October 28, 2022
There is an increasingly widespread, and popular, narrative in Ukraine and in the West that Putin realizes he’s losing the war, has taken relatively extreme measures — unthinkable until recently (mobilization, re-creating penal battalions, moving the economy to wartime footing) — to slow this down because he fears the impact a defeat would have on his survival, and is desperately seeking to negotiate some cease-fire or perhaps even an end to the war.
I think this narrative is wrong, and would have very pernicious consequences for Ukraine’s (and the West’s) ability to win this war, if adopted. My belief is that Putin thinks he has suffered only minor setbacks, that Russia can win this war, and that no concessions are necessary to end the war. As a result, the Kremlin has not moderated its original war aims except for one small nuance — which I will explain below — and negotiations with Russia will be worse than useless at this point. I happen to think that Putin is wrong about his expectations, and so pressing the war to a military situation where the Russian elites truly believe that Putin cannot win it — and this point is likely to come before he admits it — is the only reasonable way forward. The silver lining is that as long as Putin believes he can win this, the risk of nuclear weapons remains very low, which suggests that all the rocket rattling from Moscow is — as of this moment — nothing but a bluff.
This is a lot to assert without further argument, so let’s dive into the supporting logic and evidence.
On the Ukrainian side, the attractiveness of these ideas is easy to understand: they furnish hope for an end of suffering and a triumph that will come sooner rather than later. It is really, really motivated wishful thinking, very similar to the stories that Putin is gravely ill and dying. He’s been dying for a decade now (some conspiracy types claim he already died and the regime is parading a double, maybe two doubles), but to me, he seems very much alive, and perhaps not even in a terrible condition given his age and stress levels. Setting aside the problematic assumption that his death will solve all problems — I have argued, repeatedly, that the rot is much deeper and the Russian ruling elites are much more dangerous than many analysts are willing to admit — the thrust of this “Putin is terminally ill and will keel over any moment now” story is to furnish some hope, offer a light at the end of the tunnel, which is what makes it similar to the “Putin knows he’s lost the war and is desperately trying to survive the defeat” story. So the Ukrainian side is understandable even if the military leaders — Zaluzhnyi and Syrskyi — have said very clearly that the war will not be over soon.
The Western adoption of this story is a bit more involved. Of course, there’s the triumphalist aspect of “the end of the war is near”, which can sustain support for Ukraine, and this is analogous to the reasoning above. But there is another aspect, which is far more troublesome, and this is the answer to the question “What would Putin do if he really thinks he’s losing and is afraid for his survival?” Westerners tend to be preoccupied with answering this question, and their answers could very much affect support for the war.
The arguments here range from smart (gambling for resurrection) to usefully — for the Kremlin — idiotic (must give Putin an “off ramp” to avoid nuclear war). The good argument is as follows.
The fighting has revealed unambiguously the trajectory of the war because Ukraine is gaining strength due to its early mobilization, smart command, tactical advantages, popular determination and unity, as well as financial and military support from the West. Conversely, the Russians are demoralized due to very costly and underwhelming performance, inability to articulate goals, outmoded command structure, corruption that has led to decay in the readiness of the armed forces, economy strangled by the sanctions with an inability to find alternatives due to the widely perceived illegitimacy of the war. Putin must know that mobilization cannot compensate for the systemic disadvantages in the long run, but he is afraid of the domestic consequences of ending the war. These consequences are said to arise from elite — and maybe even popular — disillusionment with his rule, and more specifically, with his inability to deliver victory in what was supposed to be a short and costless “special military operation.” The dog-eat-dog world of Russian politics is such that perceived weakness is an opportunity to take out a rival, and if Putin shows such weakness in Ukraine, elites will no longer unify behind the war, and in the ensuing factional struggle, someone might eliminate him.
In such a context, avoiding the appearance of defeat is almost as important as avoiding defeat. A ruler faced with an apparently inevitable bad outcome under the current policy — presumably the best available that balances the various trade offs between benefits, costs, and risks — will be tempted to implement an alternative policy that offers the hope of a distinctly better outcome (let’s call it victory), but also a much worse downside. The leader is said to “gamble for resurrection” — that is, he implements that alternative policy in the hope that he can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat although doing this involves much greater risks and costs.
One can certainly think of mobilization as an attempt to achieve victory even though it will be at a cost that vastly exceeds what were probably the most pessimistic estimates in the Kremlin at the start of the war. Going nuclear is another such option, albeit with a much less predictable path to success.
This is certainly a reasonable read of what’s going on, and I think there’s a lot to recommend it. I have made variants of these sorts of arguments myself, and I do believe that elements of this reasoning — Putin’s worries about the state of the military, the progress of mobilization, of the deteriorating economy, or rising social tensions that might spill into ethnic conflicts — must be present in his mind. (The evidence for that is that he’s talked about, and ordered, measures that are designed to deal with all of these.)
The step from worries about the economy and public attitudes toward fear for his survival, however, is not clear to me, and I do not think the available evidence supports the claim that Putin has made it. Before explaining why, let me briefly say why I think it’s important that we do not give this line of reasoning a priority just because it’s so popular and tempting.
The other group of Westerners that adopt this narrative is comprised of people who are urgently calling for a cease-fire, an “off ramp” for Putin, immediately “de-escalation”, and so on, implying — and often saying out right — that Ukraine must be compelled to make territorial concessions to get Putin to stop the war. The logic is that the risks inherent in the high-variance strategy are huge and we, the West, do not want to run them for a dubious benefit in Ukraine, which is, after all, not even a NATO member. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the people now saying “beware of a cornered Putin, he might do something rash or crazy” were the exact same people who were saying “we must compel Ukraine to negotiate because Russia will inevitably win this” when the war began.
I will leave aside the irony of arriving at the exact same conclusions — Putin’s appetites must be satisfied — from totally opposite sets of premises, or the question of what, exactly, motivates these people. Instead, I will just note that the “cornered animal” metaphor is powerful and people may heed it even if they dearly wish Ukraine to win. This is what makes it dangerous — it can provide a common front to anyone from outright pro-Russian fifth columnists, Putin-verstehers, and useful idiots all the way to sincere supporters of Ukraine who nevertheless fear getting involved in a third world war or, god forbid, triggering a nuclear escalation. If this narrative takes hold, this front might prove too potent to overcome by determined policy-makers, and the outcome would be a strategic disaster for the US, not to mention Europe and Ukraine.
Ukrainians and Eastern Europeans are quite aware of the implication of this narrative for the risks of Putin taking truly extreme measures to protect himself, nuclear weapons being the most obvious. So they tend to dismiss them with some ad hoc arguments that Putin is too afraid of what the US/NATO would do in response or that his orders would not be followed because military commanders in the chain of executing the orders might not be suicidal or might prove to have stronger moral mettle. It should be clear that neither of these arguments is supported by anything other than wishful thinking. I have no doubt that Putin is personally capable of ordering the use of nuclear weapons, and I have severe doubts that these orders would not be executed. I really, really hope for the latter — and it’s possible, I agree with that — but we cannot bank on it as a basis of our policies.
At any rate, this is neither here nor there when it comes to the argument about gambling for resurrection itself. Even though this is a good argument to make, its relevance is only as good as the assumption on which it is based: Putin is losing and he knows that this is so. From this assumption, the mechanism explains how increasing the variance of the outcomes can be attractive to a leader wishing to avoid defeat. But how good is that assumption?
Since one thing to do when we don’t like the answers is to attack the premises of the question, let’s ask: What is the evidence that Putin understands that he’s losing and is making decisions out of concern for his survival?
First, is it reasonable for Putin not to think that he’s losing? Westerners (and many Ukrainians) seem to think that it isn’t — any reasonable observer should see that Russia is losing (has lost, maybe?) the war. This is why some people fret whether Putin is rational or whether he is getting all relevant information. I don’t quite understand why people can’t accept that, from Putin’s seat in the Kremlin (or the bunker), the war is not lost, and in fact Russia is not even losing it. That it’s just some temporary setbacks due to faulty original assumptions and a sub-optimal invasion plan, all of which is now being corrected. If this is the perspective, then continuing the war, mobilizing more resources, and escalating are perfectly reasonable responses to the situation and the problems that have arisen with the original policies and war plans. If Putin believes that the key to Ukraine’s resistance is the massive support from the West, then targeting this support through delaying, terror, and undermining tactics also makes perfect sense. If his estimate is that there’s a decent chance that these tactics would work (because of popular discontent with inflation driven by high energy prices, or because populist leaders might not be sympathetic to a US-led response, or because Russia has enough influence and clout in certain countries to incentivize them to block some responses outright), then it is also perfectly reasonable to run the high costs for an outcome that is highly valued.
To put it bluntly, it’s worth it to Putin to wreck the Russian economy, sacrifice tens of thousands of Russians, destroy the relations with the West for a generation or two, and even strain the relations with more neutral parties if he would get the parts of Ukraine that he wants. You and I may not understand this sort of preference, but then again we would not be able to understand Hitler’s preference for eliminating Jews either — and that failure to understand it does not mean that his policy to exterminate Jews was not a rational one from his perspective.
Now, I cannot peek into Putin’s mind to ascertain whether it is indeed the case that he is continuing the war because he believes he can achieve his goals or because he’s afraid to end it because he might lose his throne or life. All I can do is take a look at the evidence we have and ask whether it is more consistent with one of the stories or the other.
[Before I continue, let me make this clear: I personally do believe that Russia has lost the major goal (there will be an independent pro-Western Ukraine after the war), and is losing right now (the Ukrainians will recover territories Russia has claimed as its own). I still do not know what the extent of that victory will be (e.g., fate of Crimea) but I do know that the outcome will be a defeat for Putin’s original aims.]
Let’s start with the war aims. If Putin is running scared and desperate to somehow stop the fighting while preserving the ability to claim some victory, then one should see him moderating the original war aims, redefining what victory would look like, and then vigorously promoting that interpretation through international diplomacy and domestic propaganda.
From Putin’s original statement of war aims — back when he believed that the war would get him “Kyiv in 3 days” — we know that he denies Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state. He even denied that there’s such as thing as a Ukrainian nation — they were just a bunch of brotherly Slavs, almost Russian really, misled by a perfidious West and its lackeys, the Nazis in Kyiv. From this we can infer a maximal aim with respect to Ukraine: eliminate the state as it existed in February 2022.
The diplomatic and military strategies implemented suggest a more specific implementation of this aim: dismemberment of the country with certain territories getting incorporated into Russia, and the installation of a puppet government in Kyiv for the remaining lands. The fact that Putin recognized the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” before the invasion tells that he did not intend these to be part of whatever remained of Ukraine after the war. The multi-pronged invasion aimed at conquering Donbas, but also Kharkiv, Kherson, and Odesa — that is, the entire territory east of the Dnipro River and south, along the Black Sea coast. The assault on Kyiv, in contrast, was much more precise and smaller scale, clearly designed to eliminate the leaders of the government either by killing them, capturing them, or forcing them into exile. From these actions and the various statements made by Putin and his associates, it is reasonable to infer that the original aim of Russia — as it pertains to Ukraine specifically — was to detach the oblasts of Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson (with a land corridor that incorporates Odesa and connects to Transnistria), incorporate them into the Russian Federation, and then install a government in Kyiv that would agree to these annexations and suppress whatever resistance remains in the rump state under its “control.” Of course, that government would be entirely dependent on Russia, seeing that it would be surrounded on three sides by Russian (or Belarusian) territory, with no outlets to the Black Sea, for which it would have to negotiate with Moscow. It will be demilitarized and, for a while at least, “neutral.” The step from this to a USSR 2.0-style union among the Russian Federation, Belarus, and “Ukraine” is a short and obvious one. (I will not speculate about Putin’s goals beyond this even though they really do matter for us.)
Has anything here changed?
Maybe, one thing at most, and even that I am not sure of. The one thing is installing a puppet regime in Kyiv. When the military suddenly announced in the spring that the primary goal of the SMO was to liberate/secure Donbas, many observers — me including — were taken by surprise. This seemed like a sharp reduction in the goals of the war as it seemingly abandoned regime change, or the annexation of the other territories. The “gesture of goodwill,” which is what the Russians called the withdrawal from Kyiv certainly seemed to suggest that the regime change idea has been put on the back burner, if not abandoned altogether. Very soon, however, we saw determined attempts to continue the offensive to conquer the remaining territories on the list, accompanied by talk about referenda about incorporating them into Russia. These actions suggest that the military lied when it said that the goal is limited to Donbas, which meant that this part of the original plan had remained intact.
What have we seen since? The Russians were making very slow, very costly, but also very steady progress in conquering these territories. The plans for annexation proceeded, as did de-Ukrainization (sending in teachers from Russia), and genocidal cleansing (of which we will be learning a lot more, I am afraid). Putin seemed well on his way to accomplishing most of his land grab, after which he could hope to “freeze the conflict” and just wait out the inevitable collapse of Western unity that would be driven, in part, by Ukraine’s evident inability to hold its territory despite Western aid. (And yes, people were making these sorts of arguments during the summer left and right.)
Then came the Kharkiv Offensive that proved stunningly successful. Many commentators rushed to declare a “turning point” in the war, and saw a sign of inevitable defeat for Putin. But… the Ukrainian military leadership was a whole lot more circumspect in its analysis, and soon it became fairly clear that even they had not expected this success even though they were quick to recognize the opportunity it presented and moved to exploit it, seizing the initiative in the war altogether. Part of the success was due to Russia’s very thin defenses and almost criminal negligence in getting them ready to withstand an assault — partly due to bad intelligence, partly due to incompetence, partly due to arrogance, partly due to insufficient number of troops, and partly due to problems with supply and communications. From Putin’s perspective, all of this is correctable given Russia’s resource and manpower base, and so the question was whether he should incur the political and economic costs of mobilizing the resources and men it would take to fix them.
For a while, he seems to have wavered — experts were saying that mobilization would be unpopular, and of course it would violate the “contract” that Putin had offered Russians in March: acquiesce and do not oppose the SMO, and in return you will be left alone, as usual, and only contract soldiers would fight in it. This was a difficult step to take, no doubt — Putin’s rule to a large extent depends on the political passivity of the nation, which it had bought at the cost of minimizing interference in the daily affairs of the Russians to an almost absurd degree (corruption becoming a way of life for many).
Putin, however, had been preparing for this — for years he had been eliminating any semblance of opposition to his rule, including murdering people who could be political leaders around whom anti-regime Russians could unify. Elections had already become meaningless even before the war, but when the war began the regime began a rapid process of transitioning to a traditional authoritarian state, with complete control over the media and extensive internal repression. The propaganda soon began painting the war in very violent colors, triggering a steady slide into fascism. With these elements in place, mobilization could be effected with minimal resistance.
When the Ukrainian momentum pushed toward Luhansk Oblast and spread to Kherson, Putin pulled the trigger: he announced the annexation of all territories where Russian troops were still present — plans had been made for Kharkiv, but the Ukrainian offensive made it impossible to implement — and the mobilization that many analysts had been predicting for months began. This signaled that instead of concluding that the war is lost, Putin had concluded that he needs to put in more effort to win it. There was no attempt to moderate the war aims, no attempt to even hint at some sort of compromise. All the communication that came out was pretty consistent — Moscow wants to “negotiate” but its demands had remained unchanged. The annexations were the most visible and clear evidence of that — the new territories were incorporated into the Russian Constitution to signal that there was to be no going back on that. The fact that the “referenda” were so hastily conducted should not obscure the fact that preparation for them had begun in the spring — these were most of the territories of the original plan. You can be sure that if the Russian armies manage to conquer some significant part of Kharkiv oblast, there will be another “referendum” there as well.
Since I have explained before the essence of his attrition strategy, it need not detain us here. Suffice it to mention that it aims to cause maximal economic and social pain to Ukraine (which is why the civilian energy structure is being targeted), stopping further advances (which is why they are reinforcing their Kherson group and preparing new units for the other fronts), and continuing the conquest of the lands they want (which is why they are counter-attacking toward Lyman and continuing the offensive on Bakhmut).
To be effective, however, mobilization takes time — a couple of months for defensive operations, and triple that for offensive ones, plus the economy needs to be put on a wartime footing, and this also requires time. And so, inevitably, Putin needs his armies to somehow survive long enough for these measures to become effective. In addition to panicked closing of gaps with “cannon fodder” (with terrible losses), he has increased his efforts to sow confusion, fear, and pessimism among Ukraine’s supporters in the West. And so the entire repertoire of nuclear threats, dirty bombs, escalation to a global war, and such has been put into continuous use.
What has not happened is a statement about some sort of terms that are even remotely acceptable to Ukraine. Contrary to the Kremlin’s claims, this has nothing to do with Kyiv’s refusal to negotiate (the refusal to negotiate with Putin now codified after the annexations), but everything to do with Kremlin’s totally insincere proposals to do so. Putin and his associates continue to make speeches about how all of their goals would be met, even if now they admit some difficulties (which, of course, they are overcoming). They continue to publicly regard the Ukrainian government as illegitimate, constantly harping on how the US controls it. In fact, just yesterday they stated that the Ukrainian state has ceased to exist because it’s wholly controlled by the Americans.
This is not the behavior of someone who feels backed into a corner and is frantically seeking a way out because he’s afraid that his fellow countrymen would tear him to shreds. Putin controls enough of Russia’s media and repressive apparatus to sell almost anything as victory. Instead of moderating the line, however, his regime has declared total war on Ukraine and the West, knowing full well that this has reduced the likelihood of peace. Ukraine would not accept these extravagant territorial demands and the West (at least the US) would not countenance such a victory for Putin because of its global implications for its security.
This means that Putin has resolved on a military solution — force Ukraine to capitulate to his terms, and the West would have to live with that.
It behooves us to help the Ukrainians defeat his armies in the field — nothing else would work. A reasonable definition of success would be pushing the Russians to the pre-invasion line. It’s not what the Ukrainians want — they wish to get all their 1991 territory back — but it might be an opportunity to start negotiations if that success manages to topple Putin.
One parting thought: the last paragraph might seem contradictory. Does it not say that these sorts of losses in Ukraine would put him at risk, therefore triggering the gambling for resurrection mechanism? Not necessarily: if Putin is toppled, it would be a palace coup, not a popular protest or revolt. This makes it totally unpredictable, and so he might well not see it coming — in fact, it’s almost a requirement that he does not see it coming; if you or I could predict who is going to end up removing him, you can be sure that Putin could do so as well, and that person or group would be eliminated before they can scream “Goyda!” to prove their patriotic innocence. Popular protests would certainly be destabilizing and could conceivably cause Putin to worry about his safety for real, but they are very unlikely to happen given the extensive — and well paid — repressive apparatus that he’s put into place and carefully protected from the mobilization. And so no, it does not follow that just because the losses would be unpopular Putin would have to fear for his safety.
If a coup comes, it will be a bolt out of the blue even for him, let alone for the rest of us. And it may not come at all. Maybe he does keel over before any of that comes to pass.