Commentary: Putin’s last chance to end the Ukraine war on Russian terms is ending soon
Putin desperately needs the war to end soon, as it is chewing up his army, decimating his economy and undercutting Russia’s claim to be a great power, says Robert Kelly.
BUSAN: Friday (Feb 24) marks the anniversary of the start of the Ukraine war in 2022. The war was intended to last only a week. Russian President Vladimir Putin expected a blitzkrieg victory, a lightning war that would replace Ukraine’s hostile government with a pliable dependency before the West could mobilise to stop him.
This was the “fait accompli” model Putin used when seizing Crimea in 2014. That annexation was over in just two days. Ukraine did not have the capability to meaningfully resist, and the West did not want to risk war with Russia. So all players simply accepted the snatching of Crimea and moved on.
Catastrophically, Putin seems to have expected this indolence even if he attacked the whole country of Ukraine. It is clear now that Putin and the Russian military did not properly prepare for this war.
Corruption and fraud were revealed as endemic in the Russian army, badly crippling its ability to generate battlefield power despite its large economic and demographic advantages over Ukraine. Military leadership has been terrible, with Russian infantry forced into frontal assaults on Ukrainian positions at high cost.
As a result, Russian casualties have exceeded all US casualties in America’s 10-year war in Vietnam.
UKRAINE’S ASTONISHING RESILIENCE
These compounding Russian mistakes have been complemented by astonishing Ukrainian resilience. Kyiv has used its limited resources wisely. It has fought offensively where it could win and defended carefully where it could not.
It has taken the war for global public opinion seriously. Because Putin gambled on a fait accompli, he had no public relations strategy after his blitzkrieg failed.
Ukraine, by contrast, has successfully portrayed itself as a victim of aggression and garnered Western favour. This in turn has led to substantial Western military and economic support for Ukraine, allowing it to hang on and eventually turn the tide last fall.
Ukraine has also proven adept at absorbing a wide variety of military technologies. Aid has come from democracies around the world, not just the United States. This has confronted the Ukrainian army with a blizzard of conflicting weapons systems, including all sorts of different drones, artillery pieces, small arms, anti-aircraft batteries and so on.
Military analysts initially thought that this would create a massive coordination challenge for an army with mediocre training. Yet Ukraine managed to go on the offensive late last year.
Finally, the government of Ukraine has mobilised its whole society in this conflict. Russia is not just fighting the Ukrainian army, but an engaged, patriotic population contributing across sectors. Images of grandmothers making molotov cocktails or farmers pulling away abandoned Russian armoured vehicles became famous on social media early in the war.
There has been partisan activity in conquered areas. Initially, when Russia was expected to win the war, there was a widespread expectation that Russia would face a Ukrainian insurgency, as Nazi and Soviet occupiers did in the 1940s.
Russia might be able to defeat the Ukrainian army, but it does not have the ability to crush 40 million mobilised citizens. Polling in Ukraine has consistently revealed strong support for fighting to final victory, including retaking Crimea.
This is why I remain confident of an eventual Ukrainian victory. Much like the relentlessness of the Vietcong fighting the Vietnam War against the Americans, the Ukrainians will keep coming back and back against the Russians until they finally tire and withdraw.
PUTIN NEEDS THE WAR TO END SOON
Russia’s troubles, by now, are well-known. Putin, an isolated dictator surrounded by sycophants, wildly overestimated the offensive capability of his army. He threw his best units into the maelstrom early, and they only managed to take about 20 per cent of the country before Russia’s forward momentum ground to a halt over the summer.
Then came Ukraine’s fall offensives, re-taking territory Russia had annexed, leading to desperate Putin threats about nuclear weapons.
Putin launched a partial mobilisation to fill in the gaps, but these recruits were of poor quality with little training. They stabilised the front for the winter, but there is little indication they can launch large-scale, coordinated offensives this year to finally end the war on Russia’s terms.
And Putin desperately needs the war to end soon, as it is chewing up his army, decimating his economy and undercutting Russia’s claim to be a great power, which, ironically, was the very motivation behind the war.
China has tepidly supported Russia but provided no material assistance. And Beijing strongly and publicly opposed Putin’s flirtation with nuclear weapons. India has also remained neutral but otherwise done nothing to help. Russia has been reduced to seeking weapons purchases from Iran and North Korea.
More importantly, Russia is now under substantial Western sanctions. It is increasingly cut off from the dollar economy. Western businesses - and their technologies which Russia badly needs - have left the country, unlikely to return until Putin is out of power.
Estimates suggested the Russian economy will shrink by at least 7 per cent in 2022, a staggering drop for an economy of Russia’s size. If it were to occur again in 2023, Russia would fall out of the G20, the group of the world’s twenty largest economies.
However, government statistics agency Rosstat said on Monday (Feb 20) that Russia's economy only contracted 2.1 per cent in 2022, meaning Russia could be withstanding Western sanctions better than expected.
BOTH SIDES WILL GO ON OFFENSE
When the weather improves in the spring, large-scale manoeuvre warfare will become possible again. Both sides will go on offense.
For Putin, this spring is his last chance to finish the war on terms somewhat favourable to Russia. The Russians obviously cannot take the whole country. Putin will probably look to make territorial gains in the four districts he annexed to Russia but does not fully control. If he could take them, he could justify his war, somewhat, to his people.
He could then offer terms to Ukraine, offering to end the war around the current frontlines. Kyiv is unlikely to accept this, but it is Putin’s best shot, barring extreme measures like using nuclear weapons.
Ukraine too will strike, although it will probably wait to defeat the inevitable Russian offensive. Ukraine has fought judiciously on defence, eroding Russian quantitative advantages and creating openings for later offense.
When Kyiv does push, it seems likely to strike at the middle of the Russian line, in Donbas, in an effort to break the Russian front into two separately supplied areas, the east and the south. That said, Ukraine could strike elsewhere, as it has used public misdirection in previous offenses.
In the end, Russia will lose the war, although probably not this year. US President Joe Biden has committed fresh military aid worth US$500 million to Ukraine, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said is “an unequivocal signal that Russian attempts to win will have no chance”.
Russia is not backing down, as Putin on Tuesday (Feb 21) vowed to continue the war, justifying it as something that had been forced on his country.
But Russia is fighting the entirety of Ukrainian society, mobilised and angry. Its defence industrial base cannot keep up, qualitatively nor quantitatively, with the flow of Western weapons to Ukraine.
China will not support a loser. Putin is on his own against an enemy who simply will not give up. Much like Russia’s last big imperial war - the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s - this one too will end in exhaustion and withdrawal.
Dr Robert E Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; RobertEdwinKelly.com) is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University.