In the past two months, a consensus has emerged in the assessments of the results of the Kremlin’s military campaign: the war is not over, but Putin has lost. The narrative has solidified: the Kremlin was planning a blitzkrieg, but was mistaken in its military capabilities, and in assessing the resistance of the Ukrainians, and in the collective response of the West.
By the end of the year, the Kremlin was bogged down in the war, and an attempt to give it a new impetus by mobilizing it at the end of September failed. The Kremlin has lost military, political, diplomatic initiatives.
Sure, the Kremlin is preparing for a possible offensive. Putin instructed the Ministry of Defense to prepare a request for “the needs of the army” by February 1, strategic aviation has been deployed to Belarus (as part of regular joint exercises), reservists for autumn mobilization are being trained, and repeated “partial mobilization” is expected. However, all these steps no longer look as convincing as similar ones in the summer of last year, when the possibility of the advance of Russian troops across southern Ukraine all the way to Transnistria was seriously discussed.
An important role in creating the narrative about the failure of Putin’s military adventure was played by the big media – detailed publications by the WP and NYT about how the decision on aggression was prepared became the basis for understanding the situation of the political elites of different countries. General conclusion: Putin relied on a completely rational calculation, preparing to capture Kyiv, but made a fatal mistake.
According to one of the world’s most famous war theorists, Edward Luttwak, Putin could have mixed the consequences of this mistake if, immediately after the withdrawal of troops from Kyiv, he would have entered into negotiations and refused to continue the use of force scenario. But Putin chose a frontal war as a continuation, deepening his own mistake.
By the end of 2022, Russian troops were unable to fulfill a single task that was declared by the political leadership of the Russian Federation: the territories officially annexed by the Kremlin were never completely captured, it was not possible to break through the Ukrainian defenses, the tactics of massive shelling of civilian infrastructure does not lead to the demoralization of Ukrainian society, attempts further mobilization in the Russian Federation does not change the parity that has already developed by the fall of 2022.
The Kremlin is stuck in a war, and its further scenarios are no longer in Putin’s hands. The war agenda is entirely determined by three actors: the Ukrainian army and diplomacy, the global alliance in support of Ukraine and global media.
The failure of the blitzkrieg and the loss of initiative are obvious to the Russian political and economic establishment surrounding Putin. Some experts speculate that the military leadership is in no hurry to show Putin any victories at the front, which he undoubtedly expects from her. Against this background, Dmitry Medvedev’s hysterical tweets and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s statements criticizing the military leadership sound particularly noticeable. The political elite listens to the critical comments of Igor Girkin, who accuses the political and military leadership of moving towards final defeat, not wanting to move on to total mobilization. Indicative was the discussion of the consequences of the mass deaths of those mobilized in Makiivka.
Despite the fact that the Presidential Administration several times demanded military bloggers (so-called “military correspondents”) to stop demoralizing criticism of the actions of the military leadership, they attacked the Telegram and YouTube channels with revealing publications, naming the names of the commanders responsible for the death of soldiers, on The Ministry of Defense, which tried to shift the responsibility onto the mobilized themselves.
We can argue that the expectations associated with the appointment of General Surovikin in early September 2022 didn’t come true for Putin. No convincing integration of the army units, private military company “Wagner”, the leadership of the so-called “people’s militia” of the DPR and LPR, the Kadyrov’s units took place in four months, on the contrary, the conflicts between them are intensifying and are of a public nature.
Kyiv is in an advantageous position: it’s enough for Ukrainian troops to liberate one village – and this falls into the line of a convincing success narrative, and the Kremlin, against the backdrop of a months-long unsuccessful assault on Bakhmut, needs something large-scale to succeed, and this is no longer possible.
Putin will no longer get out from under the global narrative about the defeat of the Russian Federation. That is why in November-December there were numerous expert publications about what this defeat leads to.
Three issues are being discussed that will remain relevant in the medium term. The first has to do with Putin himself. It is believed that Putin isn’t able to admit his strategic miscalculation and change the vector of movement. Putin himself is ready to move only in the direction of further catastrophe.
There are two options for a coup: by Putin himself, or by his entourage in favor of saving the system. And both are very poorly predicted. Putin doesn’t have enough resources to implement something similar to the State Emergency Committee, that is, to introduce a state of emergency and reconfigure the entire system into the next format of war and dictatorship. But his entourage also has poor prospects. It’s easy to imagine Putin’s removal, but it’s hard to imagine the narrative that should accompany it, as the removal group will have to take responsibility for ending the war, present a compelling “plan for the future”, and show a willingness to build new relationships with the countries of the global alliance. Obviously, it is not easy to take on such a burden. It is not clear who is ready to take it upon themselves.
The second question is related to the design of post-war Russia. We are now hearing three lines of response. The first is developed by political “realists”. And it comes down to the fact that Russia will remain with its own political system, with its own “special path”, the only question is how exactly Russia is reintegrating itself into the system of global and European security. The second answer – Andrius Kubilius came up with it in the program article – the stake should be placed on democratization in Russia, since only the democratic development of the Russian Federation will guarantee long-term security for neighboring countries and the continent as a whole. The third answer is discussed by a group of political scientists, as a desirable option – the collapse of the Russian Federation. The prospect of demilitarization and denuclearization of Russia and its future policy are also associated with this collapse.
And, finally, the third question. If the further scenario of the war will lead to its stagnation, to a multi-year abscess along the “line of division”, then what form will Russian society take after 3-5 years of “permanent war”? And what is the strategy of the countries of the global alliance in relation to this slowly decaying society – with galloping emigration, cultural production outside the country, and with strong fascism inside the country? During the first year of the war, Europe was busy helping Ukrainian refugees, deploying support for the Ukrainian army, and strengthening security on the “eastern flank.” These tasks will continue. But in the case of the “truce without peace” scenario, the stagnation of the war along the line of separation, Russia freezes in the Z-ideology with a high degree of conflict, fascism takes its final form, and this will raise the question of what form the Russian-speaking “anti-fascist movement” takes and how it supported by the countries of the global alliance.
In other words, the intention to maintain global security puts Europe in front of the need to be ready for the rapid development of one of three scenarios:
1) rapid chaos with the collapse of the system;
2) severe stagnation with inevitable fascisization;
3) or to enter the scene of an internal “coalition of normalization” .
All three scenarios are very dangerous, conflicting and poorly predictable in the stages of their development. But nothing can be done: there are no good scenarios for getting out of an aggressive war.