The house of cards Vladimir Putin has built may be about to fall spectacularly apart and crush him. His replacement might be worse.
Media coverage of the war in Ukraine has swung wildly between rosy optimism and direst pessimism ever since Russian troops first invaded in February.
“Ukraine war: Who is winning?” wondered the BBC way back on September 20, 2022, without presuming to give a definitive answer. All these many months later, the question is just as complicated as ever.
As to the answer, there are opinions aplenty. Then again, opinions differ.
“Putin’s dream of Russian victory slips away in Ukraine,” crowed the BBC on October 7, 2022, prematurely as it would turn out.
“The best path to peace is not talks with Putin, but helping Ukraine to win this war,” extolled Timothy Garton Ash, just as hopefully, for The Guardian on November 23, 2022.
“There will come a time for negotiations — but calls to reach a deal with the Kremlin now are more wrong-headed than ever,” the author scolded.
“‘Losing is not an option’: Putin is ‘desperate’ to avoid defeat in Ukraine as anxiety rises in Moscow,” reported CNBC, somewhat less optimistically, on November 29, 2022.
“Putin Must Not Win, But Zelensky Must Not Win Too Much,” cautioned TIME magazine on December 1, 2022.
“Putin Warns Russians to Prepare for Protracted Ukraine War,” reported the New York Times dismally on December 7, 2022. “Vladimir Putin appeared to acknowledge that subduing Russia’s neighbor was taking longer than expected, but said there was no need for another draft now.”
That hardly sounds like the action of a man on the verge of accepting defeat gracefully, withdrawing all Russian forces from Ukraine, and cooperating in international war crimes tribunals. In spite of this, media coverage of the conflict is swinging back towards optimism again.
“No One Would Win a Long War in Ukraine,” warned Foreign Affairs magazine on December 21, 2022, at the risk of stating the obvious.
“The seeds have been sown to end the war in Ukraine,” chirruped The Hill hopefully on December 29, 2022, before perpetuating a common misconception: “The war started when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.”
The war between Ukraine and Russia — just ask any Ukrainian — actually began many years before Russian tanks rolled into Kyiv, around 14 years ago. Ukrainians had already lost over 10,000 soldiers in the conflict before the full-scale military invasion the world witnessed in February.
Though the article was filled with mutually exclusive conundrums like, “Compromise. Russia and Ukraine must be willing to make concessions. They should be ready to accept less than they want, and the U.S. and Western European countries should be willing to protect the terms of the resulting agreement,” and, “Recognition of territorial integrity. Russia, the aggressor, must guarantee the integrity of territories it acknowledges to be Ukrainian or face serious consequences,” the rosy sentiment is shared by plenty of other media outlets.
But not everyone is convinced the conflict is likely to end so satisfactorily for Ukraine and its supporters in the U.S. and Europe.
According to Boris Bondarev, an exiled Russian diplomat who broke with Putin over the Ukraine invasion, Putin would be willing to sacrifice 20 million Russian soldiers before abandoning the conflict and accepting a loss.
“After losing the war, he will have to explain to his elites and his population why it is so and he may find some problems in explaining this,” Bondarev told reporters during a recent interview.
“And after that, there may be opposition who will try to depose him or he will try to purge his subordinates to find some people who could be blamed for all these problems,” Mr. Bondarev said, predicting a “period of internal turmoil.”
“You should have no doubt about it,” Bondarev advised; “he [Putin] may sacrifice 10 or 20 million Russians just to win this war, just to slaughter all Ukrainians. Because it’s a matter of principle.”
“It’s a matter of political survival for him,” Bondarev concluded ominously. “You have to understand that if he loses the war, it will be the end for him.”
Even the end of Putin’s political and military career — or worse — may not be enough to end the conflict in Ukraine, however.
“Will Putin’s War in Ukraine Continue Without Him?” wondered Shawn Cochran for the military publication, War on the Rocks, on October 10, 2022.
It is a good reminder that Putin is not heading up a cadre of upper-crust Russian officials who fundamentally disagree with him on the subject of Ukraine. Support for the conflict in Ukraine goes directly down the chain of command. If Putin’s top lieutenants are willing to disagree with him on anything, it is likely to be about strategy — not intent. Finding Putin’s military strategy — which many could argue has been a losing one — wanting isn’t the same thing as supporting Ukraine.
Putin, deposed, might be replaced by a second or third in command equally committed to annexing Ukraine at any cost but with better ideas as to how to accomplish the dread mission.
Putin’s replacements could also be more dangerous.
“Can Russia’s War in Ukraine End Without Nuclear Weapons?” wondered the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, most ominously of all, on November 03, 2022.
“I don’t see meaningful military targets for nuclear use in Ukraine,” mused Kori Schake, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in the Q&A discussion that ensued. “There isn’t a port or an airfield or massing of large numbers of troops that would be a traditional battlefield nuclear target.”
“What I have nightmares about is President Vladimir Putin concluding that he may be able to cover this humiliating defeat by launching a nuclear strike on Kyiv to affect regime change by killing the Ukrainian government,” confessed Schake.
Neither think tanks, the media, nor world leaders seem to know who is winning in this war from one day to the next.
But it is clear who the loser is in this conflict.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)