Russian President Vladimir Putin has put himself in a bit of a pickle. Unprovoked, he invaded Ukraine with an expectation of a quick victory that has not come to pass. Quite the opposite, leaving Moscow’s strongman with a troubling dilemma: find some way to leave Ukraine without a tail-between-his-legs image or continue with the costly gambit to subjugate enough of Ukraine to declare victory. After 100 days of attempting the latter, recent reports put Russian soldiers lost in the fighting at 31,050. Additionally, the Kremlin has had 11% of its total tank inventory destroyed. With a rapid influx of additional weapons to the Ukraine fighters, Moscow can expect the attrition of its forces to get worse, not better.
If Putin takes the tail-between-legs path, he will be admitting his invasion escapade failed. In addition, the Kremlin leader will suffer the personal defeat of the military and geopolitical superiority of Rodina, the Russian political party. Skulking away from the fight he started may not be acceptable to Putin. Furthermore, a retreat without bringing Ukraine to heel would repudiate his and other Russian nationalists’ belief in the destiny of Mother Russia to rule over much of what was once the Soviet Union.
There is another problem with the cut-and-run option. Putin has never really rallied a vast number of Russian people to his vision. “To date, Putin has referred to the war in Ukraine as a ‘special military operation’ and held only one mass rally in support of the war,” Michael Kimmage and Maria Lipman explained in their Foreign Affairs article “Putin’s Hard Choices.” Other than the obsequious and odious Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who with a particularly toadying gush referred to Putin as “a miracle of God,” and a contingent of Russian nationalists, there doesn’t seem to be a significant groundswell of adoration for the Russian leader. Consequently, pulling up stakes and bringing back his troops, tanks, and artillery along with the 31,050-plus body bags would be perceived by the families of the dead as something short of God’s miraculous handiwork.
Then there is the other option: continuing the carnage in the Donbas and the rest of eastern Ukraine, with the everyday death slog for the Russian invaders at the daily rate of 500 meters to one kilometer of ground gained. As each day passes, the cadence of pounding artillery rounds and rockets continues. The attrition of Putin’s cadre of young soldiers and the destruction of their equipment is ongoing. Snail’s-pace progress is proving devastating for the Russians. In a Pentagon briefing on May 27, a senior defense official told reporters:
“So, for instance, we believe they’ve [Russians] lost or rendered inoperable almost 1,000 of their tanks in — in this fight. They still have a lot left available to them. But we — you know, we think they lost nearly about 1,000. They’ve lost well over 350 artillery pieces. They’ve — they have lost almost three dozen fighter — fighter bomber fixed-wing aircraft and — and more than 50 helicopters.”
The massive influx of new equipment from NATO countries and the United States, including multiple-launch rocket systems, anti-tank weapons, drones, and other weapons, is building a bulwark against Russia’s rapid conquests of Ukrainian territory. As a result, Putin’s forces are losing ground in many cases. “Ukraine has staged a counterattack on the frontline city of Sievierodonetsk and recaptured a fifth of the city it had previously lost to the Russian invaders, according to the head of the region,” The Guardian reported. “They [Russians] are suffering heavy losses,” the governor of Luhansk told Ukrainian television.
So, Putin’s problem is that if he decides to stay the course, with more than 300 dead per day and no real end in sight, he will have to admit what is going on in Ukraine is not just a “special operation” but will require a significantly larger force. “Full-out mobilization, which would make war an inescapable fact of Russian life, would revolutionize the regime Putin has constructed since coming to power in 2000,” Kimmage and Lipman explained. But a “full-out mobilization” still leaves the growing number of dead and wounded increasing by the day, requiring an explanation to the mothers and fathers who still are unsure why their loved ones perished.
There is another option for Putin. He could go nuclear — and has threatened to do so. However, despite the bravado, the weight of such a decision would assign the Russian people, not just Putin, a lingering geopolitical stench of historic magnitude. So, back to the original question, what will Russia’s president do? There is no easy out. Whatever road Putin takes, he will undoubtedly try to put the best Russian face on the decision. Do not expect it to be the best for Ukraine.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.