Just a few weeks ago, Western allies were congratulating themselves for having pushed back the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s attack was not only barbaric, they declared, but also a humiliating failure. When Russia gave up Kyiv and plunged into Kharkiv, finally abandoning its push into northern Ukraine, Western analysts bragged about Putin’s “arrogance” and compared his government to that of the Soviet Union just before its collapse. Some even suggested that Putin was about to fall victim to a terminal illness or an imminent coup. “This war has already been a strategic failure for Russia,” President Joe Biden proclaimed.
The irony is that Biden and his allies were involved in the same kind of illusion that led Putin to invade Ukraine in the first place. As the war rages on, it can be argued that Putin is winning, not just in Ukraine, but on the broader geopolitical battlefield.
Let’s start with the war itself. Putin’s decision to concentrate his firepower on the eastern front has largely succeeded in bringing the conflict to a standstill. At great cost, Russian forces have cleared the last holdouts of Mariupol and appear poised to capture the key eastern city of Severodonetsk. “Putin is winning right now,” Edward Luttwak, a military strategist who advises governments around the world, told Insider. “After firing a lot of generals and promoting colonels who are better, by being much less ambitious (not taking Kyiv, not holding Kharkiv, not seeking to take Odessa), on that basis, Russia can make slow Stalingrad-style advances, which is the massive bombing of buildings”.
Ukraine, according to an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is losing between 100 and 200 soldiers every day. “The Ukrainians are in a tough spot right now,” says Jeffrey Edmonds of the Center for Naval Analysis, who advised the White House on Russia during his years on the National Security Council. “They are losing much more than in the first days of the war, because it is much more of a conventional war, with artillery duels. That really plays to Russia’s strength.”
Even Biden’s top advisers are forced to acknowledge that Putin now has the upper hand. “The numbers clearly favor the Russians,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday. “They outweigh and distance.” That has turned the conflict of a loss into a painful and costly confrontation. “The US government assessment has been that this is likely to turn into a war of attrition,” Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, told Insider. “The sides are hitting each other, but neither is able to make a decisive breakthrough that ends the war. That seems to be the most likely scenario for the near future.”
Beyond the battlefield, Putin has scored a string of victories. The most obvious is how the invasion has managed to damage the economies of his enemies around the world. Stock markets are down, interest rates are up, inflation is soaring, and gas prices are through the roof. Other factors, of course, have contributed to the deterioration of the Western economy. But Putin’s decision to send his troops across the border, and the subsequent spike in oil prices, was the needle that burst the bubble of pandemic recovery. biden himself It was close to acknowledge this when he tried to rephrase rising US gasoline prices as “Putin’s price gouging.”
Russia is certainly experiencing its own economic fallout from the invasion. Inflation has skyrocketed to 17%, and Russia’s economy is forecast to contract 8.5% this year. But Putin’s control over the media and the ballot box makes it easier for him to weather the kind of economic storm that would lead to political turmoil in Western democracies. The Russian government is “willing to take thousands and thousands of casualties, try things and fail,” says Murtaza Hussain, a foreign policy commentator. “That is not as big a political crisis as it would be here in the United States. Putin has more tools to control public opinion.”
Indeed, the Western coalition that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other US diplomats forged so carefully in the early days of the war is fraying. Turkey and Hungary, both members of the NATO alliance, have withheld their consent to key initiatives aimed at isolating Russia. France and Germany are pushing hard to negotiate with Russia, breaking with their counterparts in the UK, the Baltics and the US, where leaders are slow to trust Putin after experiencing his two-faced approach in talks. peace during the conflict in Syria. These disagreements have begun to play out in public, creating a disunited front that makes it difficult for the West to confront Putin.
And the further you move away from the Western alliance, the more divided opinion becomes. Much of Africa, which has been the focus of Russian propaganda campaigns and diplomatic efforts – remains reluctant to take a stand against Putin. At the United Nations, only eight African countries voted overwhelmingly to suspend Russia’s membership in the Human Rights Council due to evidence that Russian troops had committed mass atrocities in Ukraine. Nine voted against the measure and another 22 abstained. And earlier this month, the president of the African Union met with Putin with the aim of enlisting Russia’s help with the dire food crisis in the sub-Saharan region – a bitter irony, given that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a major supplier of food, is subjecting tens of millions of people around the world to hunger.
China and India are also reluctant to confront Putin. China’s leadership has assiduously taken a neutral line on Ukraine, while lower-level officials and the state-aligned media actively circulate Russian disinformation. India, a democracy and ostensibly a partner of the US, has taken similar approach. “Europe has to get out of the mentality that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems,” Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, told a forum earlier in the day. of June. “He made a good point,” says Hussain. “He’s saying, ‘You don’t moralize or really care about things that happen in Asia. Now they are asking us to put aside our own interests.’ That is not so much a propaganda victory for Putin as a calculation by non-Western countries of their rational self-interest.”
Napoleon once wrote that war is a matter of opinion. And that, in the long run, may ultimately dictate whether Putin emerges victorious from his invasion of Ukraine. It is not just a question of whether the West can help Ukraine maintain its economy or provide it with enough weapons and ammunition to survive Putin. “The biggest issue will be whether there is the political will in Europe and the United States to continue the fight,” says Pifer, a former US ambassador. “So far, I think it’s there. Whether it can be sustained six months or 12 months down the line, I don’t know.”
As Americans experience the mounting economic costs of the war, there is no guarantee that the bipartisan consensus on Ukraine will hold until the 2022 and 2024 elections. Western leaders have already begun making a delicate turn to adjust downward. public expectations. “This war is far from over,” warned former President Barack Obama in a speech In the past week. “Costs will continue to rise.” As the West’s dream of quickly ending Putin’s war through economic sanctions begins to fade, the war will increasingly be fought on a battlefield where Putin has the upper hand: at gas stations and grocery stores. from the United States.