The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Russia is losing. That might make Putin more dangerous.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Collective Security Treaty Organization summit at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 16. (Sputnik/Sergei Guneev/Pool via Reuters)
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There seems no end to the bloodshed in Ukraine, and yet the tide of war is clearly shifting against the aggressor, Russia. May was expected to be the month in which President Vladimir Putin’s troops, having failed to take Kyiv, regrouped in southern and eastern Ukraine for a stronger offensive that would push westward. May is more than half over now, however, and it is clear that this Russian Plan B is fizzling, too. In the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance — bolstered by timely and massive shipments of Western arms — Russia has retreated from Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine, reportedly, in some areas, all the way back to the international border Mr. Putin sought to erase. Russia has “likely abandoned the objective of completing a large-scale encirclement of Ukrainian units” in eastern Ukraine, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War reported Sunday. It now appears to be aiming to take, at most, the entirety of a single Ukrainian region, Luhansk.

And even that might be beyond the capability of Russia’s depleted, poorly led forces. Quite the contrary: The more likely next game changer in this war would be a widening Ukrainian counteroffensive that brought still more of the Russian-held south and east of Ukraine back under the control of its legitimate government. Certainly that is the result that would do the most to compound the strategic defeat of Mr. Putin, and that Ukraine’s supporters in the United States, Europe and elsewhere should therefore be pursuing in unison.

Now is not the time, therefore, to go for a negotiated cease-fire between Ukraine and Russia, as France, Germany and Italy have proposed in recent days. Their desire to shorten this destructive war — and thus limit the damage both to Ukraine and to their own hard-pressed economies — is understandable. Their promises not to impose terms on Kyiv are undoubtedly well intentioned. Still, the risks of relaxing the pressure on Mr. Putin before he is thoroughly beaten, and maybe not even then, are too high.

That much became clear in the May 10 congressional testimony of Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, who told lawmakers that U.S. agencies “do not see a viable negotiating path forward, at least in the short term.“ The main reason for this is that Mr. Putin remains bent on conquest, regardless of near-term military losses. He “is preparing for a prolonged conflict,” Ms. Haines said, “during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas,” as the eastern region currently at the center of the fighting is known. More likely than a Russian turn to good-faith bargaining, Ms. Haines warned, is a “turn to more drastic means — including imposing martial law, reorienting industrial production, or potentially escalatory military actions,” the latter phrase being an especially ominous one, given Russia’s nuclear and chemical capabilities.

Mr. Putin “is probably counting on U.S. and [European Union] resolve to weaken as food shortages, inflation, and energy prices get worse,” Ms. Haines said. NATO leaders must give Mr. Putin no reason to believe that such a strategy will work.