Russia has already lost the war
Russia continues to make progress on the ground in Ukraine, particularly in the Donbass region where the fighting in the war is now the most intense. President Vladimir Putin can and will inflict more suffering, and although his army is not strong enough to overthrow the Zelensky government and capture all of Ukraine as he initially hoped, he is convinced that Ukraine is not strong enough to drive his troops out of the territory. it already holds. He also knows that the global food and fuel inflation created by his war will test the limits of Western resolve to continue supporting Ukraine at its current level.
But from a longer-term perspective, Russia has already lost that war, and Putin’s decision to invade will be remembered as one of the biggest blunders by a great-power leader in decades.
What did Putin hope his invasion would accomplish? Its stated aims were the “denazification and demilitarization” of Ukraine. By denazification, he meant the removal of any Ukrainian government that preferred stronger ties with Europe than with Russia. With demilitarization, he wanted to deprive Ukraine of any ability to challenge Russian rule in the future, no matter who was in charge in Kyiv.
His ambition extended far beyond Ukraine. He also wanted to demonstrate to the United States and Europe that Russia should be treated as a great power capable of defining its own sphere of influence. He wanted to show that the Western powers were weak-willed and divided. He also hoped to strengthen his position with the Russian people, as the capture and annexation of Crimea had done in 2014.
What did he achieve?
Putin has exposed Russia as a delusional and dangerous power that wants to rethink Europe’s security architecture and redraw the borders of a neighboring democracy with brute force and a steady stream of lies about its motives. He has demonstrated that he has no idea what Ukrainians are ready to fight for or how the West will react to a full-scale naked aggression.
He inflicted generational damage on his own army. More Russians were killed in action in 100 days in Ukraine than Soviet soldiers who died in a decade in Afghanistan. A large number of tanks and other heavy weapons were lost. Artillery supplies dwindled. US export controls on the sale of critical parts to Russia will further undermine Russian resupply efforts. It has also given the rest of the world an unobstructed view of Russia’s capabilities, limitations and vulnerabilities. It also inflicted considerable damage to the morale of a fighting force ill-equipped for the mission its leader had in mind.
Putin gave Europe and the United States a sense of common purpose that had not existed since the end of the Cold War. He reminded many Europeans why American aid is so valuable and showed Americans that Europeans will make hard choices and painful sacrifices to uphold Western values. He expanded NATO, over the current objections of Turkish President Erdogan, and doubled the length of the Russian-NATO border by persuading Finland and Sweden that they are safer inside the alliance than ‘outside. Two-thirds of voters in eurosceptic Denmark have now voted to strengthen defense ties with the EU.
It has burdened its economy with US and European sanctions that are unlikely to be lifted as long as Putin remains in power. It has created long-term shortages of critical spare parts for Russian manufacturing. He has left himself vulnerable to criticism from Russians who hate the international isolation they know is coming, but also from those who think he mishandled a war that Russia should have easily won.
He persuaded the European Union to drastically reduce its imports of Russian energy, a vital source of revenue for the Putin government. He proved to European leaders that they need to spend a lot more money on the defense of Europe. All of these developments were virtually unthinkable before Russia began assembling troops along Ukraine’s borders.
Putin has also left his country deeply dependent on the (still limited) goodwill of China. The process of diverting large volumes of Russian energy from Europe to Asia will take a lot of time and money – and, with fewer willing buyers, Russia will have to sell its products at reduced prices.
In exchange for all this, he could take control of the Ukrainian region of Donbass and other Black Sea coasts to connect this territory with Crimea under Russian control.
Russia is not entirely isolated, of course. There are still people and governments in all parts of the world who view the United States as a greater threat to global peace and shared prosperity than Russia. Many governments will continue to buy Russian goods and weapons, especially at necessarily lower prices.
But the worst of all this self-inflicted damage is irreversible at least as long as Putin remains in charge. This is why, although the fighting in Ukraine may continue for months or even years, Putin has already lost this war.
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Ian Bremmer is chairman of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of The Power of Crisis.