If you’re hoping that the instability that Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has wreaked on global markets and geopolitics has peaked, your hope is in vain. We haven’t seen anything yet. Wait until Putin fully grasps that his only choices left in Ukraine are how to lose — early and small and a little humiliated or late and big and deeply humiliated.
I can’t even wrap my mind around what kind of financial and political shocks will radiate from Russia — this country that is the world’s third-largest oil producer and possesses some 6,000 nuclear warheads — when it loses a war of choice that was spearheaded by one man, who can never afford to admit defeat.
Why not? Because Putin surely knows that “the Russian national tradition is unforgiving of military setbacks,” observed Leon Aron, a Russia expert at the American Enterprise Institute, who is writing a book about Putin’s road to Ukraine.
“Virtually every major defeat has resulted in radical change,” added Aron, writing in The Washington Post. “The Crimean War (1853-1856) precipitated Emperor Alexander II’s liberal revolution from above. The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) brought about the First Russian Revolution. The catastrophe of World War I resulted in Emperor Nicholas II’s abdication and the Bolshevik Revolution. And the war in Afghanistan became a key factor in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms.” Also, retreating from Cuba contributed significantly to Nikita Khrushchev’s removal two years later.
In the coming weeks it will become more and more obvious that our biggest problem with Putin in Ukraine is that he will refuse to lose early and small, and the only other outcome is that he will lose big and late. But because this is solely his war and he cannot admit defeat, he could keep doubling down in Ukraine until … until he contemplates using a nuclear weapon.
Why do I say that defeat in Ukraine is Putin’s only option, that only the timing and size is in question? Because the easy, low-cost invasion he envisioned and the welcome party from Ukrainians he imagined were total fantasies — and everything flows from that.
Putin completely underestimated Ukraine’s will to be independent and become part of the West. He completely underestimated the will of many Ukrainians to fight, even if it meant dying, for those two goals. He completely overestimated his own armed forces. He completely underestimated President Biden’s ability to galvanize a global economic and military coalition to enable Ukrainians to stand and fight and to devastate Russia at home — the most effective U.S. coalition-building effort since George H.W. Bush made Saddam Hussein pay for his folly of seizing Kuwait. And he completely underestimated the ability of companies and individuals all over the world to participate in, and amplify, economic sanctions on Russia — far beyond anything governments initiated or mandated.
When you get that many things wrong as a leader, your best option is to lose early and small. In Putin’s case that would mean withdrawing his forces from Ukraine immediately; offering a face-saving lie to justify his “special military operation,” like claiming it successfully protected Russians living in Ukraine; and promising to help Russians’ brethren rebuild. But the inescapable humiliation would surely be intolerable for this man obsessed with restoring the dignity and unity of what he sees as the Russian motherland.
Incidentally, the way things are going on the ground in Ukraine right now, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Putin could actually lose early and big. I would not bet on it, but with every passing day that more and more Russian soldiers are killed in Ukraine, who knows what happens to the fighting spirit of the conscripts in the Russian Army being asked to fight a deadly urban war against fellow Slavs for a cause that was never really explained to them.
Given the resistance of Ukrainians everywhere to the Russian occupation, for Putin to “win” militarily on the ground his army will need to subdue every major city in Ukraine. That includes the capital, Kyiv — after probably weeks of urban warfare and massive civilian casualties. In short, it can be done only by Putin and his generals perpetrating war crimes not seen in Europe since Hitler. It will make Putin’s Russia a permanent international pariah.
Moreover, how would Putin maintain control of another country — Ukraine — that has roughly one-third the population of Russia, with many residents hostile to Moscow? He would probably need to maintain every one of the 150,000-plus soldiers he has deployed there — if not more — forever.
There is simply no pathway that I see for Putin to win in Ukraine in any sustainable way because it simply is not the country he thought it was — a country just waiting for a quick decapitation of its “Nazi” leadership so that it could gently fall back into the bosom of Mother Russia.
So either he cuts his losses now and eats crow — and hopefully for him escapes enough sanctions to revive the Russian economy and hold onto power — or faces a forever war against Ukraine and much of the world, which will slowly sap Russia’s strength and collapse its infrastructure.
As he seems hellbent on the latter, I am terrified. Because there is only one thing worse than a strong Russia under Putin — and that’s a weak, humiliated, disorderly Russia that could fracture or be in a prolonged internal leadership turmoil, with different factions wrestling for power and with all of those nuclear warheads, cybercriminals and oil and gas wells lying around.
Putin’s Russia is not too big to fail. It is, however, too big to fail in a way that won’t shake the whole rest of the world.