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Opinion How Ukraine’s offensive changes the equation for Putin and Zelensky

A Ukrainian soldier helps a wounded fellow soldier along a road in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine on Sept. 12. (Kostiantyn Liberov/AP)

As Ukraine celebrates its biggest breakthrough in its war against Russian invaders, let’s try to imagine how this conflict must look in the minds of the two leaders — one who has just won a stunning victory, the other who has suffered a startling defeat.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is the sublime if unlikely hero. He is the ex-television star whose stage presence and guts merged as he stood his ground against Moscow. He listened to his generals as they teased and entrapped the invaders; he rallied his fellow citizens to extraordinary bravery; he cajoled and shamed the West into solid military support.

Zelensky’s army planned its offensive brilliantly. The initial assault toward Kherson in the south wasn’t a feint. It was a major strategic thrust that might yet push Russian troops back from the western bank of the Dnieper River. But deftly, the Ukrainians also moved in the Kharkiv region in the northeast while the Russians were asleep there. They didn’t rush the advance; they softened up Russian lines and then, last week, burst through in a devastating assault that put Russia in pell-mell retreat and regained more than 1,100 square miles of territory.

Zelensky has refused to negotiate from weakness. Now, after seven punishing months, he’s in a position of strength. Talking to his exuberant country, he speaks of liberating all of Ukraine’s territory. But he must know that is unrealistic for now. And the moment might be approaching when Zelensky, from his newly dominant position, opens a door to diplomacy. Even if the Russians scorned his gesture, it would reinforce the image that Zelensky has the upper hand.

Reader Q&A: What are Putin’s next moves in Ukraine? David Ignatius answered your questions.

Let’s try now to put ourselves in the mind of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is the loser in this latest round, but he is also the man who cannot be seen to lose. What was Putin doing as his troops fled the Kharkiv battle in panic this past weekend? He was opening a new Ferris wheel at a celebration of the anniversary of Moscow’s founding.

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Putin has always wanted to make Ukraine a living-room war, something Russians could watch on television while Chechens and Dagestanis did the fighting. It wasn’t even a real war; it was a “special military operation” against a country that Putin claimed didn’t really exist. Most Russians seemed to cheer the war because they shared Putin’s grievance that it was all the fault of NATO and the Americans.

Putin’s problem now is that all those television watchers in Moscow and St. Petersburg can see that the Russian leader’s non-war is a total mess. His strongest backers on the Telegram channel, and even some commentators on state television, are saying that Russian forces have suffered a severe defeat. The finger-pointing has begun in earnest, and the daggers are out for Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of staff, and Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister.

But not yet for Putin, and probably not ever. That’s the beauty of the system he has created. There is no one to succeed him, almost literally. If he keeled over tomorrow, Russia’s interim leader would be Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, a former head of the Russian Taxation Service. Have you ever heard of him? Of course not. That’s the point.

So what does the perennial winner do when he is losing?

Putin expected a walkover in Kyiv in the war’s first week and had to retreat. He assumed his fearsome tanks and artillery would crush Ukraine in the Donbas region, and he got a standstill. And now, the Ukrainians have taught Russia a lesson in maneuver warfare in Kherson and Kharkiv. How does Putin respond? That’s the question that will keep people up late this week at the CIA and the National Security Council.

Putin could define victory downward. He could say his special military operation was never about Kherson and Kharkiv. It was about protecting Donetsk and Luhansk, the two Russian-speaking cities in the east that Putin captured in 2014. Certainly, he could say that it’s about Crimea, a sentimental prize for which Putin might actually risk all-out war.

Or Putin could respond angrily, by escalating his attacks against Ukraine and even its Western allies. Putin has drawn a series of red lines that have been breached. He warned against supplying Kyiv with deadly weapons, and the Biden administration did it anyway. He implicitly warned against providing precision weapons such as HIMARS missiles that could strike Russian command nodes, but President Biden did it anyway.

The Post's View: Ukraine forces a remarkable turning point in their fight against Russia

But what now? That’s one reason Zelensky would be wise to avoid strategic overreach. As reckless and destructive as Putin has been, there is worse he could deliver. That might be one reason Ukraine’s chief of staff, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, warned last week that Russia might escalate the conflict to a “limited” nuclear war. He was front-running, and perhaps disrupting, the Russian leader’s options. Zaluzhny also spoke of the decisive battles ahead in 2023. His message seemed to be that Ukraine is preparing for a long war.

The Biden administration has consistently stressed three points about this war. It is committed to support Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend itself; it doesn’t want a war with Russia; and it believes that, eventually, this conflict must be settled by diplomacy. All three goals should come into sharper focus after Ukraine’s successful offensive.

With its courage in battle, Ukraine is rewriting the history of the 21st century. In stopping a dictator’s brazen invasion, it has become a symbol of the values that the West cherishes. We can only salute Ukraine’s heroism and hope for more victories and, when the time is right, an honorable end to this dreadful war.

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