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Putin’s Only Strategy Is Self-Destruction in Ukraine

Ukraine Russia
Russian Artillery Firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

How likely is a protracted war in Ukraine? Just as talk of a protracted Russo-Ukrainian war was increasingly making the rounds among analysts, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin—being true to form in his inability to resist self-destruction—demonstrated yet again why such an outcome is both unlikely and undesirable.

On Monday, June 27, a Russian missile struck and destroyed a shopping center in the city of Kremenchug, south of Kyiv. According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, over 1,000 civilians were in the center at the time of the blast: “It’s impossible even to imagine the number of victims.”

If one needed more proof of Putin’s genocidal intentions and behavior in Ukraine, this barbaric act surely was it.

But if one also needed proof of the extreme unlikelihood of a protracted war, this was also it.

Putin is so predictable. Whenever the West appears to tire of or despair about Ukraine, Russia’s leading fascist can always be counted on to engage in an act of such wanton barbarism as to make continued indifference impossible. If it weren’t for the massacres in Irpen and Bucha, two towns north of Kyiv that were mercilessly raped by Russian troops, the West might not have committed to supporting Ukraine with the vigor that it has. If it weren’t for Putin’s strategically idiotic decision to invade Ukraine, the West would probably have countenanced its progressive transformation into a Russian vassal state.

Now, after the Kremenchug massacre, no self-respecting country that belongs to the Ramstein group devoted to supporting Ukraine and no member of the G-7 countries that just stated “We will continue to provide financial, humanitarian, military and diplomatic support and stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes” will be able to avoid arming Ukraine to the degree it needs in order to prevail.

Putin makes such decisions easy, as the choice before Ukraine’s friends is no longer that between protracted war and acceptance of the status quo, but that between the reign of barbarism or victory. States are never quite as committed to human decency as they insist, but there are times—such as this—when there is no alternative to converting outrage into action.

The reason that increased deliveries of heavy weaponry, ammunition, supplies, and finances to Ukraine matters is simple. At present, Ukraine isn’t losing, and Russia isn’t winning. Indeed, if the status quo were to continue, Russia’s victory or defeat would be hard to envision. On the one hand, Russia is running out of soldiers, tanks, and missiles and is barely able to make any kind of progress in the Donbas, where its artillery and manpower greatly outnumber that of the Ukrainians.

Such a Russia cannot win. On the other hand, Russia is too large to be defeated with Ukraine’s current weaponry, especially as Putin is utterly indifferent to the number of casualties his troops sustain in their ill-planned frontal attacks against Ukrainian positions in the east and south. Such a Russia cannot lose.

Other things being equal, a protracted war would be likely with Russia and Ukraine as they are.

But, thanks to the prodding of the United States and the United Kingdom, and thanks to the Kremenchug massacre, other things are not and will not be equal.

The heavy weapons the West has promised to deliver will now have to be delivered, and the timelines will probably be sped up.

These weapons—and especially U.S. lend-lease weaponry—should tilt the balance in favor of the Ukrainians. After all, Ukraine isn’t losing, but neither can it defeat the Russians with its current capabilities. Once the weapons arrive in significant numbers, it’s perfectly possible for Ukraine to push back the Russians from the territories seized after the start of the war on February 24.

To be sure, the planned Ukrainian counter-offensive, which is slated to start sometime in the late summer, will be no cakewalk. Casualties on both sides will be high. More civilians will die as part of Putin’s genocide. But the Ukrainians are likely to prevail in general and especially where it counts most.

And it counts most in the southern provinces of Kherson and Zaporizhzhya, which sit atop the Crimea and form an integral part of the coveted Russian land bridge to the occupied peninsula. Even with very minimal numbers of Western weapons, the Ukrainian armed forces have currently managed to overcome two lines of defense around Kherson and are now within sight of the city. If they capture the city before the general counter-offensive, they will be able to cut off water to the Crimea, destroy the land bridge, and be within range of striking the Black Sea fleet parked in Sevastopol. Losing Kherson would be a major strategic loss for Russia; gaining Luhansk or even Donetsk provinces would only tickle Putin’s need for self-affirmation as the great in-gatherer of lands.

Although most Western attention is focused on the Donbas, where the chances of a protracted conflict seem high, events in the south actually suggest the opposite—that Ukraine is poised to seize the strategic initiative if and when it acquires the weapons that will give it the upper hand.

If that happens, Putin will have only his own genocidal barbarism to blame for his ignominious defeat.

Dr. Alexander Motyl, now a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”

Written By

Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”

31 Comments

31 Comments

  1. Invitado 2

    June 27, 2022 at 4:29 pm

    “En la actualidad, Ucrania no está perdiendo y Rusia no está ganando . De hecho, si continuara el statu quo, sería difícil imaginar la victoria o la derrota de Rusia”. ¿El autor de este articulo estará en Marte o en la Luna?. Ya es facil advertir la derrota estadounidense en este conflicto que apenas lleva meses. ¿El autor será consciente de la derrota estadounidense por unos criadores de cabras en 20 años?. ¿Hace falta mas evidencia para que este personaje escudado en su poder para publicar articulos comprenda la realidad?. ¡Ya despierte!

    • Joe Comment

      June 27, 2022 at 7:14 pm

      Invitado 2: Putin’s stated goals were to demilitarize Ukraine, “de-Nazify” (by which he meant “install a pro-Russian government”), and to protect the people in Donbas. Ukraine is more militarized and anti-Russian than ever, and the occupied areas of Donbas are reduced to a wasteland as the population flees the Russian onslaught. Then what was your point again?

    • Steve

      July 27, 2022 at 1:03 pm

      “America” is losing in Ukrain?” Can you clarify? How about in English, tho.

  2. Error403

    June 27, 2022 at 6:14 pm

    Putin’s strategy is to stop the march of the imperialist-fascist-globalist empire a.k.a.US-NATO alliance.

    Back in nov 2021 putin (google it) declared ukraine joining NATO was a red line but the west sneered at russia and replied that russians have no right to offer their stand.

    In the meantime, ukro fascists including the azov battalions were taking shots at the donbass people from their well dug-in trenches and entrenched positions in eastern ukraine.

    Given the unreasonable circumstances, putin had no choice but to hurl his thunderbolt at kyiv and the resurgent nazist tide in europe.

    Thus, NATO is currently unable to expand to including ukraine as the country is now in RUINS and has virtually lost the eastern provinces for good.

    • KB

      June 27, 2022 at 7:46 pm

      We all know the real reason for the war: Putin couldn’t allow a prosperous Slavic democracy right next door. Russians would get the idea that they didn’t need to live in a brutal kleptocracy, with Uncle Vlad’s hand constantly in their pocket.

      And Russia’s behaviour inside Ukraine shows why Ukraine wanted to join NATO. Does Putin’s military have a decoration for destroying shopping malls?

      Your post fascinates me. It’s as if it’s 1953 and your on a rant against “wreckers” and “Trotskyites” and “cosmopolitans.” For a government that has been so dependent for so long on telling lies, it’s a wonder that Russia isn’t better at it. This shrillness and invective only works on an audience trapped inside a closed system.

      • Begemot

        June 28, 2022 at 2:39 am

        KB – Russia could hardly fear Ukraine as a prosperous democracy as it is neither prosperous nor very democratic. Ukraine should, because of its resources, be a very wealthy country but since its independence it has been mired in poverty for the many and great wealth for the few. And that is because whoever rules Ukraine, from its independence to the present moment, has governed Ukraine not with the intent to better the lot of the average Ukrainian but to use their time in office to loot the country or to help the oligarch they serve to do so more effectively. Kleptocracy is an apt description of Ukraine.

        As for democracy in Ukraine – the legitimate government was overthrown in 2014, a year before there were to be elections. What kind of functioning democratic system is that? And now, under cover of war, most of Zelensky’s political opponents’ parties have been outlawed. Will Ukraine remain a one party state when peace returns?

        • Doyle

          June 28, 2022 at 7:47 am

          Look into the mirror Ivan about countries with vast resources mired in poverty. Your response is incorrect, a prosperous Ukraine as part of the EU is a dire threat to the thugocracy running Russia. The Russian people deserve better leaders which alas throughout their history they’ve really never have had. Finally those so called opposition parties were nothing more than pro Russian Putin puppets, in war they should be shot but they have only temporarily been banned….poor babies.

          • from Russia with love

            June 28, 2022 at 1:55 pm

            you are right! pro-Russian parties are temporarily banned. maximum by the end of next year, pro-Russian parties will lead Little Russia (former Ukraine). I think you can guess why 😉 and yes, the pro-American puppets will have to run.
            but there is good news 🙂 ukraine will join the EU. rather Ukraine has already joined the EU. this is 3 million of those whom you call Ukrainians. they will not be able to go back and the EU will continue to enjoy their civility and democracy … garbage, desecration of monuments and cemeteries, hysterical pickets and demands for benefits and free housing. they do not know the language, there is no work for them. in general, prepare popcorn and enjoy the spectacle 🙂

      • willful knowledge

        June 28, 2022 at 6:47 am

        “For a government that has been so dependent for so long on telling lies, it’s a wonder that Russia isn’t better at it.”

        It’s a wonder so many still fall for it.

      • Steve

        July 27, 2022 at 1:06 pm

        So articulate! Great post.

    • DS

      June 28, 2022 at 5:05 am

      Error403: “… the west sneered at russia and replied that russians have no right to offer their stand” is a fantasy dreamed up to give credence to Putin’s disastrous venture. NATO members were not keen on Ukraine being part of NATO but did allow that Ukraine was perfectly entitled to apply. Actually membership would have taken many years to finalise and Russia’s sensitivity has always been taken into account (and the fact that Russia has an enormous number of nuclear weapons that an unhinged dictator may well feel like using). Even now, after the appalling actions of Russian troops and the genocidal bombing of non-military targets, there is little appetite for Ukraine to be part of NATO but it becomes harder to deny them the right. Russia has no-one but itself to blame for alienating Ukraine and driving it westwards. While Putin does seem to have the support of many Russians, I believe this is mostly due to his control of the media, with it’s distorted propaganda, and I feel sorrow and compassion for the families of all those that have died or been injured, or their homes, towns and livelihoods destroyed as a result of the paranoid delusions of the one true fascist in this sorry saga, Putin.

    • Fnord73

      June 28, 2022 at 6:03 am

      I do hope you are getting paid decently for imitating a Stalinist commisar. It must be a frustrating job to sit and hammer out these stupid lies over and over again on every thread. “Hurl his thunderbolt”, jeez, Im sure that sounds better in russian but it is the language of fascist dictatorships and heroworshipping führer cultists.

      (Its fascinating to see how stupid russian propaganda is in general.)

    • Doyle

      June 28, 2022 at 7:43 am

      Over the top projection there Ivan. The only imperial-fascist-globalist empires are on your side along with China. Look up National Socialism and weep. Did Ukraine ever join NATO….not at all and I doubt it was much more than jibber jabber from your side. There is ALWAYS a choice and Putin chose the path of the impatient totalitarian thug. Take your useless propaganda elsewhere or at least communicate on an adult level.

    • Andy Poulton

      June 28, 2022 at 1:48 pm

      Please explain why Russia breached the 1994 Budapest Memorandum where Russia, the UK and the USA signed a memorandum promising to protect Ukraine. In return Ukraine would give up the nuclear weapons it had inherited when the USSR was dissolved.

      The Budapest Memorandum was also supported (although not signed by) France and Russia

      IN 2014 Russia breached the Memorandum by invading Crimea. The West stood back. IN 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine and now they must pay the price for breaching the memorandum they signed.

      • from Russia with love

        June 30, 2022 at 2:59 am

        happy to explain 🙂
        Russia has not entered into security agreements with the junta that seized power in Ukraine in 2014 in an illegal bloody coup d’état.
        between Ukraine in 2013 and Ukraine in 2014 there is the same gulf as between the Weivar Republic and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. those who carried out the coup in Ukraine in 2014 completely de-announced these agreements.

    • Old Desert Coyote

      June 28, 2022 at 1:50 pm

      The above post has been brought to you by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Directorate for foreign network penetration and exploitation…

    • Mark

      June 29, 2022 at 1:25 am

      I would say just drop the 403 and stick with ‘Error’. Wherever I go anything Ukraine in comments these RF trolls are chock-a-block.

  3. Ezra Teter

    June 27, 2022 at 11:17 pm

    The media has shifted its rhetoric. It has gone from “Ukraine is kicking Russia’s ass.” to “Ukraine is running out of ammunition.” The Washington Post, not the RT, has been stating that Russia is firing some 50,000 artillery shells per day to Ukraine’s 5,000. Since Russia lost something like 27 million people to an invading army during what they still call The Great War, I find it conceivable that they have an artillery stockpile that is many times greater than ours, especially since we project air power and they project land power. Now the author of this article should know all this information if he is the expert on Russia that he claims to be. When people claim that Russia is running out of ammunition, I want to see an actual drop in its 50,000 shell-per-day rate. I will believe that when I see it. Ukraine’s military is getting decimated right now and it is far harder to take territory than to hold it so forgive me for being skeptical of any Ukrainian counterattack successfully driving Russia from their country.

  4. marcjf

    June 28, 2022 at 3:17 am

    I believe the death toll from the missile strike is 16 plus about 60 wounded.There is a rumour that this was a Ukrainian intercepter missile falling back to earth.

    The missile strike on Sunday personally authorised by Putin on Kiev is rumoured to have been against the CIA HQ in that city and it was not a random civilian target.

    I have no idea if any of this has any merit whatsoever. But the facts seem to be obscured by propaganda and moral outrage. I’ve been on the planet long enough to realise that governments sometimes don’t exactly tell the truth, and this is always the first casualty of any war.

    War is a nasty brutal business and my preference would be for a negotiated peace, but looks like both sides are doubling down. So we can expect more of this sort of thing with mounting civilian casualties, by accident or design.

    • Oregonian

      June 28, 2022 at 1:22 pm

      This is not simply about Russia and Ukraine. You might check out the RAND publication called “Extending Russia”. This is about the global order, and either a multi-polar order and a balance of power between Russia, China, USA, BRICs, or continued Uni-polar dominance by the USA led alliance. The determinative factor will be how positions of relative global strength of these actors play out; Ukraine is just the battlefield (cannon fodder). These factors include not only the ability to inflict pain (economic, military, etc) but the ability to absorb pain. This macro conflict is likely to extend another 20 years at least; and the Ukraine portion is only a small part of it.

    • from Russia with love

      June 28, 2022 at 1:25 pm

      I will add some facts to Alexander Motyl’s heartbreaking fantasies about the events in Kriminchug.
      Russian high-precision weapons successfully hit the target – the Kredmash plant, which repaired Ukrainian infantry fighting vehicles and had a warehouse of Western “humanitarian aid” (weapons supplied by NATO for Ukraine). so the US is also involved in this event;) here is a short video from the site of the rocket explosion. Please note that this is not in a mall. a burned-out shopping center 90 meters from the plant.
      t.me/topwar_official/50181
      here is another view from a quadcopter, which shows the place where the rocket hit on the territory of the Kredmash plant behind the shopping center.
      t.me/topwar_official/50150
      about the victims at the mall… the mall was closed. only a small grocery store functioned there. there was a maximum of 3 people plus the seller. the parking lot in front of the mall is empty. note that Matyl talk about the fact that there could be people there, but even he does not risk lying about the number of victims. there may be victims at the Kredmash plant, but they are not civilians. someone could be hurt in the surrounding area. here is a video of a rocket hit taken by cameras in a park near the Kredmash plant, but judging by the video no one was hurt in the park.
      t.me/topwar_official/50179
      By the way, are you not embarrassed by the fact that the Ukrainian military place their military objects among civilian buildings and hide behind the civilian population?

  5. Brian Foley

    June 28, 2022 at 10:28 am

    Putin made a serious blunder invading Ukraine, but if he plays his cards right he can still pull off a strategic “draw”. A negotiated partition of Ukraine, essentially Russia keeps gains in the Donbas regions, withdraws behind those demarcations and pays some form of reparations to Ukraine, Putin could pull his “fat out of the fire”. Russia has done serious damage to its reputation, its economy and its armed forces. It has hardened the EU’s resolve to defend itself, driven Sweden and Finland towards NATO membership and given Ukraine the opportunity to join the EU and essentially membership in NATO as well. But it is not the end of Russia.

  6. Stefan Stackhouse

    June 28, 2022 at 12:01 pm

    Putin’s Russia is a bully that won’t stop as long as the bullying can continue with impunity. It is only when the cruise missiles start raining down on Russian targets in retaliation that they will start to realize that there is a real and painful cost to continuing this war, and begin to entertain the idea of serious negotiations.

    Unfortunately, to equip and allow the Ukrainians to do such would be a significant escalation. With one step of escalation comes the very real and serious risk of setting off further steps up the escalation ladder. We all know where this could lead, in our worst nightmares.

    This is the dilemma: the war in Ukraine needs to end, but how can it end without risking an even worse end?

    People like this author are hoping for an alternative: arm the Ukrainians sufficiently so that they can turn the tide and push the Russians back. Nice wish, but wishes won’t make it so. This author – and maybe the Ukrainians themselves – have vastly underestimated the amount of weaponry this would require. What has been given or pledged to Ukraine thus far is only a tiny down payment of what would ultimately be necessary. Do the US and its allies even have the manufacturing capacity to produce this much weaponry? I doubt it.

    A cease fire and frozen conflict will satisfy nobody. I suspect that this is the most likely outcome, nevertheless.

  7. Jeff Gleisner

    June 28, 2022 at 1:31 pm

    A bit more critical distance from the claims of the Ukrainin Government would not go amiss. One does not have to be a Russian propogandist to treat with some scepticism Zelensky’s claims in respect of events sush as Khremenchug. Quite apart from alternative accounts, such as that given by the russian Ministry of Defence, one would have to ask why Russia would do such a thing, now it is on the front foot militarily speaking in the Donbas region, while repelling attempted counter offensives elsewhere. Whereas Ukraine has much to gain from making such claims at a time when unconditonal Western support for Kiev – both govenment and societal – is faltering. So, please, do not let your sympathies dull your citical faculties. With regard to potential outcomes, I agree with those of your pevious poster that a frozen conflict is more likely than a victory for the Ukraine. In fact, my reading suggests that Ukraine is actually losing right now (terrible casualties, around one fifth of its territory and suffering incalcuable economic damage). While there is no evidence of Putin faltering in his resolve or of his ’emotional majority’ deserting him.

    • Lance Benson

      June 28, 2022 at 2:38 pm

      So you credit the Russian MOD over Zelensky, and over the photographic evidence, and over the reporting on the ground, and over the video footage of the people running from the park nearby with debris raining down on them.
      “Why would Russia do such a thing?” Why would Russia invade Ukraine? Why would Russia threaten London with nuclear weapons (and Denmark, and others)? Why do Russian sympathizers rant about “Nazis” when it is clear that when used by them in this context, it means nothing but people who oppose Russia? Why would Russia have troops so poorly controlled (if not indeed directed) as to commit the atrocities of Bucha? Why would Russia kidnap Ukrainian children? Why would Russia steal Ukrainian grain? The list of such whys would be long indeed, but those questioned just say “Nazis” and “Anglo-Saxons”.

      • from Russia with love

        June 28, 2022 at 4:41 pm

        I’ll be happy to answer your “why” 🙂
        1) Why did Russia invade Ukraine? Russia has clearly warned everyone that if Ukraine tries to resolve the issue with the Donbass by force, then a harsh reaction will follow. Ukraine tried – the reaction followed.
        2) about the Nazis, you should figure out how it happened that these “those who are against Russia” are suddenly in organizations such as Azov, Aidar, Right Sector or C14? all these organizations are recognized as Nazi even in the West. it would not be bad if you could somehow explain why in “non-Nazi” Ukraine, at the state level (!!!), the UPA and SS Galicia were recognized as national heroes.
        3) it’s good that you remembered about Butch! And what about Bucha? all decent publications have already forgotten about this fake. French investigators went to the scene and .. and nothing? no criminal case? no facts? nothing to start a criminal case? man, you seem to have fallen out of the stream of events 🙂
        kidnapped children? those about which the Ukrainian Ombudsman Dinisova spoke? that Dinisova who was dismissed by the Ukrainian authorities for wild and ridiculous fakes that even Europe is laughing at? do you still believe in them?!?
        stolen grain? which? grain elevator which was blown up by Ukrainian terrorists in Mariupol? Do you remember those terrorists who were sitting at the Azovstal plant and offered to exchange civilian hostages for medical supplies and food? Or did the United States not voice these juicy details of the agony of the Ukrainian group in Mariupol?
        and this set of crooked fakes is all you have in support of ukraine???
        dude, I have a question for you – do you have a head for you to eat in it?

  8. Maria

    June 28, 2022 at 2:12 pm

    Watched Russians interviewed on you tube about Ukraine invasion after months. Early all Russians comment with smiling faces that the war doesn’t affect them and their not bothered, well if Ukraine start bombing Russia with the same velocity Russian scum military dished out in Ukraine I think these young Russians who smile and are not concerned at the moment will get a huge RUDE AWAKENING and will be crying not smiling.

    • Ezra Teter

      June 28, 2022 at 7:31 pm

      I understand that you are upset but I am wondering if Ukraine is losing up to 200 soldiers every single day and it is running out of ammunition with what army and what military equipment is it going to attack Russia? Everything that you say just sounds like a revenge fantasy that does not reflect the reality that even our war propaganda press is grudgingly acknowledging. I am not getting my information from the RT. I am getting it from sources like the Washington Post and New York Times.

  9. Anna

    June 28, 2022 at 2:18 pm

    I agree they the young think Russia is an impregnable place, they don’t know how weak Russia is without nukes,with out nukes Russia couldn’t threaten any country not even the size of kalingrad .Russians are liars, murderers, rapists,torturers,abusers , repulsive unbearable SCUM BARBARIAN TERRORISTS AND NEED TO VANISH.

    • Ezra Teter

      June 28, 2022 at 7:34 pm

      Russia has one more weapon that has defeated powerful armies without nuclear weapons: the Russian winter. Neither Hitler nor Napoleon could overcome their strategy of retreating and leaving a pile of ashes so their is no shelter to protect the invading army from the brutal cold.

  10. Alex was killed in a drone strike

    June 29, 2022 at 11:26 am

    God loves dead russians.

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