Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
In recent days, many Western observers of the war in Ukraine have begun to worry that the tide is turning in Russia’s favor. Massive artillery fire is yielding incremental Russian gains in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, and Russia is bringing in new forces. Ukrainian troops are drained and exhausted. Russia is trying to create a fait accompli and to make reality conform to its imperial ambitions through “passportization”—the quick provision of Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in Russian-occupied areas—and the forced introduction of Russian administrative structures in Ukrainian territory. The Kremlin likely intends to occupy eastern and southern Ukraine indefinitely and to eventually move on Odessa, a major port city in southern Ukraine and a hub of commerce that connects Ukraine to the outside world.
Looking at the big picture, however, things look less than rosy for Moscow. The list of Ukraine’s military achievements is long and getting longer. Ukrainian forces won the battle of Kyiv; successfully defended the southern city of Mykolaiv, keeping Odessa out of reach for the invading armies, at least for the time being; and prevailed in the battle of Kharkiv, a city right across from the Russian border. Russia’s recent gains pale in comparison. And unlike the Kremlin, the government in Kyiv has a clear strategic purpose, buttressed by excellent morale and widening assistance from abroad.
This momentum could outline a virtuous cycle for Ukraine. Should Ukrainian forces gain territory this summer, Kyiv’s power will continue to grow. The truth is that despite the setbacks endemic to all wars, Ukraine could still win—although the scope and scale of its victory would most likely be limited.
The most plausible Ukrainian victory would be “winning small.” Ukraine could expel Russia from the western side of the Dnieper River, establish perimeters of defense around the areas Russia controls in Ukraine’s east and south and secure its access to the Black Sea. Over time, Ukrainian forces could move forward, breaking up the land bridge that Russia has established to Crimea, the territory in southeastern Ukraine that Russia seized and annexed back in 2014. Essentially, Ukraine could restore the status quo ante that existed before Russia launched its attack in February.
The most plausible Ukrainian victory would be “winning small.”
This would not be the world-changing victory about which some Western pundits dream. But a smaller and militarily weaker state repelling an imperial power would nevertheless have ripple effects in the region and the rest of the world—by demonstrating that successful resistance against powerful aggressors is possible.
There is, of course, a “winning big” scenario, as well, in which the war ends entirely on Ukraine’s terms. That would mean the full reclamation of Ukrainian sovereignty, including Crimea and the parts of the Donbas occupied by Russia in the years before it fully invaded in February. This seems far less likely than a more limited victory: attacking is harder than defending, and the territory in question is substantial and heavily fortified. At the very least, Russia would hold on to Crimea tenaciously. The region is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and a symbol of Russia’s return to great-power status after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to let Crimea go without a tremendous fight.
No matter the scope of a Ukrainian victory, all such scenarios entail a nebulous “day after.” Russia will not acquiesce to its defeat nor to a noncoercive negotiated outcome. Any Ukrainian victory will only spur more Russian intransigence in its wake. As soon as it can rebuild its military capacity, Russia will use a narrative of humiliation to stir domestic support for a renewed effort to control Ukraine. Even if he loses the war, Putin will not let go of Ukraine. Nor will he simply sit by as it becomes fully integrated into the West. A Ukrainian victory, then, would require not a relaxation of Western support for Ukraine but an even stronger commitment.
To win small and restore the pre-invasion status quo, Ukraine would have to translate its victories in the north into victories in the east and south. In Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukrainian forces pushed Russian ones into a tactical retreat. That outcome would be more difficult to replicate in places such as Kherson and in Mariupol, which are on territory that Russia controls and where it is presumably becoming entrenched. But Ukraine has the advantage of large manpower reserves, its army is well organized and well led, and there is no doubt about Ukrainian willingness to fight. The nature of Russia’s invasion has generated all the will to fight that Ukraine will ever need. The capable leadership of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has further solidified the war effort.
Ukraine also has the assistance of many of the world’s premier militaries—in particular, that of the United States. Kyiv has access to first-rate intelligence about the Russian military’s planning and force posture. The Ukrainian military has imposed staggeringly high costs on Russia, including heavy casualties and the loss and destruction of materiel. If Ukraine can combine its firepower and its manpower this summer, it could conduct a counteroffensive in the Donbas and penetrate Russia’s land bridge to Crimea.
It has not been an easy war for Russia.
Russia, by contrast, has already expended many of its available military assets, including much of its hardware and ammunition (although it still has resources in reserve that it could put into theater). The Russian military’s exhaustion is most easily witnessed among its soldiers. Many units have endured losses that render them ineffective. Morale may be higher than many non-Russian observers believe; it is hard to assess. But for obvious reasons, Russian morale is lower than Ukrainian morale. Russia is fighting a war of choice. Corruption and the top-down nature of the Russian military have hampered its troops. It has not been an easy war for Russia.
Still, Russia has started to mobilize, step by step, drawing up reservists and specialists while still avoiding mass conscription. These actions will have an effect on the war. Putin retains the option of mass mobilization, formally declaring an outright war and bringing to bear Russia’s full military might. But mobilization, training, and moving materiel all take time. The key to Ukrainian strategy should be to establish facts on the ground and to make the costs of changing these facts too high for Russia. That would require a major Ukrainian offensive in the next two to three months.
The combination of military setbacks and punishing sanctions might eventually induce Moscow to moderate its goals, and a meaningful cease-fire might become achievable. But a more far-reaching negotiated settlement is probably out of the question for Putin. Russia is already treating the locations it has occupied not as bargaining chips for an eventual settlement but as Russian territory. And according to the Russian intelligence experts Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, Kremlin hardliners want more war—not less.
Ukraine and the West should thus assume that Russia will not accept any defeat. A small Ukrainian victory in, say, the fall of this year might well be followed by another Russian invasion in 2023. Russia would need to regroup its forces, which would be challenging under sanctions. Even more important for Putin than imperial conquest, however, is the preservation of his own power, since autocrats who lose wars often end up in dire straits. Putin might have to temporarily accept being pushed back to his pre-invasion starting point, but he could not countenance the permanent loss of Ukraine. He might continue small-scale fighting, missile strikes, and aerial bombardment until reinforcements—gathered through partial or full mobilization—arrived. Alternatively, Putin could cynically use a cease-fire to buy time for bad-faith negotiations, much as he did before the February invasion.
Meanwhile, to deter future Russian attacks, Ukraine would likely have to ask for more weaponry than ever. Assenting to this would be difficult for Western powers, as Russia would be seeking relief from sanctions and taking its usual divide-and-conquer approach to Washington and its allies. For the Western powers, a theoretical solution would be to offer Ukraine security guarantees in exchange for Ukrainian neutrality. But Russia could put those promises to the test in a renewed attack—and sanctions relief, if it ever came to pass, would have to be slow. With Putin’s Russia, the approach must be “distrust and verify.”
The West can do little to influence Russia from within.
Another risk is that even a small Ukrainian victory might be preceded or followed by nuclear threats from Putin. Putin has departed from Cold War precedent by instrumentalizing nuclear weapons for political reasons rather than just for ones related to national security. His menacing statements have come across as bluster. But Putin could up the ante. To scare his adversaries, he could order technical preparations for the potential use of nuclear weapons. The West should react to such threats with deterrence, signaling clearly that Putin would achieve nothing through the use of nuclear weapons. If that does not work, and Putin acts on his threats, then NATO should consider carrying out a limited conventional response, either against Russian forces in Ukraine or within Russia itself. In the meantime, the West needs to build a broad coalition to condemn and deter nuclear saber rattling by linking sanctions and threats of retaliation to Putin’s nuclear brinkmanship. China might not join in, but out of fear of nuclear instability, it might approve of the idea.
Finally, even if Ukraine wins small, Kyiv and its partners would have to prepare for years of continued conflict. Zelensky has indicated as much by saying that postwar Ukraine will resemble Israel in its full-time orientation toward self-defense. Putin, meanwhile, would continue to probe for Western vulnerabilities: much as he responded to Western sanctions in 2014 by meddling in the U.S. presidential election in 2016, he would likely mix cyberattacks, disinformation, and “active measures,” such as operations that would damage political parties and leaders Russia dislikes, undermine the internal stability of “anti-Russian” countries, and degrade the integrity of the transatlantic alliance and similar such alliances in the Indo-Pacific. The West would be forced to contain Russia for the foreseeable future. After all, the West can do little to influence Russia from within other than to hope for the emergence of less combative Russian leadership.
Given the tribulations of “winning small,” Ukraine’s “winning big”—reclaiming Crimea and all of Donbas—might seem like a shortcut to a better future. Although not entirely impossible, the stars would truly have to align for a wholesale defeat of Russia: a lightning victory for Ukraine, one battle building upon another, Russian supply lines disintegrating and Ukrainian morale driving its soldiers unstoppably forward. At the same time, the Russian army would have to collapse in retreat. Strategy would give way to the emotions of individual soldiers as panic took hold. No one has ever described this better than Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace, a meditation on the anarchy of war. “A battle is won by the side that is absolutely determined to win,” Tolstoy wrote about Napoleon’s 1805 defeat of the Russian army. Russian casualties, he wrote, “were about the same as those of the French, but we told ourselves early in the day that the battle was lost, so it was lost.”
But a full-scale Ukrainian military defeat of Russia, including the retaking of Crimea, verges on fantasy. It would be far too optimistic to base either Ukrainian or Western strategy on such an outcome. Pursuing it would also send the war into a new phase. Having poured billions of dollars into Crimea’s development, a symbol of Russian renewal, Moscow would interpret a Ukrainian offensive in Crimea as an assault on Russian territory, something Moscow would try to prevent by all available means. The hypothesis that Russia’s full-scale defeat would excise the cancer of imperialism from the Russian leadership and body politic rests on a clumsy analogy to Germany’s unconditional surrender in World War II, and stems from a desire not just to end this war but to foreclose the possibility of Russia starting any future war in Europe. It is an intoxicating vision, but one unconnected to reality.
Ukraine winning small is the more realistic and achievable goal. Aiming for that outcome is smarter than dreaming of Russian surrender—but also smarter than floating unformed ideas of a negotiated settlement that might leave Kherson and Mariupol under permanent Russian control, rewarding Putin for his aggression.
The goal of Ukrainian and Western strategy must be sustainable security for Ukraine. Kyiv’s partners have rightly refused to compromise on Ukrainian sovereignty and independence. But they also must think through “the day after” Ukraine wins. Rather than quixotic expectations of Russia bowing to a Ukrainian victory or simply exiting the international stage, sustainable security for Ukraine will demand painstaking effort and carefully calibrated increases in political, financial, and military investment. This is true even—or perhaps especially—if Ukraine wins. When the U.S. diplomat George Kennan, pondering the sources of Soviet conduct, stared into the future in 1947, he did not think in years. He thought in decades. To persevere and prevail in Ukraine, today’s Western leaders must do so, as well. As Tolstoy put it, “the strongest of all warriors are these two—time and patience.”
The Global Consequences of a Long Conflict