Was it worth it?
It’s impossible to know what level of reality Vladimir Putin is operating on, but as the anniversary of the Ukraine war approaches it’s hard to believe he hasn’t had serious doubts.
The President’s state of the nation address on Tuesday – delayed from December because of Russian defeats on the battlefield – was certainly not the one he expected to be making this time last year.
As Russian tanks rolled across the Belarus-Ukraine border, advancing within hours to the outskirts of Kyiv on 24 February 2022, few would have bet that Joe Biden, not Putin, would be strolling through the city’s streets in February 2023.
At Biden’s side during his extraordinary visit this week was Volodymyr Zelensky, whose decision to stay and fight (“I need ammunition, not a ride”) changed the course of the war. It came to symbolise Ukraine’s fierce defiance in the face of the Russian onslaught.
Putin told a very different story in his rancorous speech, in which he blamed the West for provoking and escalating the conflict. Yet again, he described the biggest European invasion since the Second World War as a “special military operation”. How this squares with his claim that Russia is in a “fight for its existence” against the West is unclear.
Totting up the costs
It would be wrong to say that Putin has gained nothing from the invasion. If Russian forces can keep hold of the territory they’ve stolen, they will have created a valuable land bridge linking Russia with Crimea via the Donbas and southern Ukraine. Putin has spoken of the Sea of Azov having become a Russian internal sea, pointing out that even Peter the Great didn’t manage this.
In nearly every other sense, however, he has failed.
Set against his initial objectives, the war has been a disaster. Kyiv hasn’t fallen, Zelensky is still in place, the West has united, Sweden and Finland have joined NATO, and Putin’s limited military gains have been paid for with an estimated 60,000 Russian lives, four times the number that died in the decade-long Soviet-Afghan War.
Perhaps the most ironic consequence of the invasion has been to solidify the national identity of a country Putin wanted to erase. As Gabriel Gavin writes on Reaction, the divides that existed in post-independence Ukraine over language, politics and identity have been pushed aside since the full-scale invasion.
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And in Russia, while public dissent against the war has been brutally suppressed, Putin is becoming increasingly vulnerable politically. Veteran Kremlin-watcher Mark Galeotti notes that ultra-nationalists, furious at the corruption and ineptitude undermining Russia’s war effort, pose the greatest threat to Putin. Many of them operate within the security apparatus on which he ultimately relies.
Despite Moscow’s failures, the conflict has morphed into a finely balanced war of attrition with no end in sight.
The prospect of negotiations looks bleak. The core demands of at least one side would need to change for there to be any chance of a peace deal. That won’t happen unless the situation on the battlefield changes dramatically.
Russian forces are launching a fresh offensive in the East and much depends on how well both sides can keep weapons, troops and ammunition flowing to the frontline.
Biden’s trip to Kyiv this week underlined Washington’s resolve to keep pumping billions of dollars into Ukraine’s war chest, even though recent polling suggests that 51 per cent of Americans oppose or are agnostic about the prospect. Putin will be hoping that Western unity fractures and support dries up.
Faced with a protracted war when he expected a quick victory, Putin may be tempted to take the long view. It won’t be much comfort. Far from returning Russia to superpower status, 2022 will be remembered as the year Putin gambled, and lost.
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