foreign interests

Russia’s War of Self-Destruction

From Ukraine’s fierce resistance to the unified global backlash, Putin’s adventure is blowing up in his face.

Kyiv on Sunday. Photo: Lu Jinbo/Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
Kyiv on Sunday. Photo: Lu Jinbo/Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

Five days into Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, very little is going according to plan. Militarily, diplomatically, politically, and economically, the outcomes are about as bad for Russia as anyone could have foreseen — and clearly much worse than Putin anticipated himself. Whether or not the Ukrainians can continue to hold off the attack, Putin and Russia are destroying themselves in the process.

After attacking Ukraine on multiple fronts in a blitzkrieg meant to quickly neutralize resistance, capture the capital Kyiv, and (perhaps literally) decapitate the Ukrainian government, the Russian army has gotten bogged down in a much tougher slog than it seemed to have been ready for. The Russians have not established air superiority, taken control of any major population centers, or successfully demoralized the Ukrainians, even as the invasion has displaced millions and sent hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring over Ukraine’s western borders. Russian forces, who have allegedly begun launching indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, are continuing to close in around Kyiv, but the slow progress has come at great cost.

The Ukrainian foreign ministry claimed Sunday that Russia had already lost 4,300 military personnel (killed or wounded), 156 tanks, and dozens of planes and helicopters. These numbers are impossible to confirm and may be exaggerated, but what does seem clear is that if Putin was expecting a cakewalk into Kyiv, he didn’t get what he wanted. The resistance from Ukraine’s outgunned and outmanned military has been far tougher and more effective than anyone anticipated, as has the resolve of Ukraine’s government and civilians. And despite having had months if not years to plan the attack, Russia’s forces have been hampered by logistical and tactical blunders. At this rate, the Kremlin may soon face a choice between pulling back from a failed invasion or — more likely — digging in for a war of attrition, including laying siege to Ukraine’s major cities and having to defend itself not just against Ukrainian forces, but armed citizen soldiers. That would not only set the stage for greater military losses, but massive civilian casualties and a historic humanitarian crisis.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, whom many observers (myself included) judged to be in over his head at the start of this war, has quickly become one of the most admired people in the world, as he has remained in Kyiv to lead the country’s resistance to the invasion, fully cognizant of the risk that he might not make it out alive. The fierce, near-universal resistance on the part of the Ukrainian people has also been something to behold. While it remains difficult to grasp the full scope and scale of what’s happening inside Ukraine, reporting and footage emerging from the country has captured numerous acts of defiance — from individual civilians berating or heckling Russian soldiers to their faces, to people standing in the path of advancing Russian tanks, to hopelessly overmatched Ukrainian border guards telling a Russian warship “go fuck yourself” — and spawning a new national motto.

Another response Putin clearly misjudged was the one from the rest of the world. Europe, NATO, and the broader global community of democracies have been much more united in their willingness to punish Russia economically than Putin likely expected. This weekend, U.S. and European financial authorities moved to freeze Russian central bank assets and cut major Russian banks off from the global SWIFT banking system — the so-called nuclear option of financial sanctions, which will hobble Russian firms’ ability to do business internationally and Moscow’s ability to use its foreign currency reserves as a cushion against economic isolation. The SWIFT cutoffs still exempt transactions related to energy exports, which will limit their economic impact (on both Russia and Europe) for the time being, but the moves lay to rest any notion that the West is too timid to risk the collateral damage of significant retaliation against Russia’s economy.

The escalating sanctions have caused the value of ruble to crater, prompting runs on banks inside Russia, and the intensifying economic fallout got so bad on Monday that Russia’s central bank more than doubled its interest rates and the Moscow stock exchange was forced to close.

Putin’s aggression has also unified Europe’s democracies like perhaps nothing else could ever have. Days after suspending the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline project, German chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany would increase military spending to more than 2 percent of its economic output, reversing years of pacifist policy. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen revealed on Sunday that the European Union will buy and deliver arms to Ukraine, marking the first time the bloc has taken such an action.

The crisis has also furthered the very causes of European integration and NATO/E.U. expansion that Putin has worked so hard to gum up. Ukraine remains unlikely to qualify for NATO membership anytime soon, but von der Leyen also said on Sunday that Ukraine is “one of us and we want them in [the E.U.].” (Zelensky released an image of him signing Ukraine’s application for E.U. membership the next day.) Meanwhile, Sweden and Finland may be moving closer to NATO, despite threats of retaliation from Moscow. Kosovo is now asking the U.S. to establish a permanent military base there and seeking to accelerate its accession to NATO.

None of these moves would have been conceivable, or in some cases politically possible, just weeks ago. In a matter of days, Putin has done more to revive the relevance of these institutions than Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron could have hoped to do in years. What’s more, he has also undone all of his work over the past decade to sow division and discord among NATO and E.U. member states. Practically overnight, being a pro-Putin politician in Europe or the U.S. has transformed from a right-wing populist selling point to a political liability. (Even Putin superfan Donald Trump felt the need to denounce the invasion in his speech on Saturday at CPAC, albeit while making himself seem stupid by doubling down on his insistence that Putin is smart.)

And for Russia, the hits keep coming. On Monday, the U.S. announced more financial sanctions and the traditionally neutral Switzerland said that it was freezing the assets of hundreds of already EU-sanctioned Russians, including Putin. The entire E.U. has closed its airspace to Russian aircraft, along with Norway, the U.K., and Canada. Japan and South Korea have joined the U.S. and Europe in imposing financial sanctions on Russia. Norway will divest its $1.3 trillion sovereign wealth fund from Russian assets. The British oil company BP says it will “exit” its 20 percent stake in Russia’s Rosneft, while its current and former executives have resigned from the board of the Russian oil giant. Shell followed suit on Monday and said it would do the same for its Russian oil and natural gas investments. International banks and other companies are canceling contracts or refusing to do business with Russian counterparts, either for fear of running afoul of sanctions or simply to avoid the reputational risk. Even China, Russia’s most reliable ally, is finding it difficult to offer full-throated support for the invasion, abstaining from a vote in the U.N. Security Council to condemn it, rather than voting against it.

The near unanimity of international condemnation has turned Russia into something of a pariah state, with consequences far greater than anything it faced in 2014 when Putin annexed Crimea and ignited separatist conflicts in eastern Ukraine. What we are seeing today is the largest international blowback against a war since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 — and that catastrophic debacle at least had a semi-plausible moral objective and a coalition of allied countries willing to participate. With the exception of his Belarusian puppet Alexander Lukashenko, Putin right now stands alone. He has meaningfully severed his country from the international community, and getting back in won’t be easy, no matter how the war turns out.

Russia still has an enormous military advantage over Ukraine, and despite the early setbacks, it may still manage to capture Kyiv, albeit at a much greater cost than Putin budgeted for. But then what? There is no chance the Ukrainians will acquiesce to the installation of a client regime, and they are clearly prepared to fight a guerrilla war against Russian occupation forces if and when it comes to that. Even if Ukraine is inflating the number of Russian casualties thus far, in a drawn-out urban insurgency, the bodies will start to pile up — especially if the Ukrainians continue to receive arms and other assistance from Europe and the U.S.

So in the near term, the best-case “victory” scenario for Putin in Ukraine involves attempting to combat a vast, righteous insurgency with significant international backing so the Kremlin can prop up a puppet regime in Kyiv with zero popular legitimacy. Meanwhile, Russia would remain cut off from the international financial system, diplomatically isolated, friendless, and completely dependent on China, with the Kremlin’s assets, and those of its kleptocratic oligarchy, frozen or seized abroad. Even Putin, with his massive disinformation-and-propaganda machine, can’t spin this outcome as a win.

In the longer term, Europe is already moving to reduce its dependence on Russian energy imports, and while this transition will take time, it will not only weaken Russia’s economy, which depends heavily on fossil-fuel exports, but will also take away Putin’s ability to extract concessions from the E.U. and NATO by threatening to turn off the gas. Putin was counting on Europe, especially Germany, being too leery of the economic pain of an energy crunch to stand up to his bullying, but if the Europeans are afraid of higher heating bills, they are apparently much more afraid of letting an irredentist Russia run roughshod over the eastern half of their continent.

Although it has never been safe to bet against Putin, there is a chance that his adventure in Ukraine could be the end of him. It is just as likely, however, that he will behave even more irrationally and lash out if he feels cornered and humiliated. Even if this crisis does lead to his ruin, he can do a great deal of damage in the meantime. So while it is reasonable to be hopeful that Putin is finally falling victim to his own hubris, it is even more important to offer him opportunities to exit this crisis without more catastrophic violence — and if he won’t take them, to make it clear to Russia’s citizens and ruling elite that they are welcome to pursue these off-ramps without him.

This post has been updated.

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Russia’s War of Self-Destruction