It’s hard for me to imagine how the war in Ukraine could be going much worse for Russian President Vladimir Putin. But it’s not at all clear that Putin would agree. And as baffling as his perspective sounds, it must be taken seriously.
What looked on paper like potentially a stroll through what was once the Soviet Union’s breadbasket has turned into a hard slog, with Russian advances on the ground now largely stalled, according to U.S. and British intelligence assessments. As the war enters its fourth week, Russia still has not achieved superiority in the air, much less the supremacy that would allow its aircraft to fly at will. Ukraine’s biggest cities remain in government hands, though the Russian siege of Mariupol has become increasingly grim.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky did not flee at the first Russian artillery salvo but rather stayed defiantly in Kyiv, becoming an inspirational commander in chief and an iconic international hero. The NATO alliance, rather than dithering or squabbling, has united as never before to provide Ukraine with military aid, care for more than 3 million refugees and lead the world in strangling Russia’s economy with unprecedented sanctions.
Is it possible to say that Putin has lost the war? No, because it would be a mistake to underestimate the Russian military’s ability to regroup. And it is entirely unclear that Putin believes he has lost anything.
Indiscriminate rocket and missile strikes against civilian targets such as apartment buildings, schools and hospitals look, to me — and apparently to President Biden — like textbook war crimes. The almost sadistic battering of Mariupol — including the bombing of a theater that was being used as a shelter by hundreds of residents — has not yet pummeled the city into surrender. But such siege tactics can eventually work, even if there won’t be much left of Mariupol for the Russians to occupy.
It is hard to imagine that Putin would try to repeat this kind of senseless devastation in cities such as Odessa, Lviv and Kyiv. But what if his address to the Russian people Wednesday, which to my ears sounded unhinged, was an accurate reflection of his worldview?
It is possible that he seriously believes Russians who oppose the Ukraine invasion are “scum and traitors”, that there needs to be “a natural and necessary self-purification” of Russian society, and that his opponents at home and abroad have “one aim — the destruction of Russia”. He seems to believe it is his destiny to Make Russia Great Again, and that this greatness necessarily includes the effective reincorporation of Ukraine into the empire.
None of what he is doing appears to serve what those of us in the United States might define as Russia’s national interest. Before the invasion, Putin was the unchallenged ruler of a middle-income kleptocracy with profitable ties to the wealthy democracies of Europe and Asia; today he leads a pariah state cut off from global financial systems and supply chains. Before the invasion, Russia’s military might was universally respected and feared; today Putin’s armed forces are revealed as lumbering, ill-equipped and unmotivated.
But none of that may matter to Putin if he really believes the aim of the West is to confine and diminish Russia. If the Ukraine invasion were mere adventurism, Putin might have turned back by now. Considering the possibility that he’s telling the truth when he declares this an existential conflict could be the key to finding a way out.
For three awful weeks, the people of Ukraine have been an inspiration. Zelensky is channeling Winston Churchill, but I believe he would be the first to say that his courage pales beside that of the Ukrainians who stand in front of Russian tanks and raise their middle fingers when Russian warplanes fly overhead. They have fought for every square inch of their homeland with awesome ferocity.
Credit also goes to the Biden administration for its skillful management of the crisis. Biden wisely saw from the beginning that coordinated action by a broad alliance of nations would have far more impact than any unilateral action by the United States. He struck a careful balance that allows the United States to arm Ukraine without committing to a no-fly zone that might require U.S. pilots to engage not merely in Ukraine but also in Russia itself.
Logically, Putin’s best course of action at this point would seem to be finding some way to declare victory and withdraw. But Putin might not be engaged in what we would consider a dispassionate weighing of pros and cons. He should regret this whole tragic misadventure, but he might not. Which means there might be much more tragedy yet to come if he plows ahead on his terms instead of the principles Ukraine and the rest of the world are fighting for.
Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Washington Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section.