This year the world has seen many different Putins. We’ve heard Putin the liar back in January glibly assuring world leaders that he had no intention of invading Ukraine. We’ve seen Putin the bully publicly haranguing his most senior security council members on national TV. And we’re well used to hearing Putin the fantasist, insisting that the Ukrainian leadership are Nazis and that Russia is engaged in a war of national survival against Western aggression.
But this week a new and possibly even more dangerous Putin has emerged: Putin the pragmatist. Instead of falsely promising his people that the invasion was a “limited military operation” that would quickly be over, Putin admitted in a televised speech that Russia was in it “for the long haul”. That should make us in the West very nervous.
In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s botched invasion, as the Kremlin’s armoured columns were blown to pieces in the approaches to Kyiv by man-portable, Nato-supplied munitions, there was hope that Putin would see his blitzkrieg strategy had failed and come to the negotiating table. Even as the Russian steamroller ground on over the summer, pulverising Mariupol and Severodonetsk into Stalingrad-like ruins, it seemed sensible for Putin to quit while he was ahead, offer a truce and try to lock in at least some of his gains at the negotiating table.
Putin did none of those things. Instead, even as Ukrainian troops advanced in Kharkiv and Kherson, he escalated by announcing a “partial” mobilisation, blew up his own Baltic gas pipelines and declared the captured territories of Ukraine an “integral part of Russia … forever”. But even as he escalated, hopes that Putin was a Hitler-style madman whose interference would scupper his own war effort proved unfounded.
In 1942 Adolf Hitler insisted that the Wehrmacht not abandon Stalingrad even as Soviet troops surrounded his 6th Army – which by February of the following year was captured with the loss of 800,000 men. Putin, by contrast, ordered his troops to abandon Kherson instead of attempting to hold against relentless attack by the Ukrainians. His forces retreated in good order to the East bank of the Dnieper and lived to fight another battle: the current appalling meat-grinder of the siege of Bakhmut.
By committing to a long, drawn out war of attrition, Putin is assuming the most dangerous possible strategy both for Ukraine and for its Western backers. As the horrifying losses reported from Bakhmut show, Putin does not care about sending troops into suicidal frontal attacks. And his relentless shelling of Ukraine’s electricity and water infrastructure shows that he cares equally little for the lives of Ukrainian civilians.
Western sanctions may have poisoned the Russian economy in the root and crippled its ability to replace high-tech hardware like missiles and tanks. But the Kremlin is still earning enough money from oil sales to the likes of India and China to keep the war economy going – and meanwhile has done significant damage to Ukraine through the use of low-tech imports like Iranian Shaheed drones and North Korean artillery shells. There are credible rumours on pro-Kremlin military Telegram channels that a new wave of mobilisation will begin in the new year, despite official denials.
So the bottom line of the endgame of this war is that while Ukraine has high morale and better weaponry, the Russians still have a near-unlimited supply of reluctant, poorly-trained cannon fodder and low-tech weapons. Further Ukrainian advances will be incredibly difficult. As one senior British military diplomat in Kyiv told me recently, when it comes to military hardware “there comes a point where quantity beats quality.” And with every step the Russians retreat eastwards, their supply lines become shorter and the local populations more likely to be pro-Russian.
There’s little doubt that the Ukrainians have the will and the determination to fight until their country has been entirely liberated. The problem is with the West, on whose money and with whose weapons the Ukrainian war effort is entirely dependent. Even as early as June, Europe-wide polls showed a strong public preference for “justice” – in the form of a complete defeat of Putin – over peace at any price in the Baltics, Poland and the UK. But in Germany, France and especially Italy clear majorities favoured peace, even at the cost of Ukraine losing territory.
Putin’s calculation is that the West will eventually lose interest in the war and force Zelensky to the negotiating table. He imagines that Germany will be as cynical as it was back in 2015, when a year after strongly condemning the Kremlin for the annexation of Crimea, Angela Merkel signed a new 10 billion euro gas pipeline deal. He imagines that by offering cheap gas to Hungary, the Balkans and Italy via an existing pipeline network that runs through Turkey he will divide European unity. Ask almost any Ukrainian what they fear most and they will answer not Putin but being sold down the river by the West.
US military chief General Mark Milley recently predicted a long battlefield stalemate. That suits Putin. He cannot hope to win this war, but he can hope not to lose it by digging in on the battlefield and indiscriminately lobbing his almost boundless stocks of Soviet-era weaponry. That war of attrition is unlikely to break the will of Ukraine’s brave defenders. But it may yet grind down the resolve of Ukraine’s Western friends.