As Russia retreats to Ukraine, Putin is stuck: unable to win, unwilling to lose
Within hours the Ferris wheel had broken down and the tickets had to be refunded. Fixing what is broken in Putin’s war strategy, and by extension his presidency and his reputation, will be much more difficult.
Ukraine’s counter-offensive in the northeast was underway even as Putin, at a conference in the Far East a few days earlier, had insisted that Russia had “lost nothing and would lose nothing” in the war, a remark that seemed oblivious to Russia’s repeated setbacks and shocking casualties, and unaware of what was happening on the battlefield.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on Monday that the war “will continue until the goals that have been set are achieved.” However, it is difficult to know what these objectives are. Putin’s original goal of capturing Kyiv and dominating Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government has failed.
Today, Western intelligence and military analysts say Russia is unlikely to achieve its alleged fallback goal of conquering all of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.
Assuming Putin’s goal involves being able to declare victory in some form, Russia’s disorderly retreat from Kharkiv – what Moscow has called a “regroup” – now leaves the 69-year-old president with hard choices and increasingly restricted.
He could step up and announce a politically risky nationwide mandatory military mobilization — something Peskov denied on Tuesday was even under discussion. He could go on, plowing through poorly trained and increasingly demotivated soldiers, and carrying out brutal artillery attacks on towns and villages to terrorize the Ukrainian population.
Or, it could escalate to extremes, as some of Putin’s fiercest critics fear, turning to chemical or even nuclear weapons.
So far, Putin has done all he can to avoid compulsory mobilization, which risks sparking wider public opposition to the war – even though many Russian military experts believe there is no another way to defeat Ukraine militarily.
And while the deployment of a weapon of mass destruction cannot be ruled out, many experts play down fears that Putin might do so, because it would destroy his waning international support with crucial partners like China and India, and because that it would undermine his efforts to convey a sense of normalcy to Russians.
If Putin sticks to his habit of refusing to back down, analysts say, he is more likely to continue.
“Vladimir Putin certainly has the will to continue this war, but he largely acted under the illusion that the Russian military was winning and would eventually win,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the Arlington-based Center for Naval Analyses. , or DAC.
“The question is, is he willing to take the political risk of trying to salvage the Russian military effort in this war?” Kofman said, referring to mandatory mobilization.
“Many Russians have been quite lukewarm in terms of support or indifference about this war, considering their lives largely unaffected because they believe their children will not be sent to fight,” Kofman added. “People’s attitude really changes if they think their children will be sent to fight.”
Neither side is ready to talk peace. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s deputy chairman of the Security Council, said on Monday that the war would not end without Kyiv’s “total surrender”.
Meanwhile, Zelensky speaks with growing boldness about taking back not just the entire eastern Donbass region, but also Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
But persevering poses its own risks for Putin, who is under increasing pressure and scrutiny despite the Kremlin’s crackdown on critics of the war.
After Russia admitted the withdrawal on Saturday, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov suggested that Putin might not be aware of the mistakes that had been made and should call the president himself to discuss the situation. Peskov insisted on Monday that Putin be fully briefed.
Russians Support Ukraine War, But Report Reveals Notable Opposition
The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed on Saturday that the “regrouping” had taken place without a single loss for Russia, and with some 4,000 Ukrainians killed, assertions not supported by facts.
That night, as fireworks erupted in the capital to celebrate Moscow City Day, the hardline pro-war faction, aware of the true scale of the casualties, was livid. They demanded tougher military action, the targeting of civilian infrastructure and mandatory military mobilization.
Meanwhile, opposition lawmakers in 35 municipalities have in recent days signed calls for Putin’s impeachment, a rare sign of token public dissent. They are now likely to face difficult consequences.
Most ordinary Russians, who no longer pay much attention to the war, were probably unaware of the great retreat, analysts say. But if Russia faces further setbacks, outrage among pro-war hardliners could intensify, public awareness would rise and, with it, pressure on Putin.
With complaints about “difficulties” and “mistakes” voiced on state television and by prominent figures like Kadyrov, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the Kremlin line that everything is going according to plan.
Ukraine extends battlefield gains as Kremlin reeling
Putin, however, seems to be stubbornly sticking to the same strategy, banking on his belief that Western support for Ukraine will crumble, forcing Ukraine to capitulate in time. It already seems to be backfiring, with Ukraine’s recent gains capturing the imagination, bolstering support for Kyiv.
In some ways, Putin is a victim of his own politics. The Kremlin has for years favored a large group of politically apathetic citizens, making it difficult now to take stronger measures to win the war, such as mobilization, which requires patriotic fervor to avoid a political backlash.
These maps show the last victories of Ukraine against Russia
Sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky said the loyal but passive mass of Russian citizens – whom he puts at 80% – saw themselves as ‘outside politics’ and focused on their own lives, seeing war as not his business.
“These people don’t trust TV, but they don’t trust the internet either,” Kagarlitsky said. “So TV propaganda doesn’t work on them, but any kind of anti-war propaganda or oppositional talk doesn’t work on them either, because they just don’t revolve around anything that has to to do with politics or economic issues or general values or whatever it doesn’t affect them directly.
Online, these citizens search for videos about hunting, fishing, cooking, fashion shows, animals, etc., he said. Under Putin, “a good citizen is a passive citizen, who does not get involved in anything”.
Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the analysis group R. Politik, said that even as failures and pressure from the hardline pro-war lobby mounted, Putin was reluctant to risk upsetting the passive masses, especially given opinion polls showing declining interest in the war.
Instead, the Kremlin was carefully maintaining the narrative that there was no war, just a “special military operation” where everything goes according to plan and life, for the most part, can go on as normal.
“I don’t see if he can radically pivot to revisit this understanding of the situation,” said Stanovaya, who is based in France, adding that a mobilization was unlikely. “He’s betting the West will crumble over time. Ukraine will give up, one day. So today we had to retreat to save manpower, but tomorrow Ukraine will sign a surrender and none of that will matter, in Putin’s view.
Faced with war losses, Russian propagandists fall back on anger and patriotism
But she added that this approach required Russia’s elite to blindly follow Putin’s vision of a Russian victory cementing its place as a great power in a multipolar world, without knowing how that would happen.
“It’s his stake, but he can’t explain it to the elites, because it’s nonsense. You just can’t be convincing about it. That’s why he doesn’t really talk about it. He doesn’t explain how he’s going to win,” she said, adding that there was “a growing problem” with Putin’s leadership.
“It creates too much uncertainty. He has absolutely no idea where we are going, what our goals are and how we are going to win. He broke away from the elites. And following Putin, without knowing where we are going, cannot last forever.