A 'Stop Putin' banner urges Russia to leave Ukraine in a London protest on February 27, 2022. Photo: Asia Times / Jeff Pao

As the Russo-Ukrainian War grinds into its third month, the full scope of Vladimir Putin’s failure has emerged. His initial strategy, a lightning strike on Kyiv that would destroy the Ukrainian state, failed. His second strategy, a grinding assault on the capital, also miscarried. His third strategy, a refocus on the Donbas, currently hangs in the balance. 

Whether it succeeds or not, fighting will continue throughout summer, and likely until next year.

Given the military realities Putin faces, he must make a choice: continue fighting the war short-handed, treating it as a “special operation” and hoping he can abrade Ukrainian resistance over time, or mobilize for a long-term confrontation and commit openly to conquest. Putin’s May 9 speech was opaque. He postponed his decision, hoping to keep the conflict at a level that favors the Kremlin’s domestic imperatives.

Understanding Putin’s actions on May 9 requires three steps. First, his decision for war in February must be explained. Second, there should be an account of the dilemmas the Russian military has encountered. Third, the political stakes for Putin and his regime need to be made clear.   

The decision for war

Putin decided on invasion for two reasons: cultural-historical zealotry and the desire for regime preservation. They must be understood in tandem, for Putin’s zeal shaped his threat perceptions.

Ukraine occupies a curious place in Russian historical consciousness.  It is the birthplace of Russian culture and history. 

The word Russia stems from Rus’, the term for the Varangians who ruled Kiev and its environs. The term was expanded, not primarily because of Muscovy, the post-Mongol Slavic state that emerged in the far north, but to indicate a sacral community. The Russian world referred to the area in which Church Slavonic dominated as the liturgical language.  

This sacral community resembled that in the Latin West. In both cases, a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-political community was unified through a shared religious language. The difference came in historical evolution. 

Latin Europe fragmented, as Protestantism divided the sacral community, and states elevated local vernaculars to the status of political languages. The Russian world evolved differently. It ultimately divided between Latin and Slavonic imperial entities, with “Russia” gaining control of modern Ukraine in the late 18th century.

Russian state formation can be understood as the disjointed transition from a sacral to an ethnic-national community. As the Russian state coalesced in the 18th and 19th centuries, it developed a hybrid religious-national ideology that justified its existence and superiority through imperial conquest. 

Ukraine fell prey to this imperialism. But its nearness to the Muscovite imperial core, which politically shifted to St Petersburg but never changed its nature, allowed Russian intellectuals to identify a fundamental unity between it and Russia.  

The deep disagreement between Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet, and Alexander Pushkin, the founder of Russian literature and, like William Shakespeare for English, the creator of the modern Russian language, demonstrates the divide. 

Pushkin despised Shevchenko, deeming him a barbaric upstart who never accepted the glory of the pan-Slavic empire. Shevchenko criticized Pushkin, viewing him as an imperial propagandist, despite the admiration he held for Pushkin’s literary talents. Yes, the Ukrainians may be slaves, like the Poles, Finns, Balts, and other subject peoples. But why not be a slave to the master of the world?

This chauvinism dominates the Russian worldview. Not only is Ukraine a Slavic nation, a branch of the Russian ethnos and therefore an indivisible part of a Russian imperial entity.  It also benefits, like Tatars, Caucasians, Central Asians, and other subject peoples, from the glory and majesty of the Russian imperial entity.

Vladimir Putin is a creature of this Russian state, albeit in Soviet guise. In every iteration, the Russian polity regards as contemptuous those imperial subjects who wish to shape their own destiny. See, for example, Putin’s mentor, the liberal mayor of St Petersburg Anatoly Sobchak. In 1991 he described Ukraine as ruled by a cabal of ethno-nationalists and, ironically, communists.

This deep revulsion toward rebellious imperial subjects explains Putin’s hatred of the independent Ukrainian state. Ukrainian and Belarusian independence are historical aberrations to be corrected in time as Putin reconstitutes the Russian polity’s proper boundaries. 

However, Belarus is less recalcitrant. President Alexander Lukashenko maintains the Soviet Union’s regalia, and until 2014, spoke in Russian instead of Belarusian.

Ukraine, by contrast, is a noisome upstart. For what reason would the Ukrainian people, almost all of whom speak Russian, and around a fifth to a quarter of whom are ethnically Russian, reject subject status in the Russian empire, and turn west, craving its decadence, homosexuality, effeminacy, sexual liberality, and rootlessness? This historical mistake must be corrected, and the Ukrainian people shown the error of their ways.

In turn, Putin is a self-interested creature. His fundamental desire is to preserve his own power. When he took control of Russia in 2000, he embarked on a two-decade process of centralization and state consolidation. After breaking the oligarchs’ resistance, he transformed the Russian state into a mafia-style syndicate, handing out lucrative baubles to those who could guarantee financial returns.

Russia’s confrontation with the West can be viewed as a tool of state consolidation. Between 2008 and 2012, Putin began an ideological shift. 

The Russian people appreciate strength. More accurately, European Russians living in Moscow and St Petersburg – Russia’s only two cities with more than 1.6 million residents, and the Russian imperial core – appreciate strength. They appreciated it in 1999 when Putin invaded Chechnya. They appreciated it again in 2014 when he snatched Crimea from a decaying Ukrainian state.

Putin capitalized on the post-Crimea 2014 sanctions, co-opting the remaining oligarchs, offering them state contracts in lieu of their international holdings. The Security State expanded its power, entrenching itself in every aspect of Russian political and social life. 

Moreover, Putin centralized the collection and distribution of revenues, ensuring that Moscow had access to the cash flow of the provinces, and could feed off this steady stream of lucre.

However, Ukraine’s independence and Western orientation constituted a unique threat to Putin’s self-preservation. There are only two explanations for Ukrainian resistance.

First, the same nefarious foreign actors that seek to destroy Russia, infecting it with neoliberal, homosexual, feminist values, have attacked and co-opted Ukraine. Hence Putin’s accusations that the US Central Intelligence Agency caused Euromaidan likely were authentic: He actually believes the decadent West sparked the 2013-2014 revolution.  

These conspiratorial suspicions mix with traditional czarist anti-Semitism. Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s first post-Maidan president, was accused of having Jewish roots. Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, the descendent of Holocaust survivors, and – if one believes Russian state media – a drug addict. 

In Putin’s mind, the rootless Jew that so bedeviled the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, and that at the first chance fled Mother Russia to Israel, once again has returned to destroy the Russian state.

Second, any individuals who resist the Russian state must subscribe to an ideology antithetical to it. Accusations of communism would be politically out of place. Thus Ukraine is accused of Nazism, the only modern enemy that came close to destroying the Russian state. 

Putin justified his “special operation” by seeking to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Russian media fixate upon expressions of “Nazism,” particularly in Ukraine’s south and east, consistently proclaiming that the Azov Battalion, an ethnic-Russian unit of no more than 3,000 fighters – and with clear white nationalist affiliations – secretly controls Kiev.

This combination of foreign control, with a Jewish inflection, and Nazi influence guarantees that the Kiev government will assault Russia, or that its “handlers” in Washington will use it as a bridgehead to destabilize Russia. Indeed, this appeared to be happening. 

The Ukrainian Armed Forces, while still assumed to be grossly inferior to Russia’s, had gained a decisive tactical and operational advantage over the Donbas separatists, employing Turkish TB2 UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles), and fielding long-range missiles. The Ukro-Nazi-CIA regime, per the Kremlin’s logic, was guaranteed to attack Russia at some point, likely before the 2024 election, to demonstrate Putin’s weakness. 

Putin’s war was therefore a preventive war, fueled by regime-security concerns refracted through the prism of Russian historical imperial chauvinism.

The course of the war

Irrationalities compound over time. An initial miscalculation spawns future mistakes. 

Putin’s two deep misperceptions, that of Ukrainian non-existence and Ukrainian aggression, convinced him that the Ukrainian state was too dangerous to be left alive. However, since Ukraine was, once again, literally Russian, there was no reason to expect the population at large or the military would resist. Hence Russia’s plan to invade with 160,000 to 200,000 men along six distinct axes, with the crown jewel of a lightning dash on Kiev.  

As envisaged, most Ukrainians would lay down their arms, unwilling to fight for the regime. Zelensky, faced with the impending Russian conquest of Kiev, would flee. Again, as a Jew, his spinelessness would prompt his departure to Lviv or even Poland, where he would seek the favor of his Western masters. Perhaps “right-bank Ukraine” would resist, but Russia could swallow it in time. 

More important, the West would be faced with a perfect fait accompli. Putin’s handpicked puppet, possibly pro-Kremlin oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, would arrive in Kiev with great fanfare within days. Within months, a roadmap would be announced for Ukrainian and Belarusian integration into a supranational Russian entity – for Lukashenko would surely fall into line after witnessing a Ukrainian collapse.

Putin’s fundamental issue, however, was that none of these assumptions comported with reality. The Ukrainian people supported their government, or at least, the survival of their state. Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians in the east witnessed the hell that the Donbas experienced from 2014 onward despite using the Russian language and attending Moscow Patriarchate churches. The country rallied, and resistance was fierce and widespread.

In this context, Putin found himself at a triple disadvantage: Russian military limitations, Ukrainian strategy, and Western involvement.

The Russian military was not designed to execute the Ukraine operation. It was designed for limited foreign deployments as in Syria and Libya, imperial small wars as in Chechnya, and moderate regional power projection as in Georgia or Ukraine in 2014. It lacks the massive officer corps of its Soviet predecessor, designed to absorb new recruits during total mobilization. 

It also lacks the equipment reserves to replace combat losses rapidly and generate new formations. Russia had and has thousands of armored vehicles, artillery pieces, and aircraft in reserve, but generally in poor repair. Absent professional non-commissioned officers, the technical specialists who ensure Western tactical competence, Russia’s logistics system was overstretched and poorly serviced.

Moreover, despite the Russian military’s well-organized command and staff structure, its planning organs were not experienced enough to execute a multi-axis offensive. Even if they had been, Putin’s political imperatives intervened. 

A former intelligence officer whose formative experience was in the late Cold War, Putin was obsessed with operational security, and apparently centralized planning among a handful of people. 

The FSB, Putin’s pet agency, was tasked with external intelligence work in the post-Soviet space. This was an expansion of its original internal security and counterintelligence missions. It provided inaccurate assessments that reinforced Putin’s mistakes. 

Thus the Russian campaign was built on sand.

Equally critical, however, has been strategically competent Ukrainian resistance. The Ukrainian General Staff clearly developed a theater strategy that it has implemented since February 24. 

In the initial phase, Ukraine gave ground, defending only major urban areas and the Line of Contact in the Donbas with its prepared fortifications. It integrated air and ground assets to avoid Russian aerial bombardment and prevent Russian air control.

This initial approach defeated Russia’s primary objective, the rapid sack of Kiev, and forced Russia to shift strategies. Given force constraints and time pressure, Russia concentrated on Kiev, bypassing other urban areas in the north and assembling multiple columns to encircle and bombard the city. 

Ukraine responded by employing light infantry and UCAVs to harass Russian logistics and pick off isolated Russian armor, all the while improving its artillery targeting. After waiting for Russia to exhaust its offensive momentum and stall, Ukraine counterattacked, forcing Russia to retreat from Kiev.

Russia then reassessed, establishing three immediate priorities: the solidification of its lines in the Donbas, the establishment of the Crimea-to-Russia land bridge, and the consolidation of its control of Kherson Oblast. Russia has solidified its land bridge, reducing Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol to only the Azovstal Metallurgical Plant. But its position in Kherson remains vulnerable. 

Most critically, its offensive in the Donbas has stalled, again because of Ukrainian tactical, operational, and strategic competence. Having absorbed the Russian blow, Ukraine is now counterattacking. After consolidating around Kharkiv, it will push west, targeting Russia’s supply lines running toward Izyum. If these can be cut, Russian forces in central Donbas will be at risk of envelopment.

All the while, Ukraine has received Western support. Initially, Western weapons were primarily light anti-air and anti-tank missiles. Over time, the West expanded assistance. 

Ukraine has now received long-range heavy artillery (albeit in insufficient numbers), counter-battery radars, armored vehicles, UCAVs, and loitering munitions. It may receive long-range anti-ship missiles, air defense systems, and even fighter jets. 

Additionally, Western intelligence support has been crucial. NATO intelligence agencies have provided the Ukrainian military with real-time targeting information, allowing them to hit command posts and kill Russian generals, and sink the Moskva, the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship.

Russian combat capacity will be spent after its current Donbas offensive, whether Russia succeeds or fails. It must pause, refit, and reassess. 

However, Russia’s plans to occupy – or even annex – Mariupol, Kherson, and the majority of Ukraine’s south apart from Odessa and Mykolaiv indicate that Putin has not abandoned his maximalist political objectives. He still wishes to topple the Kiev government, and either install his own puppet or absorb the country outright.

The paths forward

Walking away is not an option for Putin. In the long term, he must still conquer Ukraine. However, in the short term, additional conquest is impossible. Absent comprehensive mobilization, or at least a six-month offensive pause, Russia cannot generate the manpower to take additional territory.

Politics is symbolic, Russian politics more so because of its imperial, sacral nature. May 9 is the central date in Russian spiritual-political life. It is an expression of post-Christian, neopagan ancestor worship, during which European Russians celebrate their forebears’ victory over the equally neopagan Nazis. 

Putin made a statement of his intentions in Ukraine. He had three general options: declare victory in the “special operation” but keep fighting, publicly double down without societal mobilization, or declare war and mobilize against Ukraine. All three choices carried risks.

First, Putin could have “declared victory” over Ukraine. Although Ukraine is neither de-Nazified nor demilitarized, Putin could have proclaimed that Russia had achieved its objectives, rescuing Russian-speakers from the Kiev regime’s oppression. Meanwhile, he would continue the war, fighting sporadically in the Donbas, securing Russia’s hold over Ukraine’s south, and squeezing Kiev over time.

This approach had two dangers. First, Russians are not stupid. They would have recognized this as a tacit admission of defeat, qualified as it may be by some Russian gains. Western sanctions would remain in place, and some fighting would continue. 

Putin may seem a new Yeltsin, unable to bring a breakaway upstart to heel. One of the siloviki may capitalize, particularly with the impending 2024 election, and replace Putin as he replaced Boris Yeltsin. 

As well, “freezing” this war would be far more difficult than doing so in 2014. Russia would have much more territory to defend and faced a far more competent adversary. Ukraine would seek to prove that Russia had, indeed, failed, counterattacking in the Donbas and the south, and quite possibly retaking territory. 

At that point, Putin would have to explain to the Russian people why these Ukrainian upstarts still resist. His credibility would be vulnerable to an internal challenge.

As a second option, Putin could have trumpeted Russian gains, but claim that more work must be done. He did not mobilize, but he can squeeze all manpower possible out of Russia without mobilization. He will leverage mercenaries, the new draft, and ethnic military units like Kadyrov’s Chechens. 

If he could scale up enough, he could ensure that Russia held its gains in the Donbas and the south. In turn, Russia could squeeze Ukraine economically by preserving control of all its major ports apart from Odessa, and in time, launch a series of limited offensives that conquered Ukraine in phases.

This approach is also risky. It might not provide enough manpower to secure its conquered territory against Ukrainian counterattacks. New recruits will not reach the battlefield for another six to 12 months. 

Russia may annex its conquered territories outright, allowing it to deploy conscripts rather than contractors against Ukraine more openly. But again, Ukraine may counterattack in the east and south before new Russian forces are available. Putin remains vulnerable to the same political situation as in the first case, albeit with slightly better optics.

Third, Putin could declare war on Ukraine and mobilize the country and economy. This would call up greater reserves, expand the draft, funnel resources to the military, and allow Putin to employ freely Russian conscripts in the Donbas and the south. Again, this would take six to 12 months to show any results, but over time, Russia would gain numerical superiority, and slowly grind through Ukraine until it conquers.

This approach has the greatest potential of the three. It also has the greatest risk. 

First, the Russian military may lack the capacity to scale up so rapidly. It no longer has the bloated officer corps of its Soviet predecessor designed to process new recruits, the major processing depots for management, or the good equipment to arm them. The newly minted troops may go into combat poorly trained and armed, collapsing against numerically inferior Ukrainian resistance.  

Second, Russian conscription will include the European Russians of the country’s imperial core who have, up until this point, felt the war’s bite the least. Most casualties have come from non-European Russian units – Russia has prioritized its Central Asian, Siberian, mercenary, and separatist units for combat to mask casualties and prevent dissent. Younger European Russians may quietly support the war and may march to recruiting stations. But over time, as they die, dissent will mount.  

Third, by arming and training its population, Putin risks providing the Russian population with the means to resist his rule. Unarmed resistance can be suppressed: The FSB is ruthless enough to eliminate even significant dissent. But a full-blown uprising might topple the Russian state, as it did in 1917.

What of the May 9 speech?

In the event, Putin chose a version of the second path. He did not annex any Ukrainian territory, primarily because Russian control in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts, along with Mariupol, remains contested. Nor did he announce a partial mobilization. However, a careful reading of the speech identifies Putin’s expansionist objectives, which align with the understanding of Russian ideology and interest we articulated above. 

Putin began the speech with an appeal to the “sacred” defense of Russia against foreign invaders. Although by the speech’s third paragraph he evokes the victory over Nazism, his initial touchstone is not the “Great Patriotic War.” Rather, it is the Polish-Muscovite War, a 17th-century conflict between Poland and the Russian czardom. 

Naturally this brackets the historical irony that the Zaporizhian Host, a Cossack polity in central Ukraine, fought alongside the Poles. After Russian conquest in the late 18th century, the czars deported the Zaporizhians to Kuban, Russia’s northern Caucasus territories – modern Russians term those from the Kuban “Humanoids,” a holdover from Imperial Russia’s ingrained racism against its non-European subjects.

In turn, Putin’s first referenced Russian heroes were not those of the “Great Patriotic War.” Rather, they are Dmitry Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin, the two commanders of the Russian Volunteer Army that pushed Poland back from Moscow. 

Putin follows this with a reference to, in his view, historical Russian geography: Kiev, Minsk and Kharkiv are therefore as Russian as Moscow, St Petersburg (which Putin terms Leningrad), Volgograd (which Putin terms Stalingrad), Kursk, and Sevastopol. 

Again, Putin has delineated a Russian state whose boundaries stem from a warped retelling of Russian history. Only after delineating this state does Putin speak of the Great Patriotic War. This allows him to link modern, Soviet, and pre-Soviet Russia into a political-historical whole.

Putin’s direct remarks about Ukraine summarize his above-stated neo-imperial paranoid worldview. Ukraine, we are told, is a NATO proxy, and was preparing to launch an attack on the Donbas, and by extension, on Russia. Putin therefore launched a preventive war to save the Russian state. 

Again, Putin’s Russia stands against the “neo-Nazis and Banderites” that dominate Kiev and their Western masters who hope to “cancel … millennia-old values,” foremost among them patriotism and traditional religious practice. Again, we are locked in a titanic struggle between the degenerate, homosexual, effeminate West and its neo-Nazi proxies in Kiev.

These are not the words of a man looking for an exit.

There is, moreover, an interlude right before Putin declares a “moment of silence” for Russia’s honored dead. He argues that Russia’s valiant soldiers – alongside whom are counted the Donbas militias – fight in the tradition of all Russian heroes, all of whom are affiliated with Ukraine. 

He begins with two princes of Kievan Rus, Sviatoslav I and Vladimir II Monomakh. He then jumps to more recent heroes, choosing Pyotr Rumyantsev, Catherine II’s pet commander who governed western Ukraine from Kiev after its conquest, and Grigory Potemkin, another of Catherine’s favorites of Potemkin village fame. 

He then venerates Alexander Suvorov, the Russian general who made his name under Catherine forcibly deporting Crimean Christians who, in a deep historical irony, founded Mariupol in 1778. 

His next military saint is Aleksei Brusilov, the Georgian-born Russian general whose eponymous offensive broke the Russian Army – Brusilov’s command of 1.7 million took 1 million casualties over three and a half months.

Only then does Putin turn to World War heroes. His three selected heroes, Nikolai Vatutin, Sydir Kovpak, and Lyudmila Pavlichenko, all have deep affiliations with Ukraine. 

Vatutin was the Soviet commander in Ukraine who served at Stalingrad, at Kursk, and ultimately reconquered Kiev from the Nazis before his assassination by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army – again, a victim of Ukro-Nazi barbarity. 

Kovpak led Soviet partisans in Ukraine, fighting the Germans and Ukrainians in equal measure. 

Pavlichenko, nicknamed “Lady Death,” allegedly killed more than 300 Germans as a sniper during combat in Odessa and Sevastopol. 

Kovpak and Pavlichenko were born on modern-day Ukrainian territory; Vatutin near Belgorod, just over the Russo-Ukrainian border.

These Russian military heroes were not selected thoughtlessly. Rather, they demonstrate Putin’s attempt to fuse Ukrainian and Russian history, again demonstrating the absolute unity of Ukraine with Russia.

As a final flourish, Putin attempts to co-opt these distinctly European heroes, except for the Caucasian Brusilov – ironically a Kubanoid – and transform them into avatars of a multi-ethnic Russia, fulfilling the transformation of the Slavic-Russian sacral unit into a united Russian state, founded upon “Loyalty to our Fatherland,” not ethnic attachment. 

But again, the Fatherland of which Putin speaks is a uniquely European entity that identifies itself not with Tatars, Caucasians or Central Asians, but with European Russia.

Regardless, Putin’s long-term objective remains complete conquest. Putin’s early-speech comments about Ukraine’s threat to the Donbas, and to “Russia’s historic lands, including Crimea,” should not be read as a de-escalatory signal. 

Rather, the Kiev government threatened Russia with “another invasion.” The first invasion was the establishment of an independent Ukrainian state, backed by the nefarious North Atlantic Treaty Organization after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The long haul

Russia’s objectives remain the same, its means more limited but longer-term. Given its unwillingness to mobilize, Russia likely will seek to consolidate in the south, ensure its control over the Donbas, and once the military balance tips clearly against it, seek a ceasefire to “freeze” the conflict. 

The Kremlin will count on the economic pressure major financial entities can bring to bear on the West, and the food-supply disruption the Russo-Ukrainian war has caused, to compel NATO to force Ukraine to negotiate, and agree to a farcical peace that disarms it over time. Russia, Putin hopes, can return in months or years to finish the job, all the while denying Ukraine export capacity through its occupation of its southern ports.

The West must therefore be prepared for an extended confrontation. Any ceasefire is fruitless given Russia’s maximalist objectives. It must reject all proposals apart from the unconditional withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine’s south and east, at minimum to pre-February 24 lines.  It must insist on actual demilitarization guarantees from Russia, limiting the forces the Kremlin can deploy to Crimea.  

Most important, the US and its allies must make it clear to Ukraine, Russia, and all other powers that the Occidental coalition will supply Ukraine with every gun, shell, cannon, tank, and missile it needs to drive Russia back to pre-February 24 borders, and afterward ensure its independence and sovereignty. 

Putin does not need an off-ramp. He must be convinced that he has lost. Doing so requires committing to the long haul.

Seth Cropsey

Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a US naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the navy, and is the author of the books Mayday and Seablindness.