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How Bad Will the Ukraine War Get Before Putin Quits?

Kerch Bridge. Image Credit: Social Media Screenshot.
Kerch Bridge. Image Credit: Social Media Screenshot.

Vladimir Putin has been taking it on the chin for a long time during the war in Ukraine. Russia recently sustained two damaged nuclear-capable bombers and three dead personnel at air bases attacked by Ukrainian drones deep inside the country. This was embarrassing for Russia. The autumn has seen Russia withstand a bevy of counterattacks that have pushed Putin’s forces back significantly. Ukraine has momentum going into the winter and will keep the pressure on. This raises the question: how many attacks can Russia withstand before the army and air force fold and go down in defeat?

Unbelievable Russian Losses

Russia has lost about 50 percent of the territory it took at the beginning of the war. Russian forces have been sliced and diced by intrepid and resourceful Ukrainian fighters. Russia has lost an incredible 95,000 personnel, according to the Kyiv Independent and the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Estimated losses also include nearly 3,000 tanks, 281 airplanes, 264 helicopters, and 1,600 drones. These estimates from the Ukrainian military are often higher than other sources, but it still gives you an idea of the amount of carnage Russia has suffered. And also how much Russia is hiding in its numbers.

Throw Anyone with a Pulse Into Ukraine

Putin has tried emptying his jails and allowing an estimated 23,000 criminals to fight at the front. He enacted a partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists only to see an overwhelming amount of military-age men depart for other countries to dodge the draft. It seems the best Russia could do is hold out for a stalemate and not lose any more ground. Then Putin could wait until Russia’s defense industry produces more ammunition, tanks, armored vehicles, and airplanes  – though supplies of raw materials to produce such materials are low. This could help to turn the tide. But the current state of his military is dreadful.

Ukraine Is Getting Better Military Hardware 

Ukraine is getting more weapons systems from allied countries by the day. Kyiv may soon receive highly effective and advanced Patriot air defense batteries from the United States to better protect against Russian drones, ballistic and cruise missiles, and warplanes. The only tactic that Russia is employing that could point toward success is the bombardment by drones and ballistic missiles on civilian electrical and water infrastructure. This is not enough to win the war. The Patriot air defenders may make it more difficult for Russia to attack these targets.

The Russian Military Could Melt Away

The Russian army could quickly fall apart at any time, and the troops could fall back inside Russia, essentially giving up all territory. This may not include Crimea, but the Ukrainians want the borders reverted back to when they declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

What If Russian Soldiers Engage in a Mutiny? 

One adverse scenario for Russia is mutiny. Russian troops could just refuse to fight, and this refusal of orders could spread to other units leading to mass desertion. Another problem could come from domestic unrest caused by economic decline. This could start demonstrations and even riots among anti-war protesters who have become unemployed due to hard economic times brought about by sanctions.

Putin Could Declare Victory and Go Home 

Putin is fighting to avoid losing. Victory as originally envisioned – a capitulation of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the downfall of the government in Kyiv – is impossible. Putin may just be satisfied with keeping Donetsk and Crimea. This would create a frozen conflict and perhaps a demilitarized zone if there would ever be a cease-fire and armistice.

Russian People Could Accept a Loss 

The Russian people may accept frozen borders in Ukraine. As former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul told National Public Radio, ordinary Russians do not care about the war. “So, for him to say, ‘Mission completed. We don’t need your sons to go die in this war,’ my prediction is a vast majority would support that,” McFaul said.

Continuing a senseless fight in which Russia has more casualties could encourage additional domestic political pressure on Putin. There are no good options for him – keep battling and incur more losses – or stop fighting and admit the unthinkable – that Russia has lost the war.

Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.