I’ll start by noting I don’t write anything here to be “right.” Nor do I pretend to superior insight much less information. I’m just writing to collect my thoughts in the vein of quite possibly wrong but hopefully thought-provoking.
So Putin went ahead and did the dumb thing. 2 days into invading Ukraine, he is already losing.
- Militarily (for real): The Pentagon and UK MoD have both noted the Russian Army likely hasn’t met its Day 1 objectives. Which is their polite way of saying “If I were in charge of this operation, I’d be shitting bricks right now.” They have also noted the Ukrainians are fighting well and their command and control has held up. Ukraine wins here by not losing. Russian “wins” here by…. (I really have no idea at this point).
- Militarily (perception): This is not the US’s brand of “surgical” video game warfare the world is used to watching on TV. The photos and video show the result of bitter, ugly fighting leaving dead Russians and burnt out Russian vehicles in its aftermath. As I noted before, if Putin wins ugly, he loses. The US army has looked invincible in its wars. The Russians look vulnerable.
- Hearts and Minds (Ukraine): I have no idea if Putin thought he’d be greeted with flowers, but the Ukrainians clearly seem to feel otherwise. Any who might have been ambivalent to start aren’t anymore – especially as the shelling and killing goes on. This likely torpedoes a puppet government exit for Putin. More important, that resistance will gnaw at his Russian support. If you are a Russian soldier, you are not feeling the love right now. And Ukrainian is close enough to Russian you are going to hear it in words you understand from people who look a lot like you. If you are a Russian civilian, you are going to be seeing it and hearing it from (former) friends and family. The uglier it gets, the more disheartening it will be (if you are Russian). Especially if you are a Russian soldier who ends up tasked with propping up some puppet government against the wishes of “cousins” who very clearly hate you.
- Public Opinion (Europe): Russia just got kicked out of the Eurovision song contest. I laughed at first, but it measures the depth of popular response in Europe (who are getting a whole lot more news on this than we are). Right now, Europe (OK, Germany mostly) is dragging its feet a bit on sanctions. I would guess that another week of fighting, refugees, and horror will feed a groundswell of popular demands to get tougher with Russia. Germany’s paid-for-politicians will find it increasingly hard to waffle their way out of something that hurts their precious client’s pocketbooks.
- Public Opinion (World): The ugliness of it all is not helping Russia anywhere else either. At some point even the Chinese might finally start edging away.
So how does Putin get out of this? I have no idea.
A few bullet point observations below. And yes, I am playing armchair general and yes, I know I have no real clue. The point of this blog is not to “be right.” I’m also indulging in a little armchair general-ing with no illusions as to my qualifications.
- The recurring image of the war so far is a wounded blonde, bravely smiling woman who looks like (and might well be) one of those oddly healthy-looking senior citizens who feature in financial service commercials looking forwards to their comfortable, affluent, well oiled retirement. Except her head is bandaged and she is covered in blood in front of a shattered building. Wounded White People is not a good look for Putin.
- The Ukrainians seem to be doing to the Russians what the Russians usually do to the Germans and French. Retreat into the vast interior expanse and then wait for chances to strike back viciously. If they can cut off and destroy some Russian units (followed by heavy news coverage), it is going to get harder and harder for Russia to sustain enthusiasm for this war. Especially among the poor guys fighting it against their “cousins.”
- It turns out the Russians export most of their gas to Europe via 2 pipelines. One runs via the North Sea (Nord Stream 1). The other runs via the Ukraine. If some enterprising Ukrainian (or faux-Ukranian) were to figure out how to blow up a big, metal, multi-kilometer pipeline full of flammable gas that is admittedly running on the seabed, then Russia would be reduced to supply gas via a pipeline that runs through Ukraine! This would seem to give the Ukrainians some pretty solid leverage – less over the Russians and more over the foot-dragging Germans. No idea how practical that is, but…
- An obvious sanctions idea is to cut off all air travel links to Russia. Not all global carriers would follow through, so the Russians could still take connecting flights to get most places. But taking the big US and European carriers off the table (plus private jet landing rights) would send a fairly powerful and immediate message to ordinary (affluent) Russians.
- The Russian Army have a few weeks until mud season (which may have already started). That is a depressing, wet, cold, and miserable time to be running around outdoors even without people trying to shoot you with bullets and/or dirty looks.
The Ukrainians are paying a terrible price here. I need to end with that. But Putin is already losing.