What happens when Vladimir Putin realizes that he has no way out?
Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine has not been the easy conquest that he has envisioned for the plurality of his political career. Reestablishing the borders of the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was supposed to be Putin's personal magnum opus (at least, according to Putin).
Alas, that is no more.
In the 13 chaotic days since Putin's forces entered Ukraine, they have been checked with fierce resistance by the Ukrainians and a widespread absence of morale amongst their ranks. The latter, in part, is due to a total lack of preparedness and resources as well as crappy equipment. The Russian invaders have also begun to realize that their entire mission was based on a lie.
Nevertheless, the last two weeks have put the world on edge as Putin has blustered about deploying atomic bombs against the West, should the United States, the European Union, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization directly engage with Russian troops. Captured nuclear power plants have been turned into terrifying de-facto bargaining chips. Ukrainian civilians have been targeted in indiscriminate attacks, many of which may be war crimes under the Geneva Convention. And crippling sanctions have decimated the Russian economy, triggering a mass nationwide exodus not dissimilar to the millions of Ukrainians that are fleeing their land.
Setting aside concerns about World War III, it is abundantly obvious to everyone (except Putin, maybe) that his campaign in Ukraine is a failure. Putin gravely miscalculated the unified resolve of the West as well as the willingness of the Ukrainian people to fight for their home.
As the sieges drag on and the carnage on both sides worsens, it warrants contemplating how far Putin will go to achieve his end – or what he will do when he realizes that he has no way out.
Columnist Thomas Friedman addressed these unsettling questions in Tuesday's New York Times:
In the coming weeks, it will become more and more obvious that our biggest problem with Putin in Ukraine is that he will refuse to lose early and small, and the only other outcome is that he will lose big and late. But because this is solely his war and he cannot admit defeat, he could keep doubling down in Ukraine until … until he contemplates using a nuclear weapon.
Why do I say that defeat in Ukraine is Putin’s only option, that only the timing and size are in question? Because the easy, low-cost invasion he envisioned and the welcome party from Ukrainians he imagined were total fantasies — and everything flows from that.
The problem with Putin is that as a former spy, he is not the type of individual to surrender or take kindly to being proven devastatingly wrong. His legacy depends on what happens in Ukraine, and his grip will probably continue to tighten. That, Freidman wrote, is a dark prospect for the entire planet:
When you get that many things wrong as a leader, your best option is to lose early and small. In Putin’s case that would mean withdrawing his forces from Ukraine immediately; offering a face-saving lie to justify his 'special military operation, like claiming it successfully protected Russians living in Ukraine; and promising to help Russians’ brethren rebuild. But the inescapable humiliation would surely be intolerable for this man obsessed with restoring the dignity and unity of what he sees as the Russian motherland.
Even if Putin were to somehow gain control over Ukraine – a country roughly the same size as Texas with a population of 44 million – maintaining order would be nearly impossible, especially when factoring in the sorry state of his armed forces. Plus, and most importantly, Ukraine does not want to be part of Russia.
Friedman stressed this as well:
There is simply no pathway that I see for Putin to win in Ukraine in any sustainable way because it simply is not the country he thought it was — a country just waiting for a quick decapitation of its 'Nazi' leadership so that it could gently fall back into the bosom of Mother Russia.
What, then, are his options?
Friedman said that Putin "either he cuts his losses now and eats crow — and hopefully for him escapes enough sanctions to revive the Russian economy and hold onto power — or faces a forever war against Ukraine and much of the world, which will slowly sap Russia’s strength and collapse its infrastructure."
But Putin "seems hellbent on the latter," Friedman continued, adding, "I am terrified. Because there is only one thing worse than a strong Russia under Putin — and that’s a weak, humiliated, disorderly Russia that could fracture or be in a prolonged internal leadership turmoil, with different factions wrestling for power and with all of those nuclear warheads, cybercriminals and oil and gas wells lying around."
Friedman concluded that while "Putin’s Russia is not too big to fail, it is, however, too big to fail in a way that won’t shake the whole rest of the world."
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