Why Putin cannot win

Feature 10 May 2022
Why Putin cannot win

Vladimir Putin’s 9 May speech was highly anticipated. The general expectation was that he would double down on his war effort in Ukraine and sternly warn the West against further interference in what Russia considers its backyard.

But Putin’s speech was relatively tame, which is good news.

He called his undeclared war a “preventive” operation against an “aggressor” plotting against Russia and said Ukraine was trying to regain Crimea by force (though no such evidence exists). He also spoke of impending victory, reminding us that, historically, Russia has apparently defeated invaders.

Nostalgia is state policy in Russia. Putin even mentioned the 1812 battle of Borodino, won by field marshal Mikhail Kutuzov against Napoleon.

But these are mere details.

What is important is that Putin didn’t double down, he didn’t accuse the West of waging war by proxy, he didn’t declare total war officially (thus no general mobilisation), he didn’t mention the “de-Nazification of Ukraine”, and he didn’t warn against a nuclear holocaust.

This is all good news.

There is a slim chance Putin could be waking up to reality, although we cannot really be sure.

As we see it, the reality is the following: It is in the best interest of Russia to end this war, quickly. Putin cannot win because he has mobilised the entire West against him and because the West has started smelling victory.

The West is supplying Ukraine with the weapons of the 21st century, while Russia fights with World War Two-style memorabilia.

If Putin had been reading Tom Clancy’s spy novels (this writer of the Brief re-reads them), he would have been warned about the technological progress in the Western armies and about the capacity of small, well-trained units equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry to stop and even destroy entire columns of tanks.

This is essentially what is happening in Ukraine.

Western armies, even in most countries of the former Soviet bloc, have made big progress toward professional hi-tech warfare, as opposed to the cannon fodder we see on TV, marching on Red Square next to nuclear missiles that cannot be used because, in such hypothesis, there would be no winner.

Putin’s army, marching on the Red Square, is not in a good shape. His face in this photo suggests that he knows it.

What has become apparent since 24 February is that the Russian army has preserved the worst of its legacy – the poor logistics, the inadequate pay, the hazing, the absence of democratic control, and the arrogance of often incompetent officers.

It is not a surprise that such soldiers, sent to Ukraine, are looting the civil population and that their superiors are turning a blind eye.

A long-haul war would further expose these weaknesses, which just cannot be fixed in a short time. And indeed, a long-haul war is a more realistic scenario than a rapid diplomatic settlement.

For a hypothetical peace agreement, face-saving for Putin is a prerequisite but this seems to be an unlikely compromise. Both in Kyiv and in Washington, the zero-sum mindset prevails.

And it is very difficult to say what is the mindset in the EU. Hopefully, on its anniversary, 52 years of the Schuman Declaration, the EU will ponder its role.

Just a reminder: This war is in Europe, and the EU was created to prevent war.