Press and diplomatic observers appear to have reached a consensus that Vladimir Putin has brilliantly outmaneuvered Europe and the United States with his New Type of War – a mix of masked military aggression, proxy fighters, bluffing with troop maneuvers, intensive propaganda, and the use of human shields.
This consensus is wrong. My scorecard for the half year of hostilities shows that Putin is losing not only the battle for Ukraine but also his drive for the restoration of Russian empire. Unless the West pulls Putin’s chestnuts from the fire with its incessant demands for a cease fire, the Ukrainian theater will go from bad to worse for Putin.
The critics of Putin’s adventurism thought its failure would come in the long run through economic isolation and the loss of international credibility and trust. My six-month score card shows that he has already failed in his major goals.
The conventional argument for Putin’s Ukraine success runs as follows:
Through his hybrid war, Putin annexed Crimea without a shot being fired. He destabilized the east of Ukraine with a relatively small number of military, intelligence, and PR professionals. His nonstop propaganda campaign against the Ukrainian “junta” raised his popularity at home and convinced many in east Ukraine that the extremist fascists in Kiev controlled by the United States are the real villains. By alternating strategic thrusts of aggression with cheap talk of peace, he staved off meaningful sanctions. He has a strong team of prominent European industrialists, especially in Germany, either paid by him or economically entwined in the Russian economy, ready to promote the “Russian narrative” that NATO and the United States are really to blame. By using mercenaries, criminal gangs, and Russian nationalists, he has maintained “plausible deniability” that he controls the Ukrainian conflict, while demanding a leading role in any settlement. He has used the energy card to divide Europe on a united energy policy that would loosen dependence on Russian energy. Wobbly leaders in Europe and the United States grasp eagerly for straws of “good behavior” on Putin’s part, pushing a wary Ukraine towards a “peace agreement” which everyone knows the Russian side will break. In all this, Ukraine is desperately trying to create a new state and to marshal its military resources against a superior foe. Its natural allies are too intimidated to provide it with real assistance.
A prominent Polish analyst reluctantly and succinctly sums up Putin’s conduct of his hybrid war against Ukraine: “Frankly speaking, Russia has outsmarted us.”
Any evaluation of Putin’s Ukraine adventurism, however, should focus not on such tactical issues, but more broadly on his success in achieving his goals, the main one being the preservation of his personal power. Judged in this fashion, Putin’s Ukraine campaign has been a catastrophic failure for Putin personally and for Russia as a country
Here are the arguments for a failing scorecard:
First, Putin failed to intimidate Ukraine into reversing the popular overthrow of its kleptocratic regime in the Maidan revolution, notably a regime built on the same principles as Putin’s own kleptocracy. Russia failed to keep its discredited proxy in the presidency and could not sabotage the May 25 presidential election, despite its attempt to hack the election results. If anything, Putin succeeded in creating a united Ukraine in a country whose national identity had been ill-defined since independence. A Ukrainian victory over Putin’s hybrid warfare, hence, serves as a clear signal that civic uprisings against unpopular regimes can succeed, even in Putin’s Russia. This is Putin’s worst nightmare and explains why he responded so violently to the Maidan revolution. He set out to teach Ukraine a lesson. You can’t have a Maidan in my neck of the woods, and he failed!
Second, Putin has had to scale back dramatically his ambitions for a Novaya Rossiya (New Russia) extending from the Donbass in east Ukraine, through the major Black Sea ports, to the Romanian border as part of Russia or under Russia’s tutelage. In its even more ambitious variants, Russia’s territorial control would extend to Belarus and large swaths of Kazakhstan, while destabilizing large Russian populations in the Baltic States, most notably Latvia. Putin’s New Russia, as popularized by Putin’s favored Eurasian fascist, Alexander Dugin, has been humbled to a tenuous destabilization of the Donbass. From a grand new empire to a declining rust belt that can only survive on subsidies – what a humiliation!
Putin’s original goal was to incorporate a New Russia into his Russian Empire
Third, the loss of Ukraine to Putin’s vaunted Eurasian Union – his supposed counterweight to the European Union – has made it a farcical partnership of three like-minded dictatorships in an economic union that holds no future. In contrast, Ukraine has voted in a democratic election in favor of a European path that requires it to become a “civilized” country with the promise of European prosperity. Notably the Ukrainian choice has emboldened Georgia and Moldova to turn to Europe, unintimidated by big brother Russia. For all three countries who signed sweeping trade agreements with the EU on June 27, the struggle to become democratic market economies governed by a rule of law will not be easy, but they can at least see a bright future if they work at it hard.
Fourth, Putin has lost the battle for the hearts and minds of ethnic Russians in Novaya Rossiya. Even in the most Russian of areas, public opinion has strongly favored a united Ukraine throughout the hostilities and despite nonstop Russian propaganda. Public opinion in areas occupied by Putin’s mercenaries and PR agents has soured towards Russia as indicated by a precipitous decline in Putin’s favorability rating. His rating will fall further as the loss of life proceeds and horror stories emerge from the freed people of the so-called Peoples Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Their stories will filter across the border into Russia itself. Unless Putin can offer the Russian people new diversions, his people will begin to look at his domestic record and ask: This guy has been in charge for 15 years. What do we have to show for it? And where is the “victory” on the Ukrainian front? We were told that Russia will rescue Ukraine from the Nazis, but Ukraine elected that Chocolate King, and the extremists got hardly any votes. What is going on? People are dying on both sides and for what reason?
Fifth, Putin’s Ukraine campaign has set in motion a remarkable unanticipated consequence. He has revived a faltering NATO by giving it a new purpose – combatting an expansionist Russia, spurred on by NATO members directly threatened by Russia. Nations that avoided NATO membership for fear of provoking Russia, such as Sweden and Finland, are now considering refuge from Russia within the bosom of NATO. Putin may have gone so far as to create sentiment within Ukraine for joining NATO. Prior to Putin’s invasion, Ukrainian public opinion favored joining the European Union but not NATO. Putin’s aggression will drive Ukrainian public opinion increasingly towards NATO membership – one of Putin’s major concerns about the Ukraine mess in the first place. As of June, half of Ukrainians favored joining NATO versus 28 percentprior to hostilities.
Sixth, Putin’s plausible deniability that he is not responsible for the hybrid war against Ukraine has lost credibility in major media especially within NATO and the United States. Notably, it is the military men within NATO speaking out most forcibly against Putin’s military invasion. As a NATO analyst put it: “The situation is black and white, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say it.”
Putin previously applied his new kind of war almost unnoticed to small and remote Georgia and Transnistria, but it cannot go without being understood when applied on a scale as large and visible as Ukraine. As plausible deniability becomes a flimsy façade – peddled only by Putin’s apologists, the prospect of meaningful sanctions grows. Increasingly. Western leaders are at last citing Russia’s “informal” supply of mercenaries and military equipment as a reason for sanctions, not just the invasion of Ukraine by regular troops. Any fool knows that Russia’s intelligence forces control the Russian border. Tanks and missile launchers cannot enter Ukraine without Putin’s permission. [See: NATO video about Russia’s attack on Ukraine].
Seventh, Putin is caught in a trap of his own making. With the Ukraine army growing in strength and discipline, even a professional Russian mercenary force armed with tanks and missiles cannot beat them as the battle for the separatist command and control center in Slovyansk demonstrated. But Putin cannot invade with regular troops without catastrophic consequences, and his mercenaries will turn against him, embittered by his lack of support. Larger movements of trucks, tanks, missiles, and armored personnel carriers across the border cannot escape notice; so it would be difficult to turn the tide via hybrid warfare alone. Putin is, as a former Secretary of State used to say of Saddam Hussein, “in a box.”
Eighth, Russia’s energy reserves are located in remote hostile climates that can be developed only with huge long term capital investments and Western technology without which Russia’s energy production will decline. The Russian economy desperately needs capital and technology despite the claims of quack economic advisors that Russia can prosper on an autarky model. Even with the best of intentions, international energy concerns cannot risk shareholder funds in such an unstable political environment.
Moreover, Russia’s unstable economic and political environment is confirmed by the continued outflow of capital and the most talented people as they flee Russia. In one false move, Russia has risked its reputation as a reliable energy supplier to Europe, which will sooner or later turn to other markets, or worse still, participate in the fracking revolution at home despite the flow of Russian anti-fracking money into the European green movement.
Ninth, Putin may have created a new powerful and independent Ukraine which is in the process of besting Russia’s New Kind of War on its own resources with minimal assistance from the West. He must deal with a new and emboldened Ukraine in place of the old supine Ukraine that feared to cross its Big Brother to the east. If Ukraine engages in the real reforms demanded by Maidan, it can emerge as a major European power unbeholden to no one.
Tenth, although the Crimean Anschluss is temporarily out of the public eye, it will be a burden around Russia’s neck. Crimea is a loss making enterprise that must be propped up by Russian subsidies. Russian pensioners have already been warned that they will get no cost of living increases this year, and they know it is due to Crimea. Putin’s arbitrary resetting of international boundaries has destroyed the foundation of postwar stability to the dismay of world institutions including even Putin’s favorite United Nations. Ultimately the world order, including international courts, will not accept the legality of the Crimean annexation. Even worse, Putin’s arbitrary annexation constitutes an invitation to take eastern Siberia which has been controlled by Russia for only 150 years – an instant on the clock of Chinese history.
With events on the military front apparently moving in Ukraine’s favor, Putin will clamor for peace, blame war-mongering Ukraine, and will solemnly promise to close Russia’s borders and exercise his “small” influence on its Russian separatists. Europe and the United States will fall in line, in the vain hope (or pretense of hope) that Putin means it this time. Ukraine understands from the last peace initiative that “ceasefire” means the opportunity for Russia to strengthen its hand in east Ukraine.
The Ukrainian people understand what is going on. They turned out in massive numbers when they saw the results of the so-called cease fire. They will not allow their leaders to be duped into the trap of the frozen warthat we now understand that Putin wants in Ukraine. He wants a never ending war – with the prospect of peace always around the corner – that will destabilize Ukraine until it returns to the tutelage of mother Russia.
Former advisor to presidents, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his Putin’s Three Choices on Ukraine, offers a diplomatic solution to the Ukrainian crisis whereby Putin agrees to stop the Russian-sponsored separatist (terrorist) campaign and allows Ukraine to join the European Union in return for Ukraine’s pledge to not join NATO. Such a solution will not work for two reasons: First, Putin cannot be trusted to honor any agreement, especially one that cannot be monitored. Mercenaries will continue to terrorize east Ukraine and Putin will plead innocence. Second, Brzezinski does not understand that Putin regards such an outcome as an existential threat.
As explained by a Russian analyst on Forum-MSK (See Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia) Putin’s and Ukraine’s fates are intertwined. Russia cannot stand by and watch Ukraine restore order. “Ukraine could become a most powerful weapon against Russia” and rebels inside Russia (like those in Maiden) would be intent on “destroying Russian power.” Putin could suffer the same fate as Milosevic in Serbia.
Putin’s greatest fear: A Maidan revolution in Moscow
Now you understand why Putin will never give up and that a peaceful solution is not possible. Putin is resourceful. We do not know what lies in his bag of tricks. Do not be surprised if the his next ploy is “Putin man of peace.” But one thing is certain, as confirmed by a respected Russian military analyst, total rebel defeat in Ukraine is not an option for the Kremlin. No matter what, Putin will continue to press on with his attack on Ukraine in one form or another. That is the only thing we know for sure.
Paul Gregory serves on the International Academic Advisory Board of the Kiev School of Economics. His views do not represent those of the school. His latest book is Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives.
The author doesn`t work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations