Putin has already lost

President Biden, in signing off on another $800 million in military aid for Ukraine on Wednesday, said the goal is to ensure that the war “will never be a victory for [Vladimir] Putin no matter what advances he makes on the battlefield”. Fortunately, the Russian president will never be able to subdue ordinary Ukrainians, who have taken up arms to defend their homes and families. In fact, it is increasingly possible that Putin may not even control major cities.

The extent of Putin’s failure is breathtaking. He was supposed to win this war in days; in three weeks, he still has not captured Kyiv or decapitated the Ukrainian government. His military has sustained humiliating losses, provoking him to start firing advisers en masse so as to deflect blame. Putin also wound up energizing Ukrainians’ strong nationalistic spirit, even turning many Russian-speaking residents into virulent foes of Russia. Ukrainians will pass down their memory of this war from generation to generation, poisoning future generations’ views of Russia long after Putin is gone.

Putin also has unified the West, prompted NATO to beef up its military spending, kick-started a resurgence of pro-democratic sentiments, revealed his own weakness with his clumsy crackdown on the media and made himself the poster boy for war crimes. Biden himself labeled Putin a “war criminal” for the first time on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Russia’s economy is in shambles, losing decades of progress and perhaps permanently damaging the country’s energy markets.

Four of Putin’s generals have died on the battlefield. Russian international sports and cultural figures are deploring his war. His oligarchs have lost fortunes resulting from the seizures of foreign bank accounts, properties and yachts.

Put it all together, and it’s clear the war has been devastating to Russia — and perhaps crippling to Putin. Crucial to a despot’s grip on power is the perception of strength. Like absolute kings centuries ago, modern tyrants rely on elites and the wider public believing they can do no wrong. Their rule cannot be questioned because they must present themselves as critical to the survival of the country.

As Hal Brands and John Lewis Gaddis wrote for Foreign Affairs magazine last year, it is “the claim to infallibility on which legitimacy in an autocracy must rest”. They added: “That is why graceful exits by authoritarians have been so rare”.

Putin now finds himself the butt of jokes. After he imposed “sanctions” against U.S. politicians, White House press secretary Jen Psaki deadpanned, “I’d first note that President Biden is a ‘junior,’ so they may have sanctioned his dad, may he rest in peace”. She added, “None of us are planning tourist trips to Russia, and none of us have bank accounts we won’t be able to access, so we will forge ahead”. Likewise, the meme mocking the physical distance he places between himself and his advisers at very long tables speaks to his diminished image.

Despots also need a degree of international respect to maintain the illusion that they can bring prestige and security to their people. Garry Kasparov, a human rights activist born in the Soviet Union, knows this all too well. As he explained on Twitter, “For those who still don’t understand, Putin stays in power by keeping the cash flowing [and] his oligarchs happy. To do this, he needs to be irreplaceable, the big boss. . . . With no legitimacy via real elections, dictators must rule by force, propaganda, and de facto legitimacy engendered by things like talks with foreign leaders”. Putin’s ability to represent his country in the world community is now imperiled, perhaps permanently.

Indeed, the revelation of Russia’s military ineptitude and the total failure to achieve his aims makes negotiating an end to the hostilities difficult for Putin. The worse his conduct becomes, the harder it is to “give” him something for the sake of reaching a peace deal. After weeks of Russian attacks on civilians, it’s inconceivable he could escape accountability for war crimes witnessed by the entire planet. Likewise, giving in to his demand that Ukraine forswear its ability to ally itself with the West would be a horrid betrayal of the heroic efforts of Ukrainians.

This is precisely why U.S. intelligence officials expect that Putin will become increasingly desperate and reassert his aggression. Beth Sanner, a former top intelligence official, recently told the New York Times, "It wasn’t a cakewalk for Putin and now he has no choice but to double down. This is what autocrats do. You cannot walk away or you look weak”. Ironically, Putin’s abject failure and international humiliation may pose the greatest barrier to ending his terribly miscalculated war. It’s hard to give a war criminal an “off-ramp”.

Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post. She is the author of “Resistance: How Women Saved Democracy from Donald Trump”.

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