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With no guardrails, Putin’s war needs ‘a golden bridge to retreat’

Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a meeting of the Federal Security Service (FSB) board in Moscow on Feb. 28, 2023.

In the spring of 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant mounted an overland campaign intended to capture Richmond, Va., and, in so doing, to end the American Civil War. But Grant instead suffered a series of defeats and horrific battlefield losses, leading him to abandon doctrines of strategic finesse and limited warfare. He then opted for what was in essence a “military smackdown” — or, in our contemporary parlance, a “war of attrition” — in which he would accept immense losses of soldiers, equipment and materiel in the knowledge that his losses were replenishable, whereas Gen. Robert E. Lee’s were not. So, for roughly the next year, Grant pounded away at his adversary, suffering a string of battlefield defeats, until the Confederacy, not only exhausted but militarily and economically depleted, finally surrendered.  

Particularly in recent years, we have developed checks-and-balances to safeguard against unfettered military actions. In part, this is aimed at preventing programmed slaughter and indiscriminate destruction, in which soldiers become fodder and the civilian infrastructure is regarded as a legitimate military target. Faced with significant battlefield losses, today’s Congress likely would require an accounting of its military leadership; the populace would recoil at the mounting casualties; the media would decry violations of international humanitarian law; our society would resist a military operation aimed at a land grab from another sovereign nation; and our political leadership would need to concurrently produce battlefield results and preserve the economic welfare of the voting public or face electoral defeat.  

Yet, none of these limitations to state military action seems to apply to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which apparently enjoys around a 70 percent approval rating within Russian society. To a large extent, this is attributable to the disengagement of the Russian public from the war and, more generally, state politics. Whereas in the West, there likely would be widespread demonstrations and protests, Russians tend to engage in political make-believe characterized by external loyalty to the state, combined with internal and suppressed cynicism.

In addition, the Russian public continues to be largely insulated from the economic challenges arising from the Western sanctions. Russian President Vladimir Putin remains generally popular for having provided security and relative economic stability, particularly in contrast to the meltdown in Russia following the fall of communism. There is a largely complacent middle class, food items are accessible, pension checks are paid, the housing shortage is slowly dissipating, the ruble is stable, and there has been no economic implosion. All these factors have resulted in a continuation of the social contract in which Russians trade security, stability and economic comfort for disengagement from politics, including the war in Ukraine, however bungled it has turned out to be.   

There are other social and cultural elements that contribute to popular disengagement from a scorched-earth campaign involving immense loss of Russian life, extraordinary financial cost, international isolation, and a blatant assault on Ukrainian non-combatants and its civilian infrastructure. These factors include:

Collective over the individual: From tsarist times through the Soviet period and now in Russia, the rights of the individual have been subjugated to the needs of the state. Whereas the United States was formed under the Enlightenment concepts of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the Russian state historically has consolidated power in its political leader to resist threats — real and imagined — from external sources.  

The Russian state controls the internal narrative: The state can weave a story justifying its invasion, given its near-total control of the media and marginalization of the few and disparate voices of dissent. In the Russian narrative, the invasion is being waged to protect the rights of a Russian diasporic population against a takeover by a Nazi cabal — and here, it should be noted that roughly 70 percent of Crimea’s population are Russian nationals and sizable Russian communities live in eastern Ukraine — and to reclaim territory historically belonging to Russia.  But beyond this liberation justification, Moscow has depicted its current military action in apocalyptic terms as a brutal fight to the finish against NATO and a struggle to preserve Russian culture.

Resurgence of Russian nationalism: For most of the 20th century, the Soviet Union was an acknowledged global power. But with the fall of communism and the dismemberment of the Soviet state, Russia went from a global power to a marginalized, regional actor. The invasion of Ukraine is, in large measure, a reassertion of Russia’s return as an impactful global power, a stance that is embraced by the Russian population. 

Leadership consolidation of power: Russia today is a highly controlled state in which the likelihood of regime change is quite low, particularly given Putin’s continued protection by the Federal Security Service, or FSB (formerly the KGB) and its brazen crackdown on political dissent.

Russia is managing through sanctions: Russia over the years has become progressively more economically isolated from the West, being forced by sanctions to adopt an economic policy of self-containment. Particularly over this past year, it has opened up new trading partners with countries in Asia and Africa, allowing it to maintain a modicum of economic and currency stability and to blunt to an unexpected degree the effects of the Western sanctions.

The entire basis of Putin’s legitimacy is the myth of his infallibility: This tracks a time-honored approach of a long line of Soviet and Russian leaders, thereby playing into the Russian public’s expectation of a strong and infallible leader. This basic theory of leadership legitimacy, in combination with the absence of meaningful checks within Russian society on his ability to wage an extended “war of attrition,” suggests strongly that Russia has the resolve to pursue its conflict until the bitter end.

Unquestionably, Moscow miscalculated the valor of the Ukrainians and the resolve of the Western alliance when it launched its invasion a year ago. The Russian military has committed significant blunders, has suffered far greater-than-expected losses, and has revealed its ineptitude in the strategic and operational management of an offensive war. 

But even so, in the absence of internal resistance, Russia retains considerable latitude to pursue a brutal, open-ended war of attrition that has resulted in the loss of thousands of Russian lives, the country’s international isolation, putative commission of international war crimes, and economic retardation. Just as with Grant, Putin is unlikely to seek a negotiated end to the war that involves making a rational assessment of Russia’s costs, human and otherwise. Instead, a negotiated end to the conflict may require a new paradigm suggesting a victorious outcome as articulated by the medieval Chinese military leader and theorist, Sun Tzu: the building of a “golden bridge to retreat.”    

Robert Aronson is the immediate past chair of HIAS, the agency of the American Jewish community providing safety and protection to refugees worldwide, including thousands of Ukrainians forcibly displaced from their homes. He lived for several years in Moscow, initially as a visiting scholar at Moscow University Law School and then as a business representative.  

Daniel P. Grossman served as a U.S. diplomat focused on human rights in Leningrad, in Vienna with the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and at the Soviet Desk in the State Department. He is the immediate past CEO of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund of the San Francisco Bay Area, and a board member of HIAS.

Tags Russia under Vladimir Putin Russian invasion of Ukraine Ukraine genocide Ulysses S. Grant Vladimir Putin

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