Vladimir Putin seeks to prevail in Ukraine through an exhausting war of attrition in which he outlasts his opponents, or so the expert consensus has it. The U.S. is supplying weapons to Ukraine at a remarkably slow pace, perhaps for fear of provoking a calamitous Russian escalation. It seems as if Washington is playing right into Mr. Putin’s hands.
But maybe not everything is as it seems. If I learned anything from decades as a Russian-speaking Central Intelligence Agency operations officer working against the Kremlin’s intelligence services, it was to be wary of anything they show you. This looks to me too convenient a narrative for Moscow, and one that’s belied by the facts.
Mr. Putin acts as if he doesn’t believe he can survive if he quits this conflict. But in reality, the war is existential only for the Ukrainian side. Ukrainians would suffer cultural genocide and war crimes if they gave in. Russia can walk away without serious consequences beyond its borders, and Mr. Putin knows it. He can ill afford for the Russian people to realize that they could not only overcome defeat, but never had to fight in the first place. But it’s not clear that the solution the Kremlin really wants is a war of attrition.
Can anyone, even Mr. Putin, imagine the Ukrainians quitting? If they lose external support, they still face an existential threat. It seems probable Ukraine would dig in and fight as long as it possibly could, even if the conflict devolved to guerrilla warfare in occupied streets.
Mr. Putin has to be accounting for this. He gambled wrong a year ago when he expected Ukrainian resolve to collapse quickly as Russian forces rolled in. Though he projects an inflexible image, Mr. Putin seems to still think like an intelligence officer. They rarely make the same mistake twice, particularly when they’ve been embarrassed. Were he really as reckless and blind to reality as he’s sometimes depicted, Russian forces wouldn’t have withdrawn from Kyiv’s outskirts a year ago. Mr. Putin has shown that he will bend when faced with serious consequences.
And that’s what a long war would entail. Mr. Putin might not grieve his heavy casualties, but they are embarrassing to the Kremlin and undermine his narrative of strength and military prowess. As Russian lines thin, he will feel increased pressure to expand mobilization beyond the rural and ethnic communities he has targeted to insulate his urban political base from the war’s consequences. [Continue reading…]