Is Putin really losing the war? Will this week see a dramatic escalation in Russia’s attempt to break the deadlock? Will a diplomatic negotiation follow, and between whom, exactly? Are sanctions so effective that Putin should be offered a “golden bridge” to retreat without losing face? If not, will he expand the war? Is he really contemplating the use of nuclear weapons? Is he rational? Is he crazy? Does he have an endgame in mind? Does Biden?
To all of these questions, there is only one true answer. In three words: I don’t know. Nor do those who perpetuate and grind these endless speculations on Twitter threads and in television studios. We can draw possible courses, but they have very limited forecasting value. One thing is eminently clear, however: This whole thing has gone very wrong for Russia – militarily, economically, and diplomatically.
This reality presents a double conundrum: One is Vladimir Putin’s and one is Joe Biden’s. Putin has only bad options left. The question is whether Biden can craft a policy to prevent Putin from using them. The simple answer is: he probably cannot. That means that unless there is a coup d’etat in Moscow, a possible but difficult-to-accelerate development, or unless China intervenes forcefully to compel Russia to stop, we are likely looking ahead to a week of calamitous escalation, not diplomatic de-escalation.
There are several myths regarding the state of Putin’s war in Ukraine that are just begging to be dispelled. These myths are disseminated by a combination of politicians, analysts and world media, each quoting the other with certainty and conviction.
First, the myth that Russia already lost the war and Ukraine’s military is winning by not losing. From a purely military vantage point, that is false. Yes, Russia’s original plan failed miserably, like many of its flawed and wrong assumptions before the invasion. Putin miscalculated the extent and scope of Ukrainian resistance, failed to take Kyiv effortlessly as he very likely expected to do, and misjudged the operation as a quick and frightening incursion that would lead to a de facto Ukrainian surrender, allowing him to negotiate with the U.S. and NATO about restructuring Europe.
Notwithstanding these gross strategic mistakes, the Russian military, however poorly it is underperforming and underwhelming, hasn’t lost the war. In fact, if the Russian forces in the eastern part of Ukraine manage to connect with the Russian forces in the south, Ukraine will be cut in two. That may be far from Putin’s original idea and may represent a strategic debacle, but for domestic purposes he could still claim a military achievement.
In order to do that, he may have to escalate first. So a tactical necessity will compound a strategic mishap. Such is the corner that Putin positioned himself in.
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Second, the myth that negotiations are around the corner, through the good mediation services of Finland, Turkey or Israel. Russia wants a diplomatic solution, right?
Wrong. Putin wants to negotiate with the U.S. and NATO, not with Ukraine. The whole historical premise of the invasion was that he doesn’t recognize Ukraine. Any talk of negotiations before he can claim a legitimate military accomplishment is futile.
Third, the myth that Russia’s economy can withstand the sanctions because it has substantial currency reserves and China’s backing. Russia’s foreign currency reserves are not really available. Much are in gold, which no one will buy, and most of the rest is in European banks, meaning Russia may own the money, but cannot access it due to sanctions.
As for China, while it may not choose to use its unique power and levers over Russia to stop the war, it will equally not risk guilt by association with Putin and expose itself to massive sanctions.
Then there is the myth that the U.S. and NATO want this war to stop and are encouraging negotiations. As things stand now, with Russia hemorrhaging economically, politically and militarily, and Putin making himself into a pariah, the U.S. may have a vested interest in the war going on for some time.
That’s the point where it all becomes extraordinarily dangerous. A messianic-driven Putin, feeling he has nothing to lose, may escalate the war exponentially.
The West is now deliberating Sun Tzu’s “golden bridge” principle: Allow your enemy a golden bridge to retreat across and avoid humiliation. For the record, Sun Tzu never used the catchy term, but in the seventh chapter of his monumental and frequently quoted “The Art of War,” written in the 5th century BCE, he advises that “…when you surround your enemies, leave an opening…don’t push too hard on desperate enemies.” This is very relevant for Biden and NATO at this point in time.
The sanctions are devastating Russia’s economy. A drastic and destructive escalation would incur further sanctions and isolation, so Russia is essentially left with few and bad options. The scenarios vary and provide a playground for theorists and speculators: Putin may decimate Ukrainian cities; Putin may expand the war into NATO member states in the Baltics or trigger a confrontation by attacking arms supply lines in Poland; Putin may launch a major cyber-attack on European, or even American, cities and infrastructure; Putin may unilaterally decide to halt all oil and gas exports and bring oil prices up to $200-$250 a barrel. And the flavor of the month, the self-terrifying speculation: Feeling isolated, ostracized, and paranoid, Putin may consider using nuclear weapons.
None of these options seem realistic, but they should not be ruled out entirely as a last resort if Putin believes he is running out of political oxygen. Judging Putin on a Western cost-effective analysis has already been proven a mistake. From Putin’s perspective, this isn’t a regional invasion, but rather an epic chapter in Russian history. His narrative suggests he views himself on the scale of Peter the Great’s reign (1682-1725), Alexander I’s defeat of Napoleon in 1812 or Stalin’s victory over Nazi Germany. He is restoring Russia, not liberating Donetsk.
Putin is a despot. Western intelligence agencies estimate that very few people speak to Putin and spend quality face time with him these days. So, we can only surmise whether or not he is provided with quality intelligence and accurate information, whether or not he is being told what he clearly doesn’t want to hear, whom he trusts and to what degree, and whether or not he believes his own alternative reality, in which he saves Russia and restores Romanov grandeur.
Despots tend to develop suspicion toward people and information, surround themselves with obedient yes-men, and grow paranoid. That’s when the information becomes scarce and low-quality. Checks and balances, corrective mechanisms and “gatekeepers” are suppressed, their power eroded, their realm emptied of any influence and then dispensed with altogether.
For years, Putin convinced himself that the West was decadent, weak, discordant and vulnerable. His worldview was distorted by a clueless, cheerleading, easily-manipulated American president, one Donald J. Trump, whom Putin mistook to represent the West’s state of affairs, and from there concluded that the time was ripe to change the European security order.
Now, on the verge of a formative strategic debacle, Putin is caught in a crisis of his own creation. There will be a time to provide him with a golden bridge, but doing so now would only salvage him. The bridge should be thoughtfully constructed – but unveiled only at the right moment.