No Matter What Happens Next In Ukraine, Putin Has Already Lost
Leonard Weinberg is Professor Emeritus at the University of Nevada, and recipient of both Fulbright and Guggenheim research awards.
Rantt Co-Founder Ahmed Baba contributed to this article.
The original assumption of President Putin and his military advisors, evidently, was that the successful invasion of Ukraine could be achieved quickly and at a relatively low cost. And that, further, Russia’s seizure of power in Kyiv was simply the first step in restoring the balance of power in Europe as it existed before the 1989 dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union itself two years later. The West would presumably begin to be forced to retreat from Eastern Europe and a Russian Empire would be recreated, or so Putin may have thought. Neither of these assumptions have proven to be true.
Instead of a seamless invasion and quick capitulation, Russian forces were faced with fierce resistance from the Ukrainian people led by inspirational Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Putin reportedly thought he would quickly take Hostomel Airport outside of Kyiv and immediately begin flying troops in to overtake the capital. That didn’t happen, as Ukrainian forces rebuffed early Russian advances and secured the airport. This has forced Russia to move its troops on the ground from the South, East, and North with many advances stalling for days. Ukraine is also mounting a better than expected air defense.
Putin also didn’t anticipate the united Western response and nearly universal private sector pullout from Russia. Not only have Western countries been providing weapons, funding, and humanitarian aid, they’ve deployed crippling sanctions that are squeezing the Russian economy. So both of Putin’s assumptions have been proven wrong. Putin has also eroded the power of his disinformation machine and enhanced the credibility of the US intelligence community after they called out his every move. Not only was the West further united by his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, his war is going poorly while his country is being economically weakened.
The idea that Ukraine’s loss to Russian forces would be inevitable is no longer conventional wisdom. The likelihood that Ukraine is able to hold off Russian forces increases by the day as Ukraine continues to hold key cities, they receive more weapons from allies, and Russian resources dwindle. There is also the hope of renewed peace talks, as Putin’s military strategy is in disarray and he desperately targets civilians in apparent war crimes. If Putin were to pull back now, he has already irreparably tarnished his reputation and perhaps crippled his country economically for at least a decade. But if Putin were able to somehow take over Ukraine militarily, he would entangle himself in an unsustainable occupation with a never-ending Ukrainian insurgency.
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Now the view appears to be widespread that a Russian “victory” could be achieved when Putin’s armed forces’ bombard the major Ukrainian cities hard enough and long enough to compel their surrender. This capitulation would presumably be followed by President Putin’s installation of a puppet government in Kyiv, with members of the democratically elected government, including President Zelensky, killed, captured, or forced into exile. This result though seems unlikely to be the end of things, simply the conclusion of the initial phase of the struggle. And it would hardly be a “victory” for Putin.
Although there are no guarantees, it seems likely at least there would likely be a second phase to the conflict; what Mao and others referred to as a ‘war of long duration.’ What would such a war look like? As we’ve seen, Russia is already struggling to maintain control of the ground they’ve gained. In the event of a wider occupation, there would be a robust insurgency in both urban and rural areas, making it almost impossible for Russian troops to maintain peaceful control of any given territory without heavy losses.
Ukraine also offers porous borders across which insurgents might flee and return to fight another day as the occasions arose. Also, unless the Russians were willing to come into conflict with these adjacent NATO countries, they would have a difficult time interdicting the resupply of weapons and other supplies to the insurgents. The same applies to volunteer fighters likely to stream across the borders. (I recall that as a graduate student many years ago attending a seminar in which a young naval officer outlined the steps involved in mounting a successful counter-insurgency struggle. Step #1 was ‘seal the borders’, a step the United States for example never managed to achieve in Vietnam.)
Russian forces of occupation or their Quisling successors will confront an overwhelmingly hostile Ukrainian population, where offering aid and comfort to the occupiers would be regarded by friends and neighbors as treason. Those who do offer this assistance are likely to be isolated and shunned.
Almost inevitably there will be a Ukrainian government-in-exile. With or without President Zelensky, this government seems likely to be recognized by most of the world’s democratic governments, including the UN and other international organizations.
Another consideration, one perhaps slightly far-fetched. I have the impression that President Lukashenko in Belarus is not the most popular figure in his country. He has retained power through the use of brutal police tactics, helped by repression specialists sent from Moscow. If Russian forces are caught up in trying to defeat an insurgency next door in Ukraine, the time might be propitious for Belarussians and well-wishers abroad to mount a small-scale insurgency of their own.
In terms of tactics to be employed by the Ukrainians in throwing off the Russians, I leave it to wiser heads than my own. But some of the tactics, excuse the expression, seem battle-tested. If the enemy attacks, you retreat. Avoid ‘set-piece battles.’ If the enemy rests, you attack, outposts of government authority in particular, e.g., police stations, tax collection offices, unpopular mayors, and other offices. Seize control, however briefly, of TV stations and other outlets for mass communication. Be aware that the Russians or their surrogates may carry out reprisals. If they do, use these to your propaganda advantage by calling them to international attention.
Would such a war of long duration achieve its objective – restoring Ukrainian independence? Two models come to mind. First, this type of insurgency achieved its goals most conspicuously in South Vietnam (1975) and, most recently in Afghanistan (2021). These were, of course, Third World countries with heavily rural populations.
The second model is that of the resistance movements that arose in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II (1939-1945). Despite General De Gaulle’s remarks in the summer of 1944 that ‘Paris had liberated itself’, this was certainly not the case. With the possible exception of Tito’s Partisans in what was then Yugoslavia, there do not appear to have been any instances where the resistance groups, by themselves, achieved anything approaching national liberation. Despite the heroism, the uprising by the Polish Home Army against Nazi occupation was crushed by the Wehrmacht, leveling Warsaw in the process. It was not until the arrival of Allies and the Red Army that the Naz occupation was brought to an end.
The situation in Ukraine may be different. In this case, an anti-Russian insurgency will be accompanied by an unprecedented array of economic sanctions and virtually worldwide social ostracism. As a result, the prospects for Ukrainian success seem brighter.
Whatever the outcome on the ground, Putin and his authoritarian regime are suffering a major strategic defeat. With the exceptions of China and a handful of more modest national dictatorships, Russia is increasingly isolated in the world. Putin’s military ‘overreach’ has inadvertently diminished the image of autocracy and restored faith in democratic government throughout much of the world.