I don’t know exactly what Putin will do. But neither do you!
This is very good. I had a student just yesterday say that he thought this war would end in 2023 since we had just passed the one year mark. I asked him why he said this. He said he had read it on the internet and it seemed reasonable. This was in a second year Soviet history course.
I paused and began to kindly pick apart his statements... he could not remember the internet source, but worse is that he and many in public commentary are either engaging in wishful thinking or projecting our own thought processes on Putin, whom none of us really understand.
Dr. McFaul has a rare seat in this discussion and even he feels uncomfortable predicting Putin’s next move. So, I cautioned the student not to listen to just anything out there, but also not to place our views in Putin’s head.
I think he wants to be optimistic about this situation, but as we have discussed here- what does a victory even look like?
In the end, I think he and his classmates were disheartened by my pessimism about this ending soon, and worse, about the long term shift in Russia’s standing in the world that could likely last for decades.
I loved your essay on Putin’s luck running out. My suggested changes I doesn’t alter the fact I think it’s a great piece of work.
1. While I think it’s clear Putin was lucky at the start I don’t think it’s bad luck at all that Ukraine has been a disaster. It stems from dumbo decisions and misrule. This is implied in the article but could be made explicit. The war has revealed Russia’s supposedly great army is, to put it mildly, deeply flawed and grossly over rated. A feared and respected military was an important part of Russia’s ‘soft power’. Much of the hollowing out was due to corruption and a culture of deception up the line. Putin has to take full responsibility for that – he’s set the tone right from the top and made little/no efforts to treat this cancer that has ravaged the whole body of the military.
2. Your six points are fine but I think you might have made it clearer some points are more important than others. I suggest the severe damage to his military, the long term damage to the economy and the international isolation of Russia (welcome to client status of China) are by far the most clear and damaging costs of the war. As you state some of the negative effects (eg the flight of Russian liberals) are just fine from Putin’s standpoint. He won’t think that of having his military discredited, his economy damaged and his nation’s international clout shrunk.
3. You might have mentioned that Russia is selling oil at a big discount to India and China, a discount they’ve been forced to bare by their economic isolation.
4. You might have made the point that it will greatly worsen the coming demographic crisis in the Russian society. It already has a deficiency of men in their most productive years and the war will worsen it considerably. Leaving aside the dead and wounded, some will come back too psychologically damaged to be long term workers and fathers. Then you add the mass emigration of military aged men. Russia will hardly compensate with migrants coming in! Putin has brought forward the demographic crunch facing Russia by a number of years.
5. This is just a thought but a whole pile of brutalized men are going to return to Russian society. This has implications for crime (and future child rearing) To take an example a whole lot of men who may never have committed rape will now be experienced rapists some of whom may have developed a taste for it.
But I repeat that was a darn good article and well worth a read!
As a recovering Kremlinologist, I too, hesitate to predict what someone like Putin will do if faced with imminent defeat in Ukraine. But, I would note that in the past Putin's pattern has been to see weakness as an invitation to aggression, and strength as a warning to step back. He will often double down after setbacks, but only if he is convinced that he will win in the end.
Putin has carefully cultivated a reputation for understanding power. The "cornered rat" anecdote is one that he tells to show that he understands how to live on the mean streets of Leningrad, and how even the smallest creatures, if cornered, can be dangerous. This anecdote was originally intended to carry the lesson that while others might think Russians weak, like the cornered rat, they could attack ferociously. In yesterday's world, Putin was the cornered rat in Dresden, but he won and bluffed a crowd of demonstrators into calling off their attack. In today's world, however, we should remember that it is Putin who has cornered Zelenskyy, and Zelenskyy isn't bluffing.
The other story that Putin promotes is the one where his KGB trainers downgraded his fitness report because they believed that he suffered from a “diminished sense of danger” (пониженное чувство опасности). Putin is also the original source for this story. He uses it to pump up his reputation as a risk-taker, someone who is erratic. Any good poker player does the same, so they can use that reputation when they are concealing a strong hand, or when they want to create serious uncertainty when bluffing.
Putin's actual pattern is that he only bets on sure things, preferably when the fix is in. But he is so isolated now, and people are so afraid of him, that he sometimes can't tell a sure thing from a disastrous mistake, and no one dares correct him. That's the problem we face.
The way I see it, Putin values only three things in ascending order: his money, his power, and his life. If this analysis is correct, then it is hard to see how Putin would ever use nuclear weapons, even a tactical device in Ukraine, if he were convinced that the only three things he holds most dear would be threatened with destruction as a result. But he would certainly rattle the nuclear saber at every opportunity.
Thank you for covering this in depth. Why hasn't he taken one of these options, do you think? Is he still under the illusion he can win decisively? I came across this piece a few days ago; the author thinks Putin has a few reasons to keep things going. I don't know the author or think tank, but perhaps others do. https://jamestown.org/program/why-putin-cannot-end-his-war-against-ukraine/
To focus on particular conflicts or particular violent men is a loser's game in the long run.
Sooner or later the war in Ukraine will end, and someday Putin will die. And then we'll go on to the next conflict. And the next. And the next. And like a game of Russian roulette, no matter how many times we win a particular conflict sooner or later the chamber of the geopolitical conflict gun will contain a bullet, some coming crisis will spin out of control, and then we will lose. If there is a solution, it is to get the gun out of our mouth.
The gun in our mouth is not Putin, or any other particular evil person. The gun in our mouth is not even nuclear weapons. The gun in our mouth is that small fraction of the human population that commits almost all the violence on this earth at every level of society. Violent men.
It's not enough to get rid of Putin, because he'll just be replaced by somebody just like him. It's not even enough to get rid of nuclear weapons, because if they were gone people like Putin will just turn to other means of mass horror.
The 21st century will force us to make world peace a reality. Confronting violent men one by one by one won't accomplish that. Confronting violent men one by one by one is a loser's game. The only way to win, survive, and thrive in the 21st century is to shift our focus to violent men as a class of human beings.
Putin is living in the 20th century. We don't have to join him there.
Excellent article, Amb.McFaul!
In my opinion, Secretary Rice has a very astute understanding of Putin.
Far from me to understand Eastern Europe, but Russians do apparently look down on Ukrainians and would like to have the better of them. The points in this writing about the futility of "nuclear" seem valid, though Russian military losses and internal tactical and policy pressures within Russian Federation might provoke this, however, not on a massive scale.
As always comprehensive and rationally thoughtful, McFaul presents for the first time in my recent memory, a range of options where Putin could end the war unilaterally and *still* claim a "victory" that might well be convincing enough to at least "satisfice" a large proportion of the largely proaganda-washed populace. The question for me is his internal drive for Peter the Greatness? This could depend on so many factors involving time, morbidity, and mortality, my sense is it's futile to try to tease them (and their influnces) apart. Stated otherwisse: Don't know whether its worth pinning on the button saying, "What would a messianic megalomaniac do?'