What Will Putin Do If Russia Loses Ukraine?

Three weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as its underperforming military bogs down in the face of a world-defense effort, US president Joe Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin find themselves caught between the cautionary lessons of history and today’s geopolitical realities.

Almost nothing has gone according to Putin’s earlier plans: Ukraine rallied against his military, inflicting horrendous losses and making it clear that Russia will never be welcomed into the former Soviet republic, and the world has united against Putin’s government, inflicting an immediate economic toll that already poses the greatest threat to his ongoing leadership in two decades.

Now Putin faces a dangerous question with destabilizing consequences for the West and the world beyond: How does he want to lose this war? What more of Russia’s treasury, economy, and people—and, not least of all, his own political power—is he willing to risk to either grind down Ukraine or preserve his hold on the country he’s led for nearly a quarter-century?

Meanwhile, half a world away, Biden faces his own, fraught choice—how to punish and defeat Russia without risking a war he’s clearly chosen not to fight and hold the line on American aid in the face of popular and political pressure to escalate.

For both presidents, the political calculations are informed by a half-century of geopolitical lessons reaching from the Cold War to Afghanistan to Libya.

Vladimir Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine caught nearly everyone—including his own troops—by surprise. The act seemed so irrational, so costly, and such a throwback to a previous era (tanks in European capitals?) that few imagined Putin’s build-up as much more than his normal saber-rattling. After all, it was clear to everyone, except perhaps Putin, that Ukraine was fundamentally different—in size, geography, and geopolitics—from previous targets in Chechnya and Georgia.

Now that Putin has cast his lot in Ukraine, nearly every passing day seems to confirm that he has made an awful, hubristic, and perhaps even politically fatal mistake.

Russian military losses are staggering: Leaked numbers appear to indicate as many as 9,800 killed and 16,000 wounded. That would be the equivalent of the US losing 12,000 to 15,000 soldiers in the multi-week 2003 invasion of Iraq, which actually saw just about 140 Americans killed. Ukrainian officials say a half- dozen generals and top Russian commanders have been killed in action, around a quarter of all the leaders it deployed to the field—while the US lost a single general in 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and none in the Gulf War. Those human and material costs to Russia will only mount, and it’s apparent that the billions of dollars in “modernization” spent on the Russian military have failed to deliver an intimidating force. Russia’s military might will only grow weaker as it brings forward even less-prepared units. And the country has apparently turned to China for help with the most basic military supplies.

The Ukrainian response has made it clear that any long-term attempt to occupy the country will come at an impossible price, both in terms of Russian casualties and ongoing financial costs. Russia simply does not possess a military force capable of subduing a resistance as strong as that put forward by Ukraine’s 43 million people. The American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Study of War, the think tanks that have been providing the most thorough unclassified battle analysis available, offered an assessment over the weekend that “Ukrainian forces have defeated the initial Russian campaign of this war,” adding, “the initial Russian campaign to seize Ukraine’s capital and major cities and force regime change has failed.”

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