Is Putin winning in Ukraine?

In Moscow restaurants are full, real estate prices are rising, the construction market is booming, and the elites, who a year ago were convinced that Putin was on the verge of collapse, have recognized that he has won and will stay.

The Western world is tired of Ukraine. So is Poland. The excitement has passed. The year 2022, the year of the invasion, first brought a huge wave of outrage against the Russians and a great wave of sympathy for the Ukrainians. We followed the reports from the front with bated breath, not paying attention to the fact that they did not show the real picture. What mattered was that they gave a sense of participation. With heavy hearts, we welcomed people fleeing the war.

The awareness that the war could also reach us was probably never so acute. We joyfully watched maps showing the retreat of the “Orcs” from Kharkiv and Kherson regions. We rejoiced at the new sanctions and laughed at videos showing how Russian “mobiks” were given rusty rifles, and tanks designed in the middle of the last century were pulled out of storage. Even Germany, instead of helmets, finally started sending real weapons.

It was a common opinion that Vladimir Putin miscalculated, made an error in his calculations, did not take into account the will of Ukrainian resistance and the determination of the West. After such a year, which began with great terror and ended with relief and hope, the next year could only be better.

Russian red line

Meanwhile, Putin calculated differently. He was playing a game with the West calculated not for months, but for years. First, he slowed down the flow of military aid, skillfully using nuclear threats. He started the invasion by putting his nuclear forces on alert and unleashed propagandists who, unbound by any responsibility, threatened the world with destruction, developing the sentence of their leader: “why do we need a world if Russia is not in it?”

Such threats could be dismissed by ordinary people (though they probably caused them fear), could be rejected by commentators, but military planners and analysts had to take them seriously. Therefore, the supply of military equipment to the Ukrainian army was measured with the caution of the White House, so as not to cross the Russian red line.

Few probably remember, because such things are not nice to be remembered, how Poland was publicly rebuked when it offered in the spring of 2022 to supply MiG-29 aircraft. The Americans then brutally announced that this idea had not been consulted with anyone, but if the Poles want, they can deliver what they consider on their own responsibility. The message was clear: if the Russians attack you, it will be only your fault.

The United States was then at the stage of delivering hand-held anti-tank and anti-aircraft launchers. Then came rockets with a range of 80 km, howitzers, tanks, armoured transports, rockets with a range of 300 km, and finally – but only after a year of war – multi-role aircraft.

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The tanks, in fact, became the subject of a peculiar bargain between Washington and Berlin, when Chancellor Olaf Scholz, pressured by public opinion to send Leopards to Ukraine, stated that his country would provide modern tanks when America did the same. It can be assumed that this was driven as much by a desire to build Germany’s prestige, whose equal partner in the opinion of Berlin’s elites can only be the main NATO power, as by fear that Russia would realise its threats and attack their country. The Poles could irresponsibly supply 300 tanks and offer to deliver aircraft, but they are romantics after all. A similar calculation is probably currently behind Chancellor Scholz’s ongoing refusal to supply Taurus missiles, which could be a weapon capable of destroying the Kerch Bridge to Crimea.

In this way, the supply of modern weapons was in a sense “coordinated” with the Kremlin, and the Russians used this gradualness of help to improve their military position: building fortifications, organisational and technological changes in the army, training conscripts.

  The limit, adhered to by both cautious Germany and powerful America, was not attacking Russian territory, because an attack on Russia is doctrinally a reason for the use of nuclear weapons.

A side note: Scholz’s stance on the supply of Taurus missiles may indicate that the German chancellor de facto recognized Crimea as Russian territory, which may be a certain opening for building good relations with Putin when it becomes politically possible.

Failed Ukrainian offensive

All these factors, combined with the lack of training of Ukrainian soldiers, contributed to the fact that in the year 2023, the year of hope for all those who counted on continuing the successes of the previous year, Russia entered seriously strengthened, and Ukraine weakened, although at first glance it seemed the opposite.

A serious warning signal was the capture of Bakhmut. Paid for with terrible losses, estimated at 50,000 killed, and carried out by criminals released from prisons on the promise of freedom they were to earn through combat. It showed Russia’s barbarism and contempt for life at its worst. What of it, if the barbarians won.

In the process, the concept of “material war” appeared in the public space, as the intensity of artillery shelling applied by the Russians in Bakhmut exceeded all expectations. In the West, public questions began to be asked whether, on the real front, when armies of comparable status fight, mass does not prevail over precision. And whether, therefore, it would not be necessary to build ammunition depots on a similar scale as in the Cold War times.
Is the front experiencing a stalemate that could last for years? The photo shows Ukrainian soldiers from the 80th Air Assault Brigade fighting in the Donetsk region. Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo / Anadolu/AA/ABACA / Abaca Press / Forum
Meanwhile, the Russians were taking care of their quantitative needs by entering into an agreement with North Korea and, it can be assumed, indirectly with China. Then came the long-awaited Ukrainian summer offensive, which observers were reluctant to acknowledge as unsuccessful, but eventually had to. As two influential American analysts, Richard Haas and Charles Kupchan, wryly noted in an article to which we will return, the year 2023 ends with a territorial loss balance for Ukraine: Russians gained more than they lost. Even though it was supposed to be the opposite.

At the same time, Russia turned out to be surprisingly resistant to Western economic sanctions. Oil is being sold without major problems to China and India, while gas lands in Europe as usual, marked as a product from one of the Central Asian countries or Turkey. Meanwhile, high-technology goods necessary for the production of modern missile systems are again being purchased through intermediaries, and the selling countries either do not want to prevent it or are unable to.

Ineffective sanctions

Western politicians are only interested in introducing another package of sanctions, because then they can say in front of the spotlights and flashing cameras how much the world’s democracies are mobilising to repel Putin’s attack on the sovereignty of a neighbouring country. They are less concerned with the fact that the tools to implement sanctions are quite imperfect and, ultimately, specific decisions land on the desks of bank officials who have little idea of what is necessary for missile production.

Therefore, the time when Russians installed processors from washing machines and dishwashers in their missiles has definitively ended. The production of long-range ballistic missiles is carried out uninterrupted. The sanctions did lead to the spectacular withdrawal of McDonald’s from Russia, but did not inflict the expected damage on its military production. In addition, Putin put the economy on a war footing, allocating 30% of next year’s budget to military purposes, but this did not cause the slightest social discontent, and the Russian economy, instead of falling, will rise by more than 2% by the end of the year.

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Even the spectacular sanctions on oligarchs, which were relatively the easiest to enforce, led to their money being invested in the country. It is estimated that since the beginning of the war, about 50 billion dollars have returned to Russia in this way. Interestingly, a large part of this money went into tourism, as Russians began to travel within the country during the holidays, and thus it became profitable to build resorts in Altai or Karelia.

This can be read in the bitter article of the Russian emigrant journalist, former head of the opposition station “Dozhd” Mikhail Zygar, who recently published a column titled “Putin is winning” in the Washington Post. Based on economic data, but also on his contacts in Russia, he painted a picture of a well-functioning state machine that fights the enemy using the poor, who think that war will improve their lot and gives the richer a chance to live and enjoy themselves, as long as they do not protest.

In Moscow, restaurants are full, real estate prices are rising, the construction market is flourishing, and the elites, who a year ago were convinced that Putin was on the verge of collapse, have recognized that he has won and will stay, writes Zygar. Interestingly, the day after the article was published, the editorial office changed its title to a less controversial one. The thesis that the Russian dictator might win is apparently too shocking for the editors.

Repetition of 1916?

The belief that Putin is not winning manifests itself in a rather unexpected form, namely in the emerging conviction that we are currently dealing with a stalemate on the front, which may last for years. This was contributed to by the commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, in his famous interview for the British weekly The Economist, where he wanted to explain the failure of the summer offensive. He put forward the thesis that both sides have military systems comparable in terms of technological advancement and, just as in World War I on the Western Front, so now in Ukraine, no significant changes are possible.

At first glance, this is a very attractive thesis, because indeed, the front in Zaporizhia moved only a few kilometres during intense military operations, which is very reminiscent of the state of war in northern France in 1916. This thesis also allows for the statement that Putin may not be losing, but he is not winning either.

The belief in a long-term stabilisation of the front is, however, deceptive, as it diverts the allies’ attention from the main goal of the war. More than that – it allows them to focus on other problems, because if the front has stabilised and Russian troops will not go further west, one can feel safe. Therefore, one can deal with what liberal democracies like most recently: saving the planet through costly technological changes, or, in short – spending mountains of money on economic transformation.

According to financial analysts, achieving all the set climate goals will require the West to spend four trillion dollars annually over the next ten years. Four trillion in American or four billion in European terms. That’s a lot of money. It can be assumed that many decision-makers, faced with such a challenge, would gladly put the problems related to the war in Ukraine on the shelf labelled “less urgent.” Well, because if the front has stabilised and the soldiers are sitting in trenches, it is enough to focus on economic cooperation, gradual integration of the part of the country under the control of Kyiv with the structures of the European Union, and let the military – who should not be disturbed, but also do not need too much help – deal with the fight. Well, because the front has allegedly stabilised...

America’s cross

However, it is not so, and Putin can simply win this war, if only he increases his involvement, and the West reduces its military aid. This thesis was put forward by the former West Point professor, Frederik Kagan, who pointed out that if Ukraine were equipped with the latest American military systems, especially those allowing to overcome the influence of Russian electronic warfare systems, which paralyzed Ukrainian drones and significantly limited the accuracy of precision missiles and rockets, then breaking the front would be possible. It would also be possible – writes Kagan – to break the front in the other direction and this would happen if aid to Ukraine was limited and Russia intensified its war effort, especially by conducting bombings in the style of those carried out in Syria in 2015 and 2016. Such a breakthrough could eventually lead to the realisation of Putin’s plan from 2022, and Russian troops could stand on our eastern border, threatening a nuclear attack, should NATO want to come to help.
Moscow. A poster at a bus stop encouraging people to join the military. Since the beginning of 2023, over 350,000 people have joined the Russian army. Photo by YURI KOCHETKOV/EPA/PAP
Many indications suggest that the Kremlin’s tenant is waiting for the double presidential elections that will take place in 2024: in Russia and in the United States. Of course, no one expects anyone to threaten Vladimir Vladimirovich’s re-election, but making abrupt moves before the elections would be an unnecessary risk. Such an abrupt move could be another mobilisation, needed to flood Ukraine with troops. Whether this would happen in 2024 or perhaps the following year would probably depend on the military and the weather. It seems that 2025 would be more likely, as training the “mobiks” takes time. Besides, by that year, the result of the presidential elections in the United States will already be known. More than that, not just their result, but also their political consequences.

If these elections were held now, Donald Trump would probably win. It is widely expected that he would stop military aid to Ukraine. Whether this would actually happen is hard to predict, as politicians do not always do what they announce. However, it is very possible that he would want to implement his famous plan to end the war in Ukraine “within 24 hours.” Presumably, it would involve arranging with Putin the borders of Ukraine and Russia, and perhaps also the composition of the Ukrainian government, and presenting this “peace plan” to the Ukrainians with the blackmail that if they do not accept it, military aid will be stopped, Russia will win on the battlefield, and they will lose their statehood.

It is very possible that such a scenario was in the back of the minds of the two analysts mentioned earlier, Haas and Kupchan, who published an article in Foreign Affairs titled “Redefining success in Ukraine.” Until now, what has been a success for America in this war has been determined by Joe Biden’s words that the United States will be with Ukraine “as long as it takes” and that Ukraine alone will decide how and on what terms to end the war.

The redefinition of this “success” according to Haas and Kupchan would involve forcing Kyiv to start negotiations with Moscow, and in military terms, abandoning costly human, equipment, and ammunition offensive attempts and switching to defense.

Of course, it is more than certain that Putin would not want to negotiate, and even if he did, he would set conditions that essentially amount to Ukraine’s capitulation. The authors of the article obviously took this into account and considered that simply switching to defence, solid entrenchment, and forcing the Russians to take costly fortifications would already be a step forward, as it would stop the country’s bleeding. Concern for the life and health of Ukrainian soldiers, probably genuine, however, went hand in hand with concern for the American military budget, which many experts believe should be significantly increased but directed towards increasing American military capabilities, not Ukrainian ones.

A serious argument, used not only by the authors of this article, is the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, which at any moment could turn into a regional war if Israel decides to attack Iran or Yemen in defence, or Hezbollah supported by the ayatollahs strikes from Lebanon. A war in the Middle East combined with a war in Ukraine means two serious conflicts requiring the involvement of the United States; in the first case, direct involvement.

What would happen if, simultaneously with an escalation in Israel, Chairman Xi wanted to recover Taiwan? America could lose, claims Wess Mitchell, a member of the State Department leadership in 2017-19. In his article in Foreign Policy, Mitchell writes about allies that they are “mostly unable to defend themselves,” while America is excessively indebting itself, financing climate and social programs, whereas military production has increased by only 10% since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. If, therefore, the United States does not take threats seriously, it may lose a war whose outbreak is no longer just a theoretical possibility, but is quite real.

Among the sea of texts on Russia, Ukraine, and the war that have recently appeared in the English-speaking media space, the title given to his article by retired American general Stephen Twitty, who commanded, among others, in Iraq and Afghanistan, is notable. He argued that by defending Ukraine, America is carrying out the mission of defending Europe, begun by the sacrifice of life made by tens of thousands of soldiers resting in war cemeteries from 1944-45 in the fields of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy. He very aptly pointed out that both the liberation of Europe from German occupation and its subsequent reconstruction were huge and very profitable investments, the abandonment of which would be both economically senseless and a betrayal of those who made such great sacrifices. However, the title Twitty decided to give his article was thought-provoking: “Ukraine: A Cross the US Must Be Willing to Bear.”

Will America want to bear this cross after the elections? If Trump wins, it is doubtful. Then the cross will fall on the shoulders of those who are directly threatened. First and foremost, on the shoulders of Poland. It is worth remembering this when economic disputes with Ukraine are ongoing. They should not go too far and too deep. Because our commonality of fate may be revealed sooner than we think. Putin is slowly implementing his long-term strategy. He is not winning yet. Yet.

– Robert Bogdański

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by jz
Main photo: The Battle for Bakhmut has claimed thousands of victims. The photo shows the funeral of a Ukrainian soldier who fell in August. He left behind a wife and two children. Photo by Iva Zimova/Panos Pictures / Panos Pictures / Forum
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