Russian dictator Vladimir Putin keeps going from bad to worse in his invasion of Ukraine. From his perspective, the last week has been an unmitigated catastrophe.
The Russian forces keep trying and, so far failing, to reestablish a new defensive line. Over the weekend, Ukrainian troops crossed the Oskil River, a natural barrier to their advance. The Russian retreat has revealed disarray and low morale in the ranks of Putin’s military. In Izyum, Russian troops have left behind more mass graves of their victims to be uncovered by war-crimes investigators.
Putin has never counted on being loved, but his rule has depended on an aura of fear and power that is now being drained away — to be replaced with revulsion and contempt. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, a leading buyer of Russian energy and weapons, openly rebuked Putin during a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. China’s Xi Jinping has not openly criticized Putin, but neither has he supported the Russian dictator. Chinese companies are not filling the vacuum left behind by Western firms exiting Russia, and China is not supplying weapons to Russia, forcing Putin to go weapons-shopping in Iran and North Korea.
One indicator of Putin’s reduced status in the world is how several other world leaders kept him waiting before meetings in Samarkand — employing against him one of his own favorite tactics for asserting dominance.
Another sign of the times: The U.N. General Assembly voted 101-7 on Friday to allow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to deliver a televised address. Besides Russia, the only other countries voting no were fellow rogue states Belarus, Cuba, Eritrea, Nicaragua, North Korea and Syria. Russia is almost entirely isolated. Even Kazakhstan, once one of Moscow’s closest allies, broke with Putin at the U.N. as part of its broader refusal to support his war of aggression. Another Russian ally, Armenia, has been on the receiving end of a renewed offensive from Azerbaijan, which might be taking advantage of a distracted Kremlin.
Given the heavy losses of men and materiel Russia has suffered since the beginning of this ill-advised war (at least 70,000 casualties along with the loss of 6,200 vehicles, 11 ships and more than 200 aircraft of all kinds), it will be hard put to recover. Putin still appears afraid of ordering a general mobilization for fear of the societal discontent that an expanded draft could bring.
So he is relying on the dregs of society to do his fighting for him. “Putin’s chef,” the oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, has apparently taken to recruiting mercenaries for his Wagner Group in prisons. Sending more criminals will likely further undermine the already low quality of Russia’s undisciplined, discontented forces in Ukraine, raising the risk of a general collapse.
But while Russia is down, it is not yet out. More than 150,000 people have been freed from Russia’s yoke in recent weeks, but an additional 1.2 million Ukrainians still live under brutal occupation. Russia continues to occupy roughly 20 percent of Ukraine, and Ukraine will require more Western military equipment to finish liberating its soil. Ukraine desperately wants higher-end weapons systems such as F-16 fighter jets, Gray Eagle drones, Patriot air defense missile batteries, longer-range missiles, and main battle tanks such as the German Leopard 2 or the American M1 Abrams.
Even though the Ukrainian armed forces have shown they can rapidly assimilate sophisticated Western systems such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), the United States and its allies are still reluctant to provide the weapons that Kyiv is asking for. The essential reason, once all the excuses are stripped away, is that we are still deterred by threats of Russian retaliation. Indeed, the worse Putin does, the more scared we seem to get. Undersecretary of Defense Colin H. Kahl just put out a statement claiming: “Ukraine’s success on the battlefield could cause Russia to feel backed into a corner, and that is something we must remain mindful of.”
This seems, to me, a fundamental misreading of the moment. Putin is reeling. Now is the time for the Ukrainians to press their advantage. Seize the moment. Don’t give the Russians time to reset and recover. Given the pitiful performance of the Russian military, Putin should be more scared of us than we are of him.
In the end, the surest way to avoid the destabilizing economic and strategic consequences of a continuing conflict is to shorten the war by helping Ukraine win it — and that will likely require the relaxation of some of our self-imposed restrictions on the provision of higher-end weapons systems.