Putin Digs Deep for a Potemkin Victory
Is Ukraine allowed to win?
Victory conditions are intrinsic to ending conflict. Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy both need peace, but each is pursuing different conditions to that eventual end of hostilities. Call it “game theory” or choose a better buzzword if you want. War is a social event that can only end through some form of mutual agreement between combatants. Win, lose, or draw, Putin must agree — or else the war is not really over, is it?
Of course, one side can all be dead and therefore unable to disagree, which is why there’s so much killing in wars, and why battles are said to be "decisive.” This might just be the Ukrainian plan, and they might just succeed at it, and that might be the only way Putin ever allows Ukraine to win, even a little bit.
Right now, his tanks are sitting in prepared defensive positions instead of advancing (see satellite image). Ukrainian military sources are telling everyone not to talk too much about the coming offensive, but Russians can clearly feel it coming. Per my first paragraph, Putin has become more conciliatory in negotiations every time another part of his army gets annihilated.
Putin also escalates the bombardment whenever his negotiating leverage on the ground diminishes. This strategy seeks to impose victory conditions on Ukraine that Ukrainians find unacceptable — in other words, he will sign a peace treaty and shake hands with Zelenskyy in exchange for X, Y, and Z that make them less of a country.
Ukraine, on the other hand, is done with Putin. Anything less than complete, normal sovereignty with secure borders is unacceptable to Ukraine. Yet every Ukrainian victory on the ground has brought an escalation in response. Putin has muttered about chemical and nuclear weapons. He has used his most advanced munitions. Russian forces have started “evacuating” (read: ethnic cleansing) Ukrainians to Russian territory.
These acts are supposed to deter Zelenskyy from any rash acts such as, oh, annihilating an entire Russian army.
Thousands of Russian POWs are already held in Ukrainian facilities right now. Thousands of tanks and armored vehicles have been destroyed, tens of thousands of wounded put into the caring hands of Russian medical evacuation services, many thousands of soldiers and at least half a dozen generals killed. Already. Imagine how much more accommodating Putin might be after a few more such victories.
These Ukrainian victories are, of course, victories for Putin. They have to be. Somehow. Some way. Propaganda is a given. You understand how this works.
In Russia, the leader is not allowed to lose. Yakov Smirnoff jokes aside, the politics of Russian autocracy require some sort of fig leaf. Putin wants to claim GREAT SUCCESS! at de-Nazifying apartment buildings. Historians doubt that Potemkin ever actually built fake villages for his girlfriend, but it works as an apocryphal tale for the politics of Russia since before Catherine the Great: sham victories are still “victories.”
On the other hand, Ukraine is withstanding the bombardment, which is entirely disconnected from any real operational goals. Ukrainian forces appear poised on the brink of some victory — limited, but tangible — in which the defeat of Russian arms is total and undeniable and impossible to hide, at least forever.
Putin will be the last to find out the full scale of defeat, though, because in Russia bad news always comes late and embarrassed. It took four days for him to react to the disasters of the first day. With his intelligence chiefs under house arrest for telling Putin what he wanted to hear, who knows what his information channels are. Some lag time will elapse between the moment Zelensky announces a victory and the moment Putin believes him.
The possibility of defeat by Ukraine was never real to Russia, or to Russians, or to one Russian in particular. The Ukrainian objective now is to make defeat real to them all. As a follow-on consequence, Putin could make nuclear or chemical threats, but they would only be threats. The more he makes them and doesn’t follow through, the less real they become as threats to Ukraine.
Lots of observers have gritted their teeth at NATO non-intervention. Why not risk World War III, they reason, if it’s going to come to nuclear trump cards anyway? This is why.
Putin is not insane. Nuclear or chemical weapons would absolutely provoke NATO intervention, which would be insane. As long as the west reclines, performing the Cold War rather than waging it directly, Putin’s worst threats remain hollow. Each time Ukraine destroys another Russian division and Putin doesn’t use a nuke, the threat loses its power to terrify anyone.
Within their own borders, Ukraine is free to win as long as Putin fears NATO. Sure, analysts have spotted enlargement being floated in Russian media. No doubt Putin has calculated the option of expanding the war already and found it wanting, though. If his forces perform this badly against Ukraine, what are they going to do against more countries with the same level of hate for Russia and even more advanced weapons? Public bluster is free, wars cost blood and treasure.
A conservative soul, Putin has already begun to limit his expectations for peace. Perhaps he will be more amenable to fuller Ukrainian independence after Week Five of his Special Operation, or Week Six, or Month Six, but it will happen. The amateurish arrangement of those tank pits in a straight line, ripe for attack with a single advanced munition, suggests as much.
How many Russians must die before Putin lowers his expectations by half, or more, or to zero? That is the calculus in Kyiv. As the defender, Ukraine is the side that can most easily kill their way to peace.
“Win, lose, or draw, Putin must agree — or else the war is not really over, is it?”
Korea, anybody? Anybody? Bueller?