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Opinion Putin is trapped in a quagmire and doesn’t know how to get out

People look at self-propelled artillery vehicles during the Victory Day military parade in St. Petersburg on May 9. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)

Always grandiose and fascistic, the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow were more restrained than usual on Monday, with the normal aerial display canceled on account of the “weather,” even though the skies were clear. Some experts had worried that Russian President Vladimir Putin would declare war on Ukraine and a total mobilization of Russian society while threatening the West with nuclear weapons. There was even speculation that he might parade Ukrainian prisoners through Red Square as in a Roman triumph. None of that came to pass. Putin was defiant but subdued, trying to portray Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine as a preemptive response to a looming Ukrainian invasion of Russia.

It was ludicrous and pathetic — but also strangely reassuring. There has been much discussion about whether Putin is rational, because attacking Ukraine with such a small army was an act of lunacy. The evidence suggests that, while Putin is isolated and prone to miscalculation, he is not insane.

He appears to grasp, as I argued last week, that mobilization would bring more problems than it would solve. It would risk undermining Russia’s already battered economy, along with popular support for his criminal regime, but it would not deliver any immediate military benefits. Mobilizing more troops would take many months — and it would be exceedingly difficult to train, equip or supply them. As for using nuclear weapons, that would be the action of a madman who fears that the end is near. Putin’s troops are carrying out unspeakable war crimes, but he is far from Hitler-in-the-bunker territory.

Putin seems to understand when the war is not going his way — hence his withdrawal from the environs of Kyiv at the beginning of April rather than risk the complete destruction of his forces. He gambled on winning a more limited victory in Donbas in eastern Ukraine, but that’s not happening, either. The Institute for the Study of War reported on Sunday: “Russian forces did not make any significant advances on any axis of advance on May 8.” Putin is running out of options.

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Russia has paid a fearsome price for meager gains. Kyiv claims that more than 25,000 Russian soldiers have been killed; that figure might be exaggerated but probably not by much. Open-source reporting confirms that Russia has lost more than 3,500 vehicles (including more than 600 tanks), 121 aircraft and nine naval vessels, including the flagship of the Black Sea fleet. Those are the worst losses Russia has suffered since World War II.

While Russia gets weaker, Ukraine gets stronger: It now has more tanks than at the start of the war, much better artillery and far more weapons systems of all kinds. Russian morale is poor, with officers reportedly disobeying orders; Ukrainian morale is sky-high.

The Russian economy hasn’t collapsed under sanctions, but it has taken a severe hit: The economy is forecast to shrink by as much as 10 percent this year, and inflation could reach 23 percent. The damage will only accelerate as Russian production lines are cut off from Western imports such as microchips.

Far from striking a blow against the West, Putin has united the West against him, and his actions have led to a surge of NATO military activity in Eastern Europe. If Finland and Sweden join the Atlantic alliance, as seems likely, that will bring even more NATO troops to Russia’s doorstep.

Putin is now in a strategic quandary that should be familiar to Americans after our misbegotten wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq — only many times worse. Russia has launched a “war of choice” based on bad intelligence (such as the assumption that Ukrainians would welcome the Russians as liberators). The war is going badly, but once troops are committed, emotions run high and national prestige is on the line. Both escalation and withdrawal are too painful to contemplate. The easiest thing to do is to continue doing what you’ve been doing, even if there is scant hope that the results will get any better.

It often requires a new leader to extract a nation from such a quagmire. That’s what Richard M. Nixon did in Vietnam, Mikhail Gorbachev did in Afghanistan and, more recently, Joe Biden did in Afghanistan. The West should signal to Russia’s siloviki (the security and military elite) that if they want to live the good life again, then they need to get rid of Putin and get out of Ukraine. But Putin has had an iron grip on power for more than 22 years, and there is no reason to expect that he will be toppled anytime soon.

That means the most likely outcome in Ukraine is another frozen conflict — the situation that prevailed between 2014 and 2022. The major issue now is how far east the front line will run. That is far from ideal, but if Ukraine can return its borders close to where they were on Feb. 24, while sanctions continue to erode the Russian economy, it will be a tremendous victory for the West and a terrible defeat for Russia. Putin’s Victory Day speech might indicate he is groping for a way out, as the British defense minister suggests, but there is no easy exit from the disaster he created.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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