What Putin “wants” doesn’t matter. What can he actually “do?”
As of now, Putin has already lost Russia’s “World Power” status. He has proven Russia is a paper tiger. His smaller neighbors will still fear Russia. No-one else will give much respect. That loss is permanent – unless Russia achieves an economic miracle capable of supporting the modern military it clearly doesn’t have.
If Putin retreats today, he’ll at least gets his military out somewhat intact. He can also start working to right the economic ship before it turns turtle. He still loses, but he clings on at least until the 2024 elections. Maybe he has the sense to not run? Go into exile?
If Putin presses on for even a few more weeks or, worse, escalates? He will lose catastrophically.
A lot of commentators assume Putin can and will keep turning the screws. “He doesn’t care. He will just keep shelling until those weak democratic softie Ukrainians gives up.” This logic starts from the top – What does Putin want? – and works down from there. (Also ignoring Ukrainian resilience – Democratic societies bend. Autocracies shatter)
Start from the bottom up instead – What is the Russian Army/Economy capable of doing? For how long until one or both crack? Putin has no moral limits, but his straitjacket of practical military and economic limits gets tighter by the day.
On the battlefield, what matters is What is Putins army able to do? In retrospect, why were we all so surprised the nation that gave us the term “Potemkin Village” had a Potemkin Army? Every indication is the Russian attack is stalled. See this tweet thread and article and excellent daily military summary often cited by NYT. “Stalled” is a prelude to collapse. So Russia needs a win in the next week or so. Or they probably fall apart on the battlefield before they fall apart economically. Absent a breakthrough in the next few days, Putin’s choice is retreat now (bringing the tanks back) or retreat later (leaving a lot of tanks behind).
Economically, the question is “How much further damage can Russia sustain?” EU oil/gas sanctions probably break its back. Existing sanctions are doing tremendous damage that will last for years. Even if legal sanctions are lifted, Russia will remain “un-investible.” Who is going to put long-term money to work in a country run by a delusional, mis-calculating autocrat? Greedy people aren’t dumb. McDonalds will re-open. Meaningful investment flows won’t.
Politically, we already have our answer to – “Is Russia Still a 1st tier World Power?” No. Putin has destroyed the illusion of Russian power and thus its global influence. It is a a 2nd tier regional power at best. France and the UK have nuclear weapons, but no-one is particularly afraid of them – maybe Belgium and Ireland. Loose talk of an emerging tri-polar world misses that point. An economy the size of Spain (with military power sized accordingly) is a supporting act, not a headliner.
So Putin has already clarified we live in a bipolar world. Russia can either join the sluggish-growth-club-of-Chinese-Vassal-States-to-Be or they align with the EU and US. Their choice remains to be seen, but Putin has already destroyed the illusion that Russia ever had a 3rd, independent choice – outside of the uneasy, semi-pariah status he has chosen for Russia until Putin goes.
I am hoping someone reaches Putin with truth and he swings the wheel away from catastrophe. Putin has lost enough already for the rest of us to call it a win. If he steers into the rocks, his final lashing-out phase could be incredibly dangerous.
Absent that, I am hoping a clever Ukrainian counter-attack cuts off a good sized chunk of Russia forces and precipitates a mass surrender. Videos of marching prisoner columns will probably break the back of the entire Russian effort. That will make the decision for Putin and further tie his hands.
My worst case scenario is Putin does something truly awful and precipitates those EU Oil/Gas sanctions. He has done enough awful already.