How Putin’s war weakens Russia

The Associated Press

Russian invaders are still dealing out death and destruction in Ukraine, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has already suffered an enormous political defeat. The main question now isn’t whether Putin will win his war, but how many more Ukrainians will have to die to give him a face-saving way to stop this senseless slaughter.  

No matter how the fighting ends, the Ukrainian people have shown that they will never willingly submit to rule by Moscow. Putin’s ham-fisted attempt to bend a former Russian colony to his will has turned into Ukraine’s war of independence, with President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian, cast improbably in the role of George Washington.

Of course, Russia has by far the stronger military and evidently no moral compunctions about using it to massacre Ukrainian civilians. Can Putin inflict enough pain on Ukrainian society to wring big concessions from its government? Possibly, but so far Ukraine’s defenders are more than holding their own.

{mosads}The Russian dictator is caught in his own web of historical delusions and disinformation. Few outside Russia believe his ludicrous claims that Ukraine’s democratically elected leaders are “fascists” scheming with America to prevent Ukrainians from voluntarily reuniting with Mother Russia. Yet in launching his second invasion in eight years, Putin seems to have expected that his forces would easily topple Zelensky’s government, allowing him to install a more compliant regime in Kyiv. 

Instead, Ukrainians are fighting for their freedom. This has forced Putin to set aside his dream of absorbing Ukraine into Russia. Now he demands that Ukraine commit itself to “neutrality,” which would rule out future membership in NATO and possibly the European Union as well. For good measure, Putin wants Kyiv to accept Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and recognize two breakaway eastern provinces as independent states.

But even if Putin gets all of what he wants, it won’t be enough to compensate for what he has already lost by attacking Ukraine. From a strategic, military and economic standpoint, a weaker and more isolated Russia is bound to emerge from this needless war.  

Putin insists the war is necessary to bolster Russian security, but it’s having the opposite effect. For starters, it has jolted NATO, Putin’s nemesis, back to life. And how many Russians who know their country’s history welcome the news that Germany is rearming and, in a break from its pacifistic post-war diplomacy, supplying weapons to Kyiv?

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Before the invasion, Putin faced a divided and often feckless Europe. Now the continent seems more unified than ever as leaders condemn Russian throwback militarism and cheer on Ukraine’s valiant defense of Europe’s liberal and democratic values. Europeans are working with Washington to impose punishing economic sanctions and say they will start reducing their heavy dependence on Russian oil and gas.

President Biden is in Europe this week to rally support for NATO and additional sanctions. He’s also determined to show both Putin and our transatlantic partners that his country’s backsliding into “America First” insularity is over. Putin has even managed to bring Washington’s warring political tribes closer together, at least for the moment. 

The second major casualty of Putin’s war is Russia’s reputation for military prowess. U.S. military observers have been stunned by how ill-prepared Russia forces were to meet determined and effective Ukrainian resistance. Despite huge increases in defense spending over the past decade, Russia’s vaunted military has been hobbled by stagnant tactics, poor coordination and logistics and low morale.

This is devastating to Putin, because military power is really the only kind Russia has left. He figures the way to make Russia great again is to make it feared again. That’s why he keeps invoking the specter of nuclear war and why he has deployed showy “hypersonic” missiles with little tactical utility in Ukraine. 

It would be a mistake to view Russia’s military as yet another Potemkin Village — an imposing façade with little behind it. But if Russia is struggling to subdue Ukraine, it’s hard to believe it poses a dire military threat to the richer and collectively far more populous countries of Europe, even if they weren’t backed by the United States.

U.S. intelligence sources estimate that more than 7,000 Russian soldiers have died in the past month of fighting – more than the United States lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Putin is a ruthless ruler who brooks no dissent, but even he has to be sensitive to ordinary Russians’ reactions as their sons die in his “special military operation.”

Finally, Putin’s latest misadventure in Ukraine is an economic calamity for Russia. This time around, the West is escalating from narrowly targeted sanctions whose impact is mostly symbolic to all-out financial warfare.

{mossecondads}The United States and its allies have locked Russian banks and financial institutions out the world’s SWIFT messaging system. They have frozen a large chunk of the central bank’s reserves of foreign currency. This especially is a blow to Russia’s ability to pay for imports and service its debts. It likely will send the ruble and bond credit ratings into free fall, precipitating a default that would effectively prevent Russia from borrowing abroad. 

Meanwhile, Western companies are pulling out of Russia, governments are revoking trade treaties, Russian goods are the subject of boycotts and its airlines are banned from Western airspace. As Nicholas Mulder writes in Foreign Affairs, “the world’s eleventh-largest economy has now been decoupled from twenty-first-century globalization.” 

The Biden administration has also announced a ban on Russian energy imports. If European countries follow suit, the Russian petrostate would take another huge hit. Europe relies on Russian gas to meet about 40 percent of its energy needs. Russia could find new buyers elsewhere, say in China and India, although that could be complicated by its demand that its customers pay in rubles rather than dollars.  

Will ratcheting up the economic pressure on Putin be enough to convince him to wind down the military pressure on Ukraine? No one knows. We are witnessing an unprecedented application of Western financial power, with incalculable effects on Russia’s economy, which is expected to shrink this year, as well as global markets.

But this is already clear: The longer Putin’s war in Ukraine grinds on, the deeper the damage it will do to Russia’s great power status, military credibility and economic strength.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

Tags . Russia-Ukraine conflict Russia Foreign policy of Vladimir Putin Joe Biden NATO Post-Soviet conflicts Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian irredentism Russia–Ukraine relations Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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