Vladimir Putin is on the horns of a life-or-death dilemma
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bizarre meeting with his defense minister on April 21 provided a smorgasbord of material for intelligence analysts trying to determine what is going on in his head. Rather than the massive 40-foot table that has separated Putin from his yes-men since the start of his war, we saw the Russian despot sitting at a diminutive table, practically knee-to-knee with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Putin has carefully cultivated an image as the macho man-in-charge. But the figure with hunched shoulders, tightly clutching the little table in his right hand, gave off a rather deflated, contrite appearance. He used this strange setting to make the odd announcement that his forces had won the battle for Mariupol and would discontinue their vicious assault against the Azovstal steel plant in the devastated city.
It may be that his new general, Aleksandr Dvornikov, famously known as the “Butcher of Syria,” had convinced Putin that his dogged efforts to eradicate the small force of intrepid defenders was a waste of resources. It would be better to declare victory and use it as an overture toward a negotiated settlement to consolidate his gains to date.
It seemed that Putin was experiencing a moment of doubt about his strategy of continuous escalation. Just as he met with Shoigu, a story broke that a Russian billionaire had called the war “insane” and pleaded with the West to provide Putin an “off-ramp.” The billionaire’s plea could well have been instigated by Putin.
Regardless of what caused Putin to call a halt to the consignment of conscript cannon fodder to senseless deaths at the steel plant, he soon changed his mind. After the foreign press ridiculed Putin’s claim of victory in Mariupol, he immediately returned to his macho form and resumed the wasteful assaults on the steel plant defenders.
It appears the Russian despot has concluded that the only way he can survive politically is to go for broke — to continue escalation until he’s able to achieve military success. The problem is that the Ukrainians have gotten every break since the table talk with Shoigu.
Putin’s favored French presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, lost her election bid against French President Emmanuel Macron on April 24. The same day, another Putin friend, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jassa, lost his bid for reelection. The very next day, Sweden and Finland agreed to submit simultaneous applications for NATO membership. The alliance against Putin’s Russia is growing larger and stronger.
The West’s economic sanctions are biting deeper into Russia’s war effort, reportedly impacting the weapon supply chain. Funds to finance the war have diminished and will likely suffer additional impacts because Germany has concluded that a full embargo on Russian oil is “manageable.” European Union (EU) countries are fashioning a potentially-crippling oil embargo that could be approved during the first week of May.
On April 26, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told representatives of 40 nations gathered to support Ukraine that the embattled country “can win” its war with Russia. In context with Austin’s statement that the U.S. seeks to “weaken” Russia’s military, this appears to be closer to a commitment than a mere prediction. President Biden followed up with a request for an additional $33 billion in aid for the Ukrainians. Having served as a heavy artillery officer in Vietnam, I can attest that the artillery slated for Ukrainian forces can be a game changer, provided it can get to the battlefields in time.
This cascade of adverse developments, plus chronic logistics and command problems and mysterious fires at weapons and fuel facilities in Russia, would be enough to drive an average psychopath to distraction. Add to that the fact that his oligarchs are getting restless about the future of their fortunes, as well as the dire situation of their country.
To make matters worse, many Kremlin insiders reportedly have serious concerns about Putin’s war and the long-term damage it is inflicting upon the Russian Federation. Putin is certainly aware of the unrest in his inner circle. He knows that ugly things can happen to a leader who appears to be running the country off the rails, threatening the personal interests of powerful insiders. Some reports have surfaced that Putin replaced around 1,000 Kremlin staff out of concern for his personal safety.
The Russian dictator is on the horns of a serious dilemma — either bow to the gathering strength of the coalition against him and settle for negligible gains, or stay on the path of continuing escalation, hoping to pull off a stunning battlefield victory. Since a decisive victory is a rather remote possibility, Putin’s last desperate escalatory step may be to resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
Putin may soon be coming to the end of his rope. If he can’t figure a way out of the mess he created with his ego-driven war, it may be up to his old KGB cohorts to find a solution. It is quite possible that some among them will not allow him to take their country down with him.
Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho attorney general (1983-1991) and 12 years as a justice on the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017). He is a regular contributor to The Hill.