Defeating Putin10 min read

 In Analysis, Politics, Russia, War in Ukraine
Hardening positions and new attacks against civilians warrant a closer look at what a Ukrainian victory could one day look like.

In the last month, just as life truly began to feel almost normal in most Ukrainian cities, a new wave of Russian missile strikes pounded shopping centres, residential areas, and town squares all over the country. Starting with Kremenchuk in central Ukraine and renewed strikes on Kyiv, the next few weeks saw civilians killed in Vinnytsia, Nikopol, and Dnipro, while the frontline cities of Mykolaiv and Kharkiv were hit with increasing intensity. 

The timing of the initial strikes on Kyiv and Kremenchuk was no coincidence. They came as Ukraine’s closest allies met at back-to-back summits, first of the G7, then of NATO leaders and associates in Spain. The missile attacks also came just a few days after US-built long-range HIMARS precision rocket systems began their work on the battlefield, of which many more have since been delivered.

Consistent with the Kremlin’s rhetoric since 24 February—explicit and implicit—the message to Ukraine’s backers was clear. If you dare to escalate, so shall we. As usual however, Vladimir Putin’s displays of cruelty, rather than cowing the West into submission, only had the opposite effect. G7 leaders stood firm in their commitment to Ukrainian victory, new weapons deliveries were announced. French President Emmanuel Macron, who had infamously argued in favour of not “humiliating” Putin, now proclaimed that “Russia cannot and must not win”.

If it is Ukraine that can and must win, though, what would such a victory look like? Even more pressing is the question, what would defeating Vladimir Putin look like?

“Battle for the initiative”

This sudden explosion of activity from both sides comes at what could be a turning point in the course of the war. After a seven-week long defence of the city of Severodonetsk in which both sides suffered significant attrition, Ukrainian forces withdrew from the area on 25 June. The same fate met its sister city Lysychansk a week later, as Russian forces came close to a complete encirclement of the city.

This turn of events however, was expected: most experts have instead been surprised that it took this long. In the grander scheme of things, the loss of this territory is in no way decisive. Abandoning the defence of an increasingly indefensible salient to new, shorter frontlines that were most certainly prepared in advance is a normal event in war.

Militarily, there is a near consensus among experts that both Russian and Ukrainian forces are increasingly exhausted. Many predicted that this period will see an operational pause as the sides regather their strength. The muscle-flexing of the past month begs to differ- that the frontlines can’t stay quiet for much longer. 

A plausible answer comes from an unexpected direction. Over the course of the war, Igor Girkin, the infamous ex-FSB officer and war criminal who played a key role in the Kremlin-backed “uprisings” in Donetsk region in 2014, has surprised observers with his sober and often damning assessments of Russia’s invasion strategy. 

As the battle for Severodonetsk reached its end, Girkin wrote on his Telegram channel that the next phase of the war would be defined by the “battle for the initiative”. If both sides are exhausted, the upper hand will be taken by the side that can overcome this exhaustion and take active measures to push the balance in their own favour.

Ukraine hopes that the arrival of more Western weapons, in particular the HIMARS and similar advanced rocket systems, will give them the edge required to take the initiative. Already, the systems have proven to be a game-changer, able to take out high-value targets such as ammunition dumps, command centres, and air defence radars with incredible precision, from deep behind Ukrainian lines.  

An immovable object

Even with a healthy serving of optimism, though, the path to defeating Putin remains murky and treacherous. 

Scrolling through the high emotion of the Ukrainian social media sphere, talk is of a collapse, even a disappearance of Russia. Viral memes display a map where Ukraine’s aggressive eastern neighbour is replaced by an endless blue sea. Russia’s land, however, along with Russia’s 142 million people are not going anywhere. As surprised as some pundits may be, Vladimir Putin and his regime are also showing no signs of going anywhere either.

With almost a fifth of Ukrainian territory occupied, the obvious tangible criteria for victory is its return, at least to the lines that existed on 23 February, behind which lives a population that has been scarred by eight years of Russian propaganda. Even this is a huge amount of territory to retake by force. If Russia chooses to dig in for the long haul, an offensive operation on this scale could be disastrously costly for Ukraine.

However, anything less than this would also be an objectively disastrous result. While putting great pressure on Kyiv and Kharkiv, Russia was able to capture vast swathes of territory in Ukraine’s south, thanks to a lower concentration of defending force, wide open terrain, and treacherous negligence of duty from local Ukrainian officials. Having captured the regional capital of Kherson, Russia has established a substantial bridgehead on the right bank of the Dnipro river, and could in the future conceivably push further to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea entirely. In the meantime, the port of Odesa, crucial to Ukraine’s economy and to the food security of much of the world, has been blockaded, and will remain so unless Russia is no longer able to safely operate in the nearby waters.

Ukraine’s only path to victory resides on the battlefield. Just as was the case in Kyiv and the rest of northern Ukraine—just as was the case with the notorious Snake Island—Russia needs to reach an understanding that its position in the occupied territories is untenable. At a minimum, to relinquish an area like right-bank Kherson, the Russian command will need to feel that the losses being inflicted upon it are not worth the value of the territory itself.

Standoff in the south

It is in Kherson—if the much-touted Ukrainian counteroffensive looks to be successful—where the world could get its first taste of what defeating Putin really looks like. Those in the West who take the Kremlin’s nuclear threats seriously, those who seek to avoid “humiliating” Putin, fear what the Russian president might do when he has “back against the wall.” In Kherson, Russian forces will be fighting with their backs literally up against the Dnipro river. There will be no grey area or stalemate in between, only victory or defeat.  

If Russian resistance west of the river begins to break, a resolute defence of urban areas in Kherson is likely to follow. Reports have described the building of new concrete fortifications and an ever-increasing presence of Russian forces within the city limits. Assaulting the city while it’s still inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians may be a step too far for Kyiv. But if targeted strikes or the need to compromise the defence of other fronts begin to make Russia’s hold of the city too costly, Ukraine’s first great counterattacking victory could be on the cards.

In a clear sign of intent and initiative, Ukrainian officials have claimed that Kherson will be liberated “by September.” News of impending defeat in Kherson would be very difficult to spin to the Russian people as “the special operation is going to plan”. Even more importantly, it would be a painful personal embarrassment for Putin, a slight on his strongman self-image that he will struggle not to react to.

A return (again) to Putinology

It might seem dramatic and reductive to consider Vladimir Putin’s psyche and ego as the most important factor in understanding Russia’s major moves on the world stage. It seemed dramatic and reductive, that is, until 24 February. Nobody could find any rationality in the frantic full-scale invasion of Ukraine, in the mad rush on Kyiv, because there wasn’t any. In the space of four months, Russia has found itself poorer, more isolated, and immeasurably weaker on the world stage; these consequences were not unexpected.

For most, the penny only dropped three days before, when Russia recognised the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. In the rigid fear of the members of his security council as they spluttered out their scripted lines, in his hateful eyes as he laid the pseudo-historical groundwork for invasion in an unhinged speech shortly after, the world finally began to see the real Putin. This is the Putin that would later boast about following in the conquering footsteps of Peter the Great, the Putin that now threatens to take the fight to “the last Ukrainian” if necessary. 

The Putin who conceived and followed through with the greatest act of destructive madness in the 21st century is, more or less, the same Putin that we now speak of defeating. It is hard to imagine that defeat in Kherson would not be met with a morbid lashing out of some sort, if not a major escalation.

Death throes of the invasion

For many, the fear is that retreating Russian troops will take their anger out on the civilian population en masse, as occurred in Bucha and elsewhere in Kyiv region, though it’s unlikely that an order to massacre civilians came from the very top. Others fear more intense missile strikes on civilian areas, including in the historical centres of Kyiv, Lviv, and Odesa, which have largely been spared so far. Other atrocities are harder to predict, let alone imagine. Russia has consistently surprised the world for its capacity for blatant war crimes of extreme cruelty, as in the case when over 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war were almost certainly burned alive in Olenivka prison late last month.

While Russia could always unleash more and more horrors upon civilians, other forms of more pragmatic escalation could yet put the Ukrainian military on the back foot. As unlikely and risky as it would be, Moscow’s leverage over Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko could be used to force the military of Ukraine’s northern neighbour into the war.

Alternatively, as some predicted would happen on Victory Day back in May, Putin could also announce a general mobilisation to address Russia’s shortage of willing contract soldiers. It would take time, though, for new conscripts to be trained to combat readiness, and the upheaval that mobilisation would cause in Russian cities would undoubtedly result in mass noncompliance and a sharp decline in approval for the leader and his “special operation”.

All these scenarios could prove testing and deeply painful for Ukraine, which must be prepared for them. They don’t, however, fundamentally alter the picture. After all the lines Russia has crossed, all the war crimes committed, there is no escalation scenario that warrants the ceasing of Western weapons deliveries.

Putin may claim that “we have even properly started yet”, but the thousands of destroyed tanks, tens of thousands of casualties, and the wreck of the Moskva on the Black Sea floor would probably beg to differ. Russia is fighting from a position of increasing weakness; now, the tools need to be provided to finish the job.

The nuclear option always looms, as much advertised by Putin’s propagandists and the man himself. A nuclear strike on any Ukrainian city would be the ultimate act of unhinged savagery, and fortunately, an unlikely one given Putin’s shift towards a long, patient, pragmatic war.

Defeating Putin and the Russian army is no easy task. Reaching this destination, however, is far from impossible, no matter how much of the world might be trying to convince the Ukrainian people. Ukraine has already achieved its first great victory- continuing to exist, defending its capital in defiance of the special operation to take it in a few days. Now, if given the right tools, Ukraine will be well-placed to definitively beat the next great fascist power in Europe. 

Featured image: Don Fontijn / Unsplash
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