Putin Loses No Matter How This Plays Out, But We Might Too
Editor’s note: This is an updated and adapted version of an article originally published in the European publication Le Grand Continent, in French, Spanish, Italian, and German. Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
No matter how the war in Ukraine plays out, Putin loses. Even if Russian forces prevail on the ground and in the air, he loses. Even if he takes Kyiv tomorrow, he loses. Russia lacks the forces (and perhaps the will) to occupy Ukraine in the face of a restive civil society and guerrilla movement. And that would be on top of having already reinforced NATO, awakened Europe, isolated his country, ruined its economy, and alienated many Russians, including his “friends.” What happens next depends less on the military outcome of the conflict than on other factors he has already put in motion and that will further affect him.
It might seem presumptuous in the first week of a war to predict its outcome and second-order effects for Ukraine, Russia, and the West, but it seems Putin’s defeat is the likely product of five factors: the heavy price of a prospective military victory, the quagmire of an occupation, the strengthening of NATO and European defense, the international isolation of Russia, and the internal contestation which may lead to Putin’s fall. So Putin lost, but it does not mean we win. He knows that he cornered himself and this is precisely where it gets dangerous because he may think that the only way out for him is to escalate.
The Price of Military Victory
If Putin’s military victory seems inevitable, given the asymmetry of the forces involved, it will have a considerable human and material cost. Even presuming that the daily Ukrainian army general staff’s claims for Russian casualties are exaggerated, there is a lot of visual evidence of a military disaster: destroyed and abandoned Russian military equipment, killed and captured Russian soldiers, and Russian ground units hapless in front of crowds of Ukrainian civilians upon whom they seem unwilling to fire. Russia already paid a high cost even if officially it does not acknowledge it, and will probably never communicate the true toll. Moscow seems likely to lose at least several thousand servicemembers, making this war its most costly military intervention of the last two decades.
Thanks to the fighting spirit of the Ukrainians, supplied with weapons by at least 28 countries, the confrontation is not the expected blitzkrieg. An accidentally published RIA Novosti article shows the Kremlin seems to have expected to celebrate victory and the collapse of the Ukrainian state quickly, after only two days. A week later, Russian forces do not control any major city. Why? First, because as Lawrence Freedman has pointed out, Putin and his generals made two classic mistakes: Underestimating the enemy and overestimating their own forces. These boil down to the same thing: hubris. Second, because the strategy itself is questionable, as Michael Kofman explained: In the first days of the conflict, “everything is wrong.” The bulk of Russian forces, from aircraft to battalion tactical groups, have yet to be committed to the fight. Ground units have been bizarrely dispersed as small and vulnerable detachments around the country. We should not assume Russia will be more efficient in the next phase, although as Stalin liked to remark grimly, quantity has a quality of its own. And third, Russian forces are also experiencing important logistical problems. Some of them — lack of fuel, rations, and perhaps even ammunition — are the direct consequence of bad planning: because they thought it would take two days, they did not come prepared. But it is not only that: the testimonies of prisoners of war show that Russian forces lack encrypted communications equipment. They rely on civilian radios and mobile phones, making it possible for Ukrainian and Western intelligence services to monitor or jam their communications.
For all those reasons and probably many others, the war is not going as planned. Fighting has been more intense and it will probably be much, much longer than Russian strategists had hoped. And this also poses an image problem, since the Ukrainian side documents and broadcasts photos and videos of downed planes, destroyed tanks, Russian soldiers killed and captured, and war crimes committed. Unlike their opponents, the Ukrainian forces are communicating extremely well, and President Volodymyr Zelensky has become a heroic figure in a few days, praised around the world. Whatever the military outcome of the conflict, Putin has already lost the image battle.
The lack of concrete results on the ground, the slow advance of the invaders, combined with logistical difficulties and inefficient communication, have led to a growing feeling of frustration among Russian troops. As most Russians seemed to have been kept in the dark about this war, to include most Russian troops now fighting in Ukraine, the longer the war lasts, the more likely it becomes that doubt among the populace and army might doom Russia. Interviews of Russian prisoners of war already confirm that the troops, in Kofman’s words, “had no idea they were going to launch this op and were completely unprepared for it, including officers. Morale is low, nothing was organized, soldiers don’t want to fight, and readily abandon kit.”
Under these conditions, there are three possibilities. The first is that of a collapse of Russian forces, for several cumulative reasons: this is not their war but Putin’s, they do not understand why they should fight, it is not going as planned, they suffered casualties, and are reluctant to kill Ukrainian civilians, considered as a brother people. While Russian soldiers might not all be able to communicate with friends and family back home, surely news of Russia’s financial ruin is getting to them somehow. Surely some are hearing of their loved ones lining up at banks as the ruble plummets. And last but not least, Putin’s nuclear threats may convince them that this is getting out of hand. From the bottom or the top, the Russian military could play a role in stopping this crisis.
If this does not happen, then the second possibility is that Putin himself changes his mind. Local resistance, added to international pressure and domestic risk (see points four and five below), could push him to negotiate before the defeat of the Ukrainian army. In this scenario, Putin would present this outcome advantageously, but no one would be fooled. This outcome would be a bitter failure for him personally and for the Russian armed forces. He was willing to pay a calculated price for a gain, but he may end up having paid a much higher price than he imagined for no gain. A defeat in Ukraine could mean his downfall in Moscow, but so could continuing. He is caught in a trap of his own making.
That brings us to the third possibility: He persists, or seeks to. Major fighting could go on for weeks. In order to accelerate the outcome and thus reduce the impression of a Russian defeat, he could be tempted to resort to massive air and artillery strikes at the risk of killing tens of thousands of civilians, as the Russians have shown they are capable of doing in Syria and Chechnya. But again, Ukrainians are kin and at least some Russian soldiers may find it difficult to accept, which would increase the risk of the first possibility, a collapse of the Russian armed forces. In recent days, Russian forces already started to shell residential areas. As I write, a huge tank and armored vehicles convoy closes in on Kyiv, indicating an imminent, massive assault on the capital city. It will be difficult for the Ukrainian forces to resist such brute force. However, even if they lose, even if Moscow wins a military victory in the coming days or weeks, that will not be the end of it.
The Quagmire of Occupation
If somehow Moscow ends up with a military victory — at a price that will be exorbitant, not only for the Ukrainian people but also for Russian soldiers — this would only be the beginning of Moscow’s difficulties. As America learned through great cost in blood and treasure in the early years of this century, taking a country is one thing, but occupying it is another.
Whether Putin seeks to annex the whole of Ukraine, rule it indirectly through a puppet regime, or carve any parts of it beyond the eastern separatist regions, Russian troops are likely to face daily resistance. An occupation would therefore be extremely costly, both economically and politically, probably too costly for Russia. If he divides the country in two and rules the eastern regions directly or through a puppet while renouncing Western Ukraine, Putin will face equally unappetizing prospects. Western Ukraine would seek to join the European Union and NATO, and could perhaps be accepted. Putin will have accelerated the expansion of the Western security architecture that he wanted to prevent. Ukraine has already seen its application to join the European Union accepted this week, the first step in a longer process.
The Strengthening of NATO and European Defense
Russia’s assault — its duplicity, its scale, and its brutality — was for Europeans a shock of an even greater magnitude than the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The shock had and will have several effects. First, it immediately reinforced the raison d’être of the NATO alliance which, since the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact against which it was directed, had gone through several existential crises. The war in Ukraine put an end to the metaphysical questions that some people might have had about the relevance or interest of NATO today, by clearly demonstrating a common and imperial threat. The war also strengthened the cohesion of NATO, which for the first time in its history activated its rapid reaction force, first planned at the Prague summit in 2002.
Second, this shock will also go down in history as marking the true emergence of the European Union as a geopolitical power. European countries have been struggling for years to build cohesion and ambition on defense. Putin made it happen in three days. On Feb. 27, the bloc agreed to “finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack.”
Those who, through ideology or naivety, were happy to do business with, aid, and rely upon the energy exports of Russia have seen their delusions exposed. Defense spending is going to shoot up across Europe, including and especially in Germany, which is perhaps the biggest development in post-Cold War Europe. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also announced a budget of 100 billion euro to modernize the German army and an increase in the defense budget to more than 2 percent of gross domestic product. Germany is also dropping national restrictions to send weapons to a war zone. And neutral Sweden broke with its tradition against delivering arms to a country at war, for the first time since 1939.
Finally, this shock has also considerably strengthened NATO’s attractiveness, since this war is a demonstration of the risk of not being part of it. It will have immediate consequences for countries like Sweden and Finland. The Russian invasion of Ukraine will “change” the national debate on NATO membership, as the Finnish prime minister said on the first day of the offensive. And she was right: Only a couple of days later, a poll showed that a majority of Finns are now in favor of joining NATO.
The Isolation of Russia
The reaction of the international community may seem insufficient for the moment because it has had no immediate effect on the fighting, but the sanctions against Moscow will have a lasting impact on all sectors (finance, energy, transport, technology) and individuals, including powerful oligarchs. Russia is being totally cut off from trade with the richest countries in the world (besides China) and is being economically strangled. And the effects are starting to show, with a ruble now less valuable than a single American penny. China will be able to compensate for some of these effects, but not all of them, and this will take time. It will not be able to return seized funds, properties, and yachts. It will not be able to reopen airspaces and ports now closed to Russian aircraft.
The resolution presented to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 26 confirmed the isolation of Russia. No one voted against it so it was left to Russia alone to stop it with its veto. Three states abstained, but every other member of the council voted to demand that Moscow immediately cease its attack and withdraw its troops.
Global civil society can also cause serious damage to Russia. In the aftermath of the offensive on Ukraine, the hacker collective Anonymous declared “cyber war” on Russia and claimed responsibility for attacks that took down several government websites, including that of the Russian Ministry of Defence, as well as that of the Kremlin-backed media outlet RT (formerly Russia Today). The collective also breached and leaked the databases of the Russian Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Economic Development. In several countries, parliamentarians and public figures have called for the suspension of RT. Foxtel did it in Australia on Feb. 26. The day after, the European Union announced it will ban RT and Sputnik, on all distribution channels (cable, satellite, IPTV, etc.). YouTube has already begun suspending the ability of certain Russian channels to generate revenue on YouTube, including RT’s channels around the world. The world of sport is also mobilized. The Union of European Football Associations and FIFA suspended Russia from international soccer, and the former also canceled its sponsorship deal with Gazprom. The International Olympic Committee called for a ban on Russian athletes. Calls to boycott Russian goods and services are increasing.
Russia looks certain to become a true pariah state, which will no longer be wanted in trade relations, diplomatic formats (on the second day of the offensive the Council of Europe was already suspending Russia’s rights of representation), airspace, information space, sports competitions, and all events that make up international life. Putin will of course retain relations with China, Iran, Pakistan, and some other states that are less concerned with the respect of international law and the principles of humanity, but this might not convince the Russian entrepreneurs, athletes, and general population that will pay the price of this isolation.
The End for Putin?
What this war is destroying is the future of Russia and its people know it. The war in Ukraine is likely to produce immense discontent in Russia, and therefore an immense problem for Putin who, like all dictators, fears first and foremost his own people.
Even before the war, the Russian population was divided on the issue: A poll showed that 50 percent of Russians were supportive of a military intervention. But that was before the all-out attack on Ukraine, the shelling of civilians, the numerous Russian casualties, the international condemnation, the effect of the sanctions, the tumble of the ruble, and the threat of a nuclear war. It is an assumption, but it seems a safe one, that today the opinion of the Russian population has changed, as a number of signs suggest. Since the beginning of the offensive, demonstrations have been organized all over the country. Thousands took to the streets in support of Ukraine, in dozens of cities. Tags “No to the war” appeared everywhere, and the few remaining independent media in the country displayed their opposition to the conflict and their support for the Ukrainian people. Even the political consensus began to crack: Three members of the Russian Parliament, from the Communist Party, who had voted in favor of recognizing the separatist enclaves, are now criticizing the war in Ukraine. The war will be a catalyst for Russian opposition.
The Russian state is too repressive for this change in popular opinion to lead to major uprisings. More than 5,900 protesters were arrested in at least 60 cities in four days and, aware of the danger, the regime is likely to further increase internal repression. On Feb. 25, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev proposed to take advantage of Russia’s expulsion from the Council of Europe to reintroduce the death penalty. And, two days later, the prosecutor general’s office issued a statement saying that any type of “assistance to a foreign state, international or foreign organization or their representatives in activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation” would be prosecuted under “high treason” charges. Those are signals to the population that, to ensure its survival, the regime is ready to take ever more radical measures. The war will logically radicalize the dictatorship, and aggravate the repression. That is neither good news for the Russian population, nor for Putin, as he will lose some of the popular support he built up over the past two decades.
More worrying for him is the discontent of the Russian economic elite, who will lose a lot of money to his adventurism, and that presents a real risk of fragmentation in a regime that until now maintained subtle balances. With “his” war, Putin is making enemies from within, including very powerful oligarchs who will pay the price of his dreams of grandeur. Adding to this are the nuclear threats that he may be willing to carry out, but most of his entourage, who are supposedly more reasonable, probably would not.
The logical conclusion of all this is that the resentment and hostility and fear that Putin generates within the Russian elite constitutes a real risk for his maintenance in power in the coming weeks, months, and years. The probability of a palace coup or an oligarchic revolt is substantial. There may come a point where it appears to the population and the economic, military, and security elite, including within the Kremlin, that the only way to save Russia is to get rid of Putin. This war is his greatest error of judgement and could be his undoing. That is why I wrote that it will be “the beginning of the end” — his end.
Consider the Worst Case
Putin lost. He cornered himself. But this is no good news because he knows it. Seeing that he has overestimated his forces in Ukraine and underestimated the international reaction, i.e., that he is losing control of the situation, Putin may want to regain the initiative by escalating. He may actually think that the only way out from this mess for him is to escalate. He can do this in many ways but here are three potential scenarios.
An Attack on a NATO Member
Russia could accuse a NATO member state of supplying arms or intelligence, of protecting Zelensky or members of his government, of a fabricated attack (a false flag operation), and attack through a border incident (for example by bombing an arms convoy at the Polish border), or a skirmish in the sky or in the Black Sea. If Russia attacks a member state it is likely to simultaneously signal the nuclear threat in the hopes of deterring Article 5 solidarity.
Russian forces are already escalating because the first phase of the attack failed. Therefore, they will resort to more shelling, missiles, tanks, perhaps airstrikes, and this second phase will be more devastating for civilians. However, if even this does not work — and considering that each day that passes puts him in more danger with the appearance of a Russian defeat, the international pressure and domestic concern — Putin may be willing as a last resort to use a tactical nuclear weapon. He could do it under the pretext of retaliating against a staged attack: Moscow is already starting to spread the rumor that the Ukrainians might detonate a “dirty bomb” on Russian territory. In a risky “escalate to de-escalate” move, by using a nuclear weapon against Ukraine, Moscow would signal its intention to go all the way, hoping to stun NATO and assuming that it will not dare to escalate. A variation of this scenario would be an attack on one of the 15 nuclear reactors Ukraine has, or a destruction of Chernobyl’s protective sarcophagus. Such an attack would be staged so as to be blamed on the Ukrainian side, and from the Kremlin’s perspective the radioactive consequences could have the advantage of rendering a portion of the Ukrainian territory unlivable and therefore of turning it into a de facto buffer zone with the West.
Putin could also choose to open a new front. It could be in the region (for instance in the Balkans), in space (by attacking satellites under the pretext that they are being used to help the Ukrainian forces), under sea (by cutting internet cables), or elsewhere, wherever you least expect it. He would do it not only to maximize its chances of winning for the same cost (if he believes that international sanctions have already reached their peak), but also to create a diversion, i.e., to hide what will be a relative or absolute failure in Ukraine. However, this hypothesis comes up against a material and psychological reality. It is not at all certain that Russia has the means for other ambitions, and above all it is not certain that the generals — some of whom, it can be assumed, were already not in favor of the Ukrainian adventure — follow Putin elsewhere, which would only increase his frustration.
The worst-case scenario is improbable but not impossible, as is the risk of major war in general. As Putin is visibly locked in a paranoid and hubristic delirium, nothing can be excluded. It is also in this tragic sense that this could be the beginning of the end.
Jean-Baptiste Jeangene Vilmer, Ph.D., (@jeangene_vilmer) is the director of the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM) at the French Ministry of the Armed Forces, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Europe Center of the Atlantic Council.
Image: TASS (Photo by Alexei Nikolsky, Russian Presidential Press and Information Office)