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What Will Putin Do If Russia Has No Chance at Victory in Ukraine?

Russia Su-34 Ukraine
Russia's Su-34 fighter-bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The war in Ukraine is devolving into a grind of limited, costly Russian advances and ferocious Ukrainian counterattacks. It still looks as if Russia will win – if only because it will relentlessly pound Ukrainian cities with artillery – but there is now a reasonable chance Ukraine will fight Russia to a stalemate.

It is now painfully clear that Russia expected a blitzkrieg victory, a quick, in-and-out invasion similar to its ten-day war in Georgia in 2008. A modernized, high-tech Russian military was to roll over a poorly-armed and -trained Ukrainian army fighting for a weak state with low public legitimacy. The plan was, apparently, to impose a Russian stooge in the place of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and then go home before the West could organize a response.

This highly optimistic war plan almost certainly explains the poor logistics which have badly hampered the Russians. The lack of food, fuel, and ammunition so apparent on the Russian side strongly signals that the Kremlin did not expect the operation to last long. Similarly, the Russians have now committed their entire scheduled combat power for the operation and are recruiting mercenaries to avoid putting more of the home army into Ukraine. This again signals that Putin did not anticipate anything like the major ground war which this conflict has become.

Putin Needs to Win Soon

The next few weeks are Putin’s best chance to win. Right now, Russian forces are still somewhat fresh and equipped. This has already been a problem – with conscripts who did not even know they were going to fight a war and widespread shortages – but it will get worse. Putin’s best units will need rest soon, and the shortage of munitions, fuel, and so on will worsen.

Also, in a month or so, the NATO operation to supply Ukraine will have worked out most of its political and logistical kinks. It will evolve into a pipeline that equips, feeds, and cares for Ukraine as its soldiers fight. The war, for Russia, will increasingly become a race of attrition with the West’s ability to sustain Ukraine. And Russia simply does not have the economic capacity to outstrip a major Western supply operation. Indeed, this same ‘pipeline’ is what helped Afghanistan’s Islamist insurgents beat the Soviet army in the 1980s.

Finally, in a month or so, the sanctions on Russia will have sunk deep into the crevices of its economy. For now, Russian firms, banks, and industries have the local reserves to continue functioning. Repair shops will still have enough spare parts to fix foreign products for a few more weeks. Banks and others will have some dollars and euros in cash on hand. But soon these short-term reserves and extras for normal operations will be used up. Any piece of equipment which requires foreign parts or service will start to break down. As the economy locks up across the country, its ability to support the war effort will falter, and disgruntled people will complain or protest

If Putin Does Not Win, Will He Escalate?

Time is on Ukraine’s side. If Kyiv can hold out for the next few weeks, a conventional stalemate will increasingly be the probable outcome. By April, the sanctions will be biting deeply at home. Putin’s best units will be stuck in the mud and tired. Ukraine will be awash in NATO weapons (indeed, it already is), so even if the Russians take Ukraine’s cities, they will likely face a well-armed, indefinitely-supported insurgency. Foreign fighters for Ukraine will start to match the mercenaries Putin is hiring.

At that point, Putin would face a quagmire, a grinding, likely unwinnable, conflict, dragging on for years which would sap Russian strength, akin to the Soviet-Afghan War, or the US wars in Vietnam or Iraq. Alternatively, Putin could withdraw and admit defeat, but that seems very unlikely. This war is now Putin’s defining legacy, and there is much speculation that Putin sees himself as a grand redeemer figure in Russian history, or that he is mentally ill.

Escalation, then, is Putin’s remaining option to slugging it out indefinitely or retreating. He has already hinted at escalation in his willingness to indiscriminately shell Ukrainian cities in order to kill defenders any way he can. But escalation to break a stalemate of the entire war would likely mean the use of weapons of mass destruction.

What would the West do?

The Biden administration is already considering this. If Russia’s current conventional advantages do not win the war soon, a stalemate is likely. The tactical use of WMD might break stalemated lines around Ukrainian cities. WMD might also scare the Ukrainian leadership so much that it sues for peace to prevent the extermination of its people.

On the other hand, Russian WMD use would enormously raise the pressure on NATO to intervene. NATO governments have successfully fended off pressure to institute a no-fly zone. Many analysts have pointed out that its implementation would mean Russia and NATO airpower firing at each other, which risks Russia-NATO escalation.

A WMD strike would almost certainly force NATO’s hand on an NFZ though. Worse, there would be calls to hit back at Russia in kind. These actions would risk a general war between NATO and Russia.

All this is likely why NATO governments have laid down no redlines in the war. They are genuinely frightened Putin will cross them with WMD, forcing a NATO response. But at this point, given Ukraine’s continued battlefield success, the West needs to seriously debate what to do if a frustrated, desperate Putin, who has already proven to be a gambler, raises the stakes even higher.

Robert Kelly is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University in South Korea and a 1945 Contributing Editor. Follow his work on his website or on Twitter.

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. Commentar

    March 13, 2022 at 9:26 am

    No victory is not an option for putin. The people of donbass will be put up ‘for auction’ by the banderite forces in a replay of tge kosovo situation in the balkans.

    Once russian forces crush zelenskiyyy and his goebbellian maw and take kyiv, game’s over.

    The only worry is NATO forces creeping in and staging false flag incidents such as releasing chlorine or sarin or just plain old hydrogen sulphide nato fart.

    Then a nuclear war could lead to apocalypse for everybody.

  2. John Holmes

    March 13, 2022 at 10:49 am

    “Mr.” Commentar: I am curious why you think the Ukrainians will simply stop fighting if Kiev falls and Zelensky is captured or, more likely, killed?

    Since most of the country has not really been hit yet, much less occupied, and there are multiple neighboring nations with the weapons, money and willingness to support either Ukraine’s army or a guerilla force that does not seem at all probable.

    The most likely outcome right now seems to be that Russia eventually manages to physically occupy most of Ukraine but has to keep enormous numbers of troops there for years to come in order to prevent their new puppet government from being immediately overthrown. Casualties will not end with the war but will continue for years.

    We will see how well Putin can survive ever growing numbers of dead Russian soldiers returning home. No dictator can survive when enough mothers revolt!

  3. from Russia with love

    March 13, 2022 at 11:12 am

    John Holmes:
    “We will see how well Putin can survive ever growing numbers of dead Russian soldiers returning home. No dictator can survive when enough mothers revolt!”
    you are clearly stuck in a virtual reality created for you by your media 😉
    in Chechnya, after the second Chechen campaign, there were no pro-Russian people at all, but … now Chechnya is one of the most pro-Russian regions. Ukraine has a fairly large number of pro-Russian-minded population, and the longer the population is forced to contact the Ukrainian army, self-defense forces and nationalist battalions, the more pro-Russian they become. no one likes when they drive him into the basement, rob him and are ready to shoot him even for trying to argue something. most likely in 4 years in Ukraine they will beat the face for “glory to ukraine”.

    face the truth. Russia already controls about 30% of the territory of Ukraine and there is no partisan movement on the territory under its control.

  4. Jacky

    March 13, 2022 at 12:24 pm

    Ukrainian (and western) exhortations today remind one of the situation that faced the defenders in berlin in early 1945.

    “We’ll inflict the greatest defeat on the red army at the gates of berlin.”

    “We’ll never capitulate.”

    Kyiv is the new berlin. Meanwhile ukraine sources claim mariupol city is down to the last parcels of food and water is running out. Yet, zelenskiyy and pentagon say ukraine is winning while russia is losing.

    Western news agencies like afp even headline articles with ‘ukraine has already won.’

  5. Ben d'Mydogtags

    March 13, 2022 at 12:41 pm

    This is the nub of the problem. The West (particularly Biden) are telegraphing fear and indecision. Putin is telegraphing recklessness bordering on crazy. In a battle of fearful vs crazy, crazy wins, at least for the short term.

  6. A penny tossed to the wind

    March 13, 2022 at 5:03 pm

    A well-reasoned article, thank you.

    To someone with zero knowledge of warfare it does with certainty however feel like the next four or five weeks set the scenario. After the initial thrust, misjudgements included, a more settled pattern and trend seems will emerge. This includes the humanitarian situation which may worsen, if that is an acceptable phrase for the mongrelism that has been unleashed, and may bear more strongly on Western leadership thinking.

    The Western response continues to legitimise Putin. If his legitimacy is attacked, doesn’t this force a stronger internal response by those close to Putin?

    De-legitimise him somehow. Issue a statement in the first instance something like this:

    “Due to the civilian targeting and untrustworthy approach to dimplomacy as currently exhibited by Vadimir Putin, leadership from coutries unite in declaring that Vladimir Putin is no longer considered a legitimate national leader.”

    That’s a declaration that hits at a power Putin possesses. Then perhaps add this to the statement:

    “We will be seeking other reliable, legitimate sources and personnel within the Russian regime with whom we can continue seeking a diplomatic end to this war.”

    The one thing Putin’s ‘vision’ relies on is that what he’s doing is legitimate. He wants what happens as a result of his action to be legitmate, his vision to be cemented in legitimacy in the world order he wants to rearrange. Take away or strike at his personal legitimacy, and you’ve struck at a central pillar upon which he stands. Currently, Western and Ukranian leadership is supporting and maintaining Putin’s legitimacy.

    Currently the argument is running along the lines of: “Putin initiated this war” and (from Russia) “the West initiated this war” and various permuatations of that line. In other words, who is right and who is wrong.

    By issuing the above declaration, the line of arguement shifts away from “who’s right” onto “who can deal with it”.

    The idea here is to attack at the heart of the Kremlin, using the wider public court of opinion as leverage. And to provide the Kremlin with the clear message that “If you don’t like what’s happening then find someone else who has the capability to deal with it differently.”

    Those statements would be a start. Issue it, and the world will rise in fierce agreement: that it is an honest acknowledgement of how the West feels. The Kremlin will take note.

    Issuing a statement like that doesn’t change anything at law. Putin is still Russian’s leader in the eys of the law. But it does harness and focus the court of public opinion, and the opinion no doubt of the vast majority of the world’s leadership, and uses that as diplomatic and tactical leverage.

    The danger is that it gets Putin angry, that Putin will act in retaliation in a way that even more fiercely exhibits the message that he is in power, the legitimate leader. So where is that line? What is acceptable? Hasn’t Putin’s actions, his targeting and falsity, already overstepped what’s acceptable? Would such a statement trigger his nuclear option? Who knows, but the statement is not an act of physical violence and provides an expression of clear diplomatic desire to end the war.

    Imaginably, those who possess the ability within the Russian regime to ‘depose’ Putin are sitting back, letting Putin take the pain while Putin tries to put in place what they probably view as a welcome achievement. (If not, then it’s even better.) They’re sitting back letting Putin take the world hate. They’re in a comfortable position. It’s all about Putin. No one else is in the hot seat.

    A statement such as something like the above changes that. It brings those people front and centre. It puts them in the hot seat, too. It brings closer forward any action against Putin that they currently hold in secrecy and in wait-and-see.

    Maintaining and in effect supporting Putin’s legitimacy I think is a strategic failure. I think ‘leadership legitimacy’ is a front to open up. In the least, it changes the argument and triggers unused forces within the Kremlin against Putin personally.

  7. Scott

    March 14, 2022 at 12:48 am

    This was not an invasion, this was a surgical incursion to decimate the money laundering capabilities and bio lab operations of the corrupt indigenous and international players associated with the globalists. Putin had no intention to kill the general Ukrainian citizenry.

  8. George

    March 14, 2022 at 8:16 am

    It really depends on what victory means. I strongly suspect that Russia does not want to “conquer” all of Ukraine and especially has no interest in capturing large cities to the west of the country since those will be next to impossible to retain over the long term. I believe that what it really wants is everything east of Kyiv. That would essentially give it over 15% of the world’s wheat supplies which in tandem with its energy resources would position it quite nicely after the war is over since the Europeans will be falling over themselves for that food and energy. I also think China has quietly endorsed this strategy since it would then be able to secure those resources it so badly needs from an ‘ally’ country that owes it big time.

  9. Alex

    March 14, 2022 at 10:48 am

    According to satellite imagery, Russia’s special military operation is proceeding according to plan. Interestingly, even when the Nazi regime of Ukraine falls, will you also write about the fact that Russia has no chance? Such cheap propaganda.

  10. Matt

    March 14, 2022 at 11:51 am

    Putin’s plan goes far beyond Ukraine into all of eastern Europe. Escalation is the only option.

  11. Malmo

    March 14, 2022 at 12:46 pm

    Things are not going well. Too many tanks destroyed. too many helicopters shut down. Too many bodies being shipped back to Russia (or incinerated to hide their deaths).
    The troll farm panic makes things clear. Russia is afraid they are losing. That is the only thing they are right about.
    It should be made perfectly clear to Russia that if any WMD are used in Ukraine, the exact same materials will be supplied to Ukraine to use however they see fit.

  12. roger bacon

    March 14, 2022 at 12:59 pm

    Alex the Russian troll said, “According to satellite imagery, Russia’s special military operation is proceeding according to plan. Interestingly, even when the Nazi regime of Ukraine falls, will you also write about the fact that Russia has no chance? Such cheap propaganda.”

    Seriously, where to begin. There hasn’t been a “Nazi” anywhere in 80 years.
    Secondly, it’s a war and an invasion not a “special military operation”
    Finally, I’m so glad you use the same name on all the websites. It makes it easier to avoid re-reading your same Russia cheerleading propaganda more than once.

  13. Chris Cha

    March 14, 2022 at 2:05 pm

    If Putin can control Odessa and lock up all access to the Baltic Sea, I think he would declare victory and try to keep what he’s gained. He’d like to take Kyiv, but I think he would give that up if he could get Odessa.

  14. Alex

    March 14, 2022 at 2:53 pm

    The Nazis and those who support them are on fire in the comments and that’s good.
    Before shouting about bad Russia, I strongly recommend reading articles with pictures and documentary photos about the Volyn massacre, Lviv pogroms, etc. The same thing happened to the Ukrainians in the Donbass for 8 years, when they were also destroyed by Bandera Nazis. The West simply turned a blind eye to it. What happened now? Oh yes, now it will not be possible to place NATO weapons in Ukraine. You hurt, don’t you? As a Pole, I declare: when Russia finishes a special military operation to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, we all who know Bandera Nazis will say – Glory to Russia!

  15. Jacksonian Libertarian

    March 14, 2022 at 4:22 pm

    Putin’s objectives are those of a Gangster running an Extortion Racket. He’s there to break Ukraine’s legs, to send a message to all his victims, that no one can protect you, not NATO, not the EU, not America. He’s saying, watch me use chemical weapons with impunity. He’s saying, watch me target Churches, Hospitals, and School children. He’s saying I will smash your cities if you escape and/or don’t submit to my rule.

    Putin’s objectives have already been achieved, he would like the cherry of a destroyed Kiev, but it’s still a chocolate sundae. He can withdraw anytime now, he just needs to make it look like his choice.

    He has been weakened however by the 3rd World performance of his military, which has been getting slaughtered by a smaller army armed with Soviet era weapons. He thinks the small number of western missiles are to blame for the losses as the whining Foreign Minister indicates, but that’s just a fraction of the damage done by his military’s own incompetence.

    If he’s wise he will cut his losses and leave immediately. If the Ukrainians cut off his supply lines and lines of retreat, he could lose major formations and all their weapons.

  16. John C

    March 14, 2022 at 4:31 pm

    Sweet Jeebus, the Russian trolls are thick everywhere these days.

  17. wesley bruce

    March 14, 2022 at 5:04 pm

    Any use of WMD by Russia would only confirm the belief in the Ukraine mind that Russia intends another genocide. Many Ukrainians already believe that, so they fight to the death or fled. One real risk is a spoiler faction, i.e. islamists that want Russia and the West to destroy each other, unleashing illegal weapons. The good news is that contrary to general belief most of the civilians are out of the major eastern cities. Some left years ago in Mariupol, the DPR and LPR. Kyiv still has a trickle of people coming though the lines from Russian controlled areas or east of the Dnieper river. This shows the fear of Ukrainians of the Russians. They don’t flee into Russia. They see that as the path to death. Even Russia itself reports very few refuges going north.
    The fact that the Ukrainians still have corridors into almost all of their cities shows how well planned their defenses are. Where the Russians are strung out along hundreds of miles of road, they can’t guard every mile. Ukrainian units and supplies can cross freely in the night. There is a very big risk that a reinforced Ukraine could encircle and cut off all of the Russian forces due west of Kyiv or in the center of the country. This would force mass POW problems that Russia will remember from WW2.

  18. Alex

    March 14, 2022 at 7:35 pm

    The Nazis and those who support them are on fire in the comments and that’s good.
    Before shouting about bad Russia, I strongly recommend reading articles with pictures and documentary photos about the Volyn massacre, Lviv pogroms, etc. The same thing happened to the Ukrainians in the Donbass for 8 years, when they were also destroyed by Bandera Nazis. The West simply turned a blind eye to it. What happened now? Oh yes, now it will not be possible to place NATO weapons in Ukraine. You hurt, don’t you? As a Pole, I declare: when Russia finishes a special military operation to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, we all who know Bandera Nazis will say – Glory to Russia!

  19. Thomas Moffatt

    March 15, 2022 at 1:13 am

    ??? Is this a joke? ‘if Russia has no chance of victory’? Yeah, the Russians not having their terms met, sure, that is a realistic option. This reads like out of a CFR publication. Neocon gibberish. lol

  20. Belle

    March 15, 2022 at 1:21 am

    Alex, what a pathetic human being you are. You have achieved the status of loyal Putin fanatic and thusly are something evil and dirty. To fawn and coo over such a monster as Putin, puts you in his class. All politics aside you have no feelings for his death and destruction of innocents? For whatever blah, blah, blah, political reasons he gives. That will haunt you forever. Countries don’t like their neighbors but invading is off the table in 2022 and the consequences will be severe. I doubt long life is in Putin’s future. The Hague is waiting and it will get ya. Just ask Milosevic. How much is Moscow paying an hour for Polish trolls because you would be better thought of and probably make more money as an Uber driver. Sad, Alex, very sad.

  21. Alex

    March 15, 2022 at 1:46 pm

    Belle: it’s not me that’s pathetic, but your education and natural stupidity, which does not allow you to look for real sources of information. I even gave you a chance to get acquainted with the materials about the Volyn massacre, the Lviv pogroms and other things that the Bandera Nazis did. Then he offered to compare their actions in the Donbass, when they tortured, tortured and killed Ukrainians there for 8 years. I equate their suffering with the suffering of my Polish people, and not with the Russians and your god Putin. All of us, whose ancestors knew that tragedy, sympathize with the Ukrainians of Donbass. And if Russia destroys the Bandera Nazis, then we will say – Glory to Russia! And you’re just a shame.

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