early September 2022, when defeat did seem to be on the cards, but in response Putin doubled down, moving to full mobilisation and even more expansive war aims. It is now far less likely that Russia will lose. But crucially Putin does not see that as tantamount to a win and he is not reconciled to the idea that he can’t win.

This is why the widespread assumption that a ceasefire could easily be achieved with a bit of imaginative Western diplomacy and some pressure on Kyiv to make the best of a bad job is wrong. If that is what he wanted Putin could have offered a ceasefire any time over the past year, if only to see the sort of pressure to which Zelensky was then subjected by those keen to extract a positive response. If the war stopped now with a ceasefire Putin could claim whatever territory Russia still holds as a major gain, but it would be far short of controlling all the territory hurriedly “annexed” last autumn and which is now officially presented as part of Russia. He would still have to explain what the past year’s fighting was about as Russia has barely added to its holdings and lost some ground. The prize of all this effort would be distressed and depopulated territories, challenging to occupy and defend, and continuing hostility from the rest of Ukraine as it edged towards membership of the EU and Nato. This is why Putin wanted a submissive government in Kyiv in the first place: unless he gets one it is hard to see how he can view any outcome as satisfactory and durable. At the virtual G20 meeting on 22 November Putin described the war as a “tragedy”, adding: “And of course, we should think about how to stop this tragedy. By the way, Russia has never refused peace talks with Ukraine.”

This is not the first time that Putin has spoken in these terms, but when pushed further it transpires that his interest in diplomacy is only to help him achieve some of his core objectives, such as Ukrainian neutrality or the transfer of even more territory than currently occupied to the Russian Federation. We can take such calls more seriously when they open with a promise to withdraw from Ukrainian territory.

To return to Galeotti’s argument that Putin’s “real strategy is to attempt to outlast the West’s interest in Ukraine”. From the start Russia put a lot of effort into persuading Ukraine’s backers that this was a losing cause for which they were paying an unnecessarily high price. This was why they created an energy crisis in 2022, which did have a deleterious effect on Western economies though not one sufficient to undermine support for Ukraine’s war effort. While Ukraine might have wished for key capabilities to have been provided quicker the level of political, economic and material support runs high. At the moment the challenge is to get new packages through EU processes, against some Slovakian resistance, and through the US Congress, with some (but not all) Republicans reluctant to authorise any more support for Kyiv. If these efforts fail then that will create serious short-term problems for Ukraine, though both packages will probably be approved. That was certainly the message taken to Kyiv by Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, on a recent visit, anxious to refute suggestions that Washington was losing interest and distracted by Gaza: “I’m here today to deliver an important message – the United States will continue to stand with Ukraine in their fight for freedom against Russia’s aggression, both now and into the future.”

There are political and capacity challenges involved in keeping up support for Ukraine but they ought to be manageable, especially when compared with the consequences of handing Russia a victory.

The event most likely to bring US backing for Ukraine to a juddering halt would be a victory by Donald Trump in the presidential election in a year’s time. Given the impact of his last period in the White House, and what he has said since, this would send shockwaves through the whole American alliance system. What he would actually do would depend on his own priorities (probably pardoning himself), appointments to key positions and the readiness of the “deep state” to work with them, and the composition of Congress. Trump has claimed that he could end the war in “24 hours” but he says that about most of the intractable problems of government. Whatever the uncertainties, though, it is hard to see how a Trump presidency would be good for Ukraine or Nato, and Putin might assume this to be such a positive possibility that it is one worth waiting for.

It is, however, no more than a possibility and still a year away. Nikki Haley, now the most promising alternative Republican presidential nominee, would support Ukraine. Putin therefore has coping strategies for the long term – including a war economy and a hope that Ukraine will struggle to keep its own war effort going and will lose vital support – but I am not sure that he sees these as guaranteeing victory.

It may also be the case that Putin is thinking more about his own presidential election on 17 March than the American election in November. In the West this election is barely taken seriously as the result is hardly in doubt, but Putin does worry about questions of turnout and expressions of popular enthusiasm. An early military victory would give him something to boast about. An alternative view, which may fit better with the fighting conditions, is the one expressed by the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, Oleksiy Danilov, who told a Canadian audience: “After Putin’s enthronement, the regime will be anchored, [which] basically means giving it a free hand. That is why Ukraine and the global community have three to four months to prepare relevantly.”

Danilov believes that with the election behind him, Putin would be able to mobilise even more troops. Either way the idea that Putin is waiting for the West to give up is misleading. He is still hoping for an early military breakthrough.

Perhaps because of the setbacks faced by Russia after the full-scale invasion, the idea of Russia “winning” by fully defeating Ukrainian forces has also been discounted. I tend to agree that this is unlikely, especially if Ukraine continues to benefit from Western support. But Putin, encouraged by a compliant military leadership, may take a different view. He seeks an outcome that looks more like a victory. This is his preference and he would like a win of sorts to come sooner rather than later. If he lacks confidence that things will turn even more to Russia’s advantage by the end of next year then he might at least hope to exploit what many assume to be current advantages in manpower and ordnance that should be in play for the coming months. Should Putin fail to get a quick win then the question becomes one of whether at some point “not winning” really does start to look too much like “losing”.

Russian offensives

The best evidence of Putin’s determination to see some serious military progress is the offensives launched by Russia in early October, almost as soon as he was convinced that the Ukrainian offensive had run its course. These have largely been in the Donbas region in the east, with the battle for the strategically placed town of Avdiivka the most prominent. They could well be geared to Putin’s minimum objective, which is to gain control over all of the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, whose supposedly precarious security position provided the original pretext for the full-scale invasion. It is even possible that achieving this objective would lead him to offer a ceasefire, on the grounds that this could be presented as a victory. Equally, if this objective is not achieved it is hard to imagine him accepting one.

It is too early to say that these new offensives have failed, as there have been some gains and forces are being gathered for an even more determined push. So far there has not been much to give the Russian generals great encouragement. Whatever the adaptability they have shown in defensive operations there is little to suggest that they have come up with more innovative offensive tactics. They still view infantry as an expendable resource and rely on constant pressure and bombardment to wear down Ukrainian resistance. Their forces suffer as a result of the familiar challenges of minefields, drones and the artillery fire that follows detection. Whatever limited progress has been made has come at an enormous cost. Zaluzhny claimed on 10 November that Russia had suffered some 10,000 casualties since 10 October, and had lost over 100 tanks, 250 other armoured vehicles, about 50 artillery systems and seven Su-25 aircraft.

Even allowing for some exaggeration these are staggering losses, which if experienced by Ukraine would have led to gloomy questions about its ability to stay in the fight, and the wastefulness of its generals’ tactics. Somehow it is now assumed that in an unaccountable system, with soldiers taken from minorities and the poor, these casualties barely register in Russian society and cause no political backlash. Yet even if the Russians are prepared to take such losses in their stride, the readiness to risk them is not the action of a government content just to hold ground until the enemy and its supporters tire of war. These are the actions of an impatient government looking for early results.

If my analysis is correct then “not losing” on the basis of the current lines of contact is not tantamount to a win because it leaves the Russian grip on Ukraine tenuous and circumscribed. For Putin “not winning” is better than losing but it is not enough. He may be prepared for the war to go on for years to get to a win but there is no reason to suppose that he relishes years of gruelling positional battles without a major breakthrough any more than Zelensky.

And Russia, unlike Ukraine, has a choice. It has the option of withdrawing from the fight. While Putin might hope that time is on his side and that the West will lose interest there is an alternative possibility that support for Ukraine will continue and even strengthen, as ordnance production steps up, and that the Russian people and elite will become progressively more anxious as the war drags on. If so, Putin may see the coming months as a chance to make real gains in the war. Ukraine is tired and depleted, with insufficient ammunition and stressed air defences. This explains the effort and urgency apparent in Russia’s current operations.

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

[See also: JFK and the myth of the great martyr-saviour]

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