Putin, tone deaf and isolated, pursues war ‘goals’ and refuses to lose

Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin uses a pair of binoculars while watching the Zapad-2017 war games, held by Russian and Belarussian servicemen, with Chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov seen nearby, at a military training ground in the Leningrad region, Russia September 18, 2017.

Vladimir Putin’s definitive quality as president – his refusal ever to back down – helped him project Russian global power for years. But facing repeated setbacks in a catastrophic war in Ukraine, his inflexible approach is looking more like his great flaw.

As Russian forces fled in disarray in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region Saturday – dressing as civilians, stealing bicycles, abandoning tons of military equipment and ammunition – Putin sounded strikingly tone deaf as he opened a giant new Ferris wheel in Moscow. “There is nothing like that in Europe,” he boasted via video-link.

Within hours, the Ferris wheel had broken down, and tickets had to be refunded. Repairing what’s broken about Putin’s war strategy and, by extension, his presidency and reputation, will be far harder.

Ukraine’s northeastern counteroffensive was underway even as Putin, at a conference in the Far East days earlier, insisted that Russia had “lost nothing and will lose nothing” in the war, a remark that seemed oblivious to Russia’s repeated setbacks and shockingly high casualties, and ignorant of what was transpiring on the battlefield.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on Monday that the war “will continue until the goals that have been set are achieved.” What those goals are, however, is difficult to know. Putin’s initial goal, of capturing Kyiv and topping Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, failed.

Now, Western intelligence and military analysts argue Russia is unlikely to achieve its presumed fallback goal of conquering all of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.

Presuming that Putin’s goal involves being able to declare victory in some form, the messy Russian retreat from Kharkiv – what Moscow called a “regroup” – now leaves the 69-year-old president with stark and shrinking choices.

He could scale-up and announce a politically risky national mandatory military mobilization – something Peskov on Tuesday denied was even under discussion. He could grind on, plowing in poorly trained and increasingly de-motivated soldiers, and carrying out brutal artillery attacks on towns and cities to terrorize the Ukrainian population.

Or, he could escalate in some extreme fashion, as some of Putin’s fiercest critics fear, turning to chemical or even nuclear weapons.

So far, Putin has done everything he can to avoid mandatory mobilization, which risks triggering wider public opposition to the war – even though many Russian military experts believe there is no other way to defeat Ukraine militarily.

And while deploying a weapon of mass destruction cannot be ruled out, many experts play down fears of Putin doing so, because it would destroy his dwindling international support with crucial partners like China and India, and because it would undermine his efforts to convey a sense of normalcy to Russians.

If Putin sticks to his habit of refusing to back down, analysts say, he is most likely to grind on.

“Vladimir Putin certainly has the will to continue this war, but he has been largely operating under the illusion that the Russian military was winning and would eventually win,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at Arlington-based Center for Naval Analyses, or CNA.

“The question is, is he willing to take the political risk to try to salvage the Russian military effort in this war?” Kofman said, referring to mandatory mobilization.

“Many Russians have been fairly lukewarm in terms of either supporting or not caring about this war, seeing their lives as largely unaffected because they believe that their kids will not be sent the fight,” Kofman added. “People’s attitudes really change if they think their kids will be sent to fight.”

Nor is either side is ready to discuss peace. Dmitry Medvedev, Russian deputy head of the Security Council, said Monday the war would not end without Kyiv’s “total capitulation.”

Meanwhile Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, now speaks with increasing boldness about taking back not only all of the eastern Donbas region, but also Crimea, which Russia annexed illegally in 2014.

But grinding on poses its own risks to the president, who is coming under increasing pressure and scrutiny despite a Kremlin crackdown on criticism of the war.

After Russia admitted the retreat Saturday, Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, suggested that Putin might not be aware of the mistakes that had been made, and would have to call the president himself to discuss the situation. Peskov on Monday insisted Putin is fully briefed.

The Russian Defense Ministry claimed Saturday that the “regrouping” took place without a single loss for Russia, and with some 4,000 Ukrainians killed, assertions not supported by the facts.

That night, as fireworks burst across the capital in celebration of Moscow City Day, the hard line pro-war faction, aware of the actual scale of the losses, was livid. They demanded harsher military action, the targeting of civilian infrastructure and mandatory military mobilization.

Meanwhile opposition deputies in 35 municipalities signed calls in recent days for Putin to be removed, a rare sign of symbolic public dissent. They now likely face tough consequences.

Most ordinary Russians, no longer paying much attention to the war, were likely unaware of the big retreat, analysts said. But if Russia faces more setbacks, the outrage from pro-war hard-liners could sharpen, public awareness would rise and, with it, pressure on Putin.

With complaints about the “difficulties” and “mistakes” being voiced on state television and by prominent figures like Kadyrov, it is becoming harder to maintain the Kremlin line that everything is going according to plan.

Putin, however, seems to be stubbornly sticking to the same strategy, banking on his conviction that Western support for Ukraine will crumple, forcing Ukraine to capitulate in time. This already seems to be backfiring, with Ukraine’s recent gains capturing imaginations, reinforcing support for Kyiv.

In some ways, Putin is a victim of his own policies. The Kremlin for years has fostered a large group of politically apathetic citizens, making it difficult now to take firmer steps to win the war, such as mobilization, which require patriotic fervor to avoid a political backlash.

Sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky said the loyal but passive mass of Russian citizens – which he puts at up to 80 percent – saw themselves as “outside politics,” and are focused on their own lives, seeing the war as none of their business.

“These people do not trust television but they do not trust the internet either,” Kagarlitsky said. “So television propaganda doesn’t work on them, but any kind of antiwar propaganda or opposition discourse doesn’t work on them either, because they just do not turn on anything that has to do with politics or economic issues or general values or anything that doesn’t affect them directly.”

Online, such citizens seek out videos about hunting, fishing, cooking, fashion shows, animals, and similar, he said. Under Putin, “a good citizen is a passive citizen, who is not getting himself or herself involved in anything.”

Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya founder of R. Politik analytical group, said even as failures and pressure from the hard-line pro-war lobby mounted, Putin was reluctant to risk upsetting the passive masses, particularly given opinion polls showing declining interest in the war.

Instead the Kremlin was carefully maintaining the narrative there was no war, just a “special military operation” where everything is going to plan and life, for most, can continue on as normal.

“I don’t see that he can radically pivot to review this understanding of the situation,” said Stanovaya, who is based in France, adding that mobilization was unlikely. “He bets that the West will fall apart with time. Ukraine will give up, one day. So today we had to retreat to spare manpower, but tomorrow Ukraine will sign a capitulation and all this will not matter, in Putin’s vision.”

But she added this approach required Russia’s elite to blindly follow Putin’s vision of a Russian victory cementing its place as a great power in a multipolar world, without knowing how this would happen.

“This is his stake, but he can’t explain it to the elites, because it’s nonsense. You just can’t be convincing about it. This is why he doesn’t really speak about it. He doesn’t explain how he is going to win,” she said, adding there was “a growing problem” with Putin’s leadership.

“He creates too much uncertainty. He is completely unclear about where we are going, what our goals are and how we’re going to win. He has detached himself from the elites. And following Putin, without knowing where we are going, can’t last forever.”