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Meanwhile, the number of Russian troops killed or wounded in Ukraine may reach more than 200,000, its economy has been hobbled by a sweeping regime of Western sanctions, and its society has fallen further into the autocratic clutches of an embittered despot in the Kremlin.
For Putin, conditions for any kind of victory remain elusive, but there’s no indication he is ready for real talks. In his annual State of the Union address last month, he pinned blame for the conflict on the “Kyiv regime and its Western masters” and snarled defiance over the supposed inefficacy of Western attempts to isolate Russia’s economy. On the ground, Russia does not even fully control the four Ukrainian territories it illegally annexed last year, while U.S. and European officials remain insistent that a full Russian retreat is a prerequisite for a diplomatic solution.
“To my view, it is necessary that Putin understands that he will not succeed with his invasion and his imperialistic aggression and that he has to withdraw troops,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria this weekend. “This is the basis for talks.”
A richly sourced piece in the Financial Times pointed to how “the steady drumbeat of propaganda around the war and Putin’s demands for loyalty from the elite” who encircle him have only further sealed the echo chamber in which the Russian president operates. This has played a key role over the course of the war, shaping Putin’s own decision-making.
“He’s of sound mind. He’s reasonable. He’s not crazy. But nobody can be an expert on everything. They need to be honest with him and they are not,” a longtime Putin confidant told the Financial Times, referring to figures within Putin’s inner circle. “The management system is a huge problem. It creates big gaps in his knowledge and the quality of the information he gets is poor.”
Yet Putin’s own delusions are hard to ignore. It seems increasingly clear that the war he started was the product less of strategic calculation than neo-imperialist hubris. Putin spouts nostalgia for a lost Russian empire and grievance over the dismantling of the Soviet Union. He declared explicitly that he did not consider Ukraine a legitimate sovereign nation. And he sees himself marching grandiosely in the footsteps of a cohort of long-deceased Russian czars as he seeks to unwind the international order.
The reality ought to be more humbling: Russia’s military has lost half its tank stock and is wheeling out decades-old Soviet gear to the front lines. Russia’s relations with Europe have entered a deep freeze that could take years, perhaps decades, to thaw. If an expanding NATO posed a notional threat to the Kremlin before last year’s invasion, Putin’s gambit gave it far more teeth, bolstering the transatlantic alliance and pushing Finland and Sweden toward accession into NATO.
At home, Putin and his allies doubled down on hard-line nationalism, squeezing the space for dissent further and “using the war to destroy any opposition and to engineer a closed, paranoid society hostile to liberals, hipsters, LGBTQ people, and, especially, Western-style freedom and democracy,” as my colleagues recently reported.
“Had he been content with building a strong nation within its own borders rather than chasing fantasies of empire, Putin would likely have been remembered as a successful state-builder,” wrote Mark Galeotti in his new book, “Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine.” “Instead, for years and perhaps decades … Russia will still be recovering from the damage caused by his overreach … the deep, painful scars of Putin’s wars.”
For now, there’s no end in sight. On Monday, Russian forces pressed their advantage around the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, where they have been concentrating their efforts for weeks. But U.S. officials shrugged at the strategic value of the long campaign to capture it. “The fall of Bakhmut won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.
An expected Ukrainian spring counteroffensive may reverse these losses and eat away further at Russian territorial control in Donbas, the battle-worn region in southeastern Ukraine. In Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, local authorities are also bracing for a Ukrainian advance. Putin may have to weather more bad news, should those in his orbit be able to convey it to him.
Some analysts have warned that, as Putin backs further into a corner, he may resort to more extreme measures. Those include, most worryingly, deploying nuclear weapons on the battlefields of Ukraine. Still, the expert consensus among most Russia watchers is that this is a “low probability event,” as Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, recently put it. The usage of nukes would only galvanize Ukrainian resistance, he argued, deepen Russia’s international isolation and unlock a far greater surge of weapons transfers to the government in Kyiv.
“I don’t know what Putin will do if he starts to lose in Donbas or Crimea. And so don’t you,” McFaul wrote. “But we all should recognize that he is not suicidal, he is not crazy, and that he has options.”
In a new essay in Foreign Affairs, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan point to what appears to be Putin’s “halfway” approach to the war, in which the Kremlin’s “maximalist” rhetoric has not necessarily been matched by its actions on the ground. Though it has indiscriminately fired missiles at Ukrainian cities, they observe, Russia has not used the full spectrum of its conventional arsenal. Nor has it embarked on the total mobilization or nationalization of the economy that some expected could be around the corner.
The strategy has allowed Putin “to maintain political stability through a combination of intimidation and indifference,” Soldatov and Borogan wrote. “Internationally and domestically, it has helped him prepare Russia for a very long war without making the kinds of sacrifices that might ultimately cause the population to rebel.”
But they add a warning: “How long can this not-quite-total war be sustained? The longer the war goes on, the more Putin will have to take some of the more drastic steps he has threatened. And at some point, he will run out of room to play with.”