The price of Russian defeat
In the span of eight weeks, expectations about the Russia-Ukraine war have swung drastically.
Before Russian President Putin’s invasion and in the days that followed, most people (myself included) believed Russian troops would take Kyiv, remove Ukrainian President Zelensky, and install a puppet regime relatively quickly. We all acknowledged that while the invasion was a clear strategic blunder for Putin, Russia would still eventually win on the battlefield due to its overwhelming military superiority over Ukraine.
That turned out to be wrong. Not only did Russian troops fail to achieve their initial objectives, but the outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainians, strongly supported by the West, humiliated them day in and day out.
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The latest instance of this was the sinking of the Moskva cruiser, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, at the hands of a country that doesn’t even have a navy. The worst naval combat loss experienced by Russia since World War II was inflicted by a pair of Ukrainian-made Neptune missiles designed to impair, not sink, enemy warships. The attack was so unimaginable, and the Ukrainians so thoroughly underestimated, that Russians are convinced NATO must have been behind it. (Indeed, Russians are becoming increasingly convinced that the war they are fighting is no longer just against Ukraine but against the West as a whole.)Arguably, expectations have now overshot too far in the direction of believing the Ukrainians can hand Russia a decisive military defeat, perhaps even forcing it out of the Donbas territory it had illegally occupied in 2014. Sensing Russian weakness and momentum on their side, Western governments have been emboldened to intensify their support for Ukraine, supplying it with further military aid and imposing tougher sanctions on Russia. The idea: if Russia can be made to lose the war, everyone else—Ukraine and the West—will come out of it winners.
But can Russia actually be defeated militarily? Keep in mind it’s only been 55 days since the fighting began. When the Soviets invaded Finland in 1939, it took them more than 3 months and a total tactical overhaul to finally overcome Finnish defenses, after initially taking heavy losses. Russia still has plenty of staying power, equipment, and bodies to turn their military strategy around, send more troops into Southeastern Ukraine, and achieve at least some of its “second phase” military objectives, which include:
- Taking the entire Donbas, comprised of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, which they recognized as independent and only one-third of which they had been illegally occupying since first invading in 2014.
- Creating and controlling a land bridge between the Donbas and Crimea to connect the different Russian-occupied territories with each other and with mainland Russia.
- Seizing the city of Kherson to prevent the Ukrainians from cutting off the water flowing to Crimea from the rest of Ukraine, which they had done following Russia’s illegal annexation of the peninsula.
- Capturing some buffer territory to hold all of the gains comfortably.
I’m skeptical that the Russians will be able to accomplish all of these aims, especially by Victory Day (May 9) as most analysts and officials believe Putin wants, they are likely to take most of Luhansk and clear Mariupol to create the land bridge by then. Whether Putin considers that enough to declare victory at that time remains to be seen.
The Ukrainians have the wind in their sails after beating the Russians out of Kyiv and sinking the Moskva. Morale is running high and they are getting more and heavier weaponry from the West. Russian casualties and equipment losses are piling up, their military inadequacies on full display for the world to see. And on the international front, Russia is losing badly: their economy is cut off from the advanced industrial democracies, Finland and Sweden are about to join NATO, and the West will surely enhance its forward presence in the Baltics.
But even if we get to the point where it looks like Putin could be prevented from achieving an outcome that he can sell as a “win” at home, would Putin be prepared to accept defeat? I’m afraid that the answer is no, he’s not going to capitulate. Instead, when backed into a corner, he’s going to escalate, using any means he deems necessary.
After all, there’s only so much more the West can do to him in response. Russia is already a pariah for the advanced industrial democracies, the economy is well on its way to being cut off, the West is already throwing its full weight behind Ukraine, and Putin knows that NATO is not going to risk nuclear war by directly intervening in the conflict.
What’s to stop him, then, from responding to battlefield losses and international isolation by using scorched-earth tactics against Ukrainian cities, killing many more civilians, or from using chemical weapons or even tactical nuclear weapons, as President Zelensky warned last weekend? What’s to stop him from intensifying his asymmetric warfare against the West, including through more frequent cyber, disinformation, and subversion attacks? That’s the danger of acting as if Russia can be fully defeated without consequences. And that’s why I remain pessimistic about where the war is heading.
This isn’t to say that Russia should be allowed to carry on with impunity, or that Ukrainians should voluntarily cede a part of their country to an aggressor, or that the West shouldn’t continue to do all it can to help Ukraine defend its sovereignty. I’m certainly not calling for appeasing Putin, who deserves nothing less than total defeat. We all should want Russia to lose. The question is, how badly and at what cost?
Both morally and strategically, we have an obligation to consider the risks of forcing Putin into a position where his only options are to capitulate or escalate, knowing full well that he doesn’t have a capitulation button and that he can rain much more death and destruction on Ukraine than he has thus far.
It’s unpalatable to even think about giving Putin a “golden bridge” to retreat across. It feels wrong to cede a single inch of Ukrainian sovereignty. Needless to say, Ukrainians themselves would have to agree to a ceasefire, and Putin would have to be willing to grant it. The United States would have to stop pressing for escalation and come to terms with some of its allies eventually resuming relations with Russia. That’s a hard sell for all parties.
But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the maximalist strategy Ukraine and the West are currently pursuing is not dangerous, or that the price of victory won’t be steep and paid in Ukrainian blood.
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