Like a World Cup soccer team facing elimination without a win, Vladimir Putin is running out of options.
The best it seems the Russian president can hope for at this stage of his war is to keep Ukraine from pushing his forces back to Russia.
Every day that passes without a decisive event that pushes Ukraine to the negotiating table comes across as a loss for Russia. No such development is in the offing.
Right now, Russia is on the defensive and hoping it can last the winter with its forces intact. If it can do that, Russia hopes its poorly trained reinforcements might transform into real fighters and retake the initiative in the spring.
Ukraine War: Forgetting the Fundamentals
These are false hopes. Russia is poorly led. The generals know their civilian superiors are incompetent, the officers and non-commissioned officers in the field were not prepared for a long-term struggle, and the ordinary soldiers have low morale. Russia’s missile attacks against civilian infrastructure are the only thing working for Moscow, and these low-ball tactics serve only to harden Ukrainian resolve.
Putin’s army has failed in Kyiv, the Donbas, Kharkiv, and now Kherson. There is little cohesion among units. Troops get do-or-die ultimatums from higher echelons instead of positive feedback that could improve their tactics. Putin has lost the locker room, if I may borrow another sports metaphor, and this means he should be fired. His deluded leadership is far removed from the realities of the battlefield, and he remains unsympathetic to his own forces’ mounting losses.
The generals, officers, and soldiers began their conflict as a poorly equipped, undisciplined mob that consistently broke fundamental principles of warfare – principles as basic as operating with adequate numbers, following a unified objective, having a simple and understandable plan, and acting with a high degree of maneuverability.
If winning is not possible and losing is not an option, Putin falls into an impossible predicament. He is worse than U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War. Johnson wanted to avoid defeat in any way possible, but his lack of knowledge about fighting a guerrilla war in a jungle doomed America’s war effort.
It will take months of fighting for Russia to turn things around, if they ever do. Winter will be a cold and muddy slog, with sides trading rocket and artillery fire while snipers pick off those who venture out of trenches. This is not the war that the generals promised.
No Victory in 2022
Fear has replaced confidence in Moscow. No one wants to go on record criticizing Putin directly, but elites know that this war has been a disaster.
Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told CNBC on Nov. 29 that Russian victory is unattainable.
“For the first time since the war started people are beginning to consider the worst-case scenario, that Russia can lose, and they don’t see and don’t understand how Russia can get out from this conflict without being destroyed,” Stanovaya said.
There is a credibility gap for Putin and his inner circle in the Kremlin: What they are saying is very different from what people see as reality. This violates another principle of war – that the general public must give adequate support to the military effort. Civil-military affairs are important to the outcome of wars. Losing creates public dissent. We might not see protests in the streets of Moscow, but the people know they are being lied to.
The lies include casualty reports. Russia’s defense ministry said in September that 6,000 Russians have been killed. This is an absurdly low estimate, and Ukraine’s military believes the Russians have lost 88,000 dead. The real figure is likely somewhere in the middle, but since the war started in February, Russia might have lost more personnel than the casualties the United States sustained over the entirety of their effort in Vietnam.
Even if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said today that he would stop fighting and allow the Russians to remain in their positions indefinitely, it will still feel like a loss to Russian troops and civilians. But Zelenskyy has no plans to give up. He demands the restoration of Ukraine’s original borders, reparations paid by Russia, and war crimes tribunals against Russian leaders who have ordered unending civilian attacks. Putin would never agree to those terms.
That means the two sides will continue to fight, with Russia trying not to lose and Ukraine doing everything it can to win. The international community can only hope for a cease-fire and a Russian withdrawal. As long as Putin is in charge, that will not happen this year.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.