For now, Putin has found himself in a trap that he set upon himself.
After the first days, when it might seem that the Russians are implementing a well-thought-out and cunning plan by attacking Ukraine, one can more and more often feel chaos and the absence of ideas. Instead of precise strokes, it is impossible not to get the impression that you can see a typical Russian bardak1. This is not only about military matters. Even if the Russian troops finally manage to capture more targets or cities, the question arises, what next? The most that the Kremlin can achieve is the establishment of a puppet government – many media outlets point out that it would be led by Viktor Yanukovych, who escaped Kiev in 2014.
This cannot be ruled out, but what would be the point? Even if the Russians finally managed to seize Kiev and appoint Yanukovych as the head of the new “non-Nazi” government, it would have no practical significance. Briefly: Russia will not be able to digest Ukraine.
Why did this war break out then? After all, everything that I mentioned so far was known before. The fact that Ukrainians in 2022 are not the same Ukrainians as in 2014 could be noticed by following public opinion polls. The fact that their army is better equipped than 8 years ago was also no secret. Despite this, Putin decided to attack. So why? Was the intelligence report deceiving him? Is he blinded by pride? It cannot be ruled out that he has become a victim of his own propaganda, which was clearly visible when he stated in a recent speech how Lenin created Ukraine in 1917. Not only did he ignore the existence of the Kievan principality and the era of the Cossack wars, but he also forgot that it was the Ukrainians themselves who announced the creation of an autonomous state right after the Tsar’s abdication in March 1917 – at that time Lenin was still exiled in Switzerland, waiting for the train to St. Petersburg provided by the Germans. I am not going to expose all of Putin’s lies here: this is not a historical discussion. I mentioned this fact to show that Putin could have made the decision to attack because of such a distorted perception of the past. It is very likely that he made a mistake, but it is still unclear what price he will pay for it.
The first scenario is continuation. The number of victims of the war in Ukraine will increase, the resistance will not decrease. Russia will bleed more and more, but without a clear, symbolic victory, Putin will not regress. In presenting his terms – recognition of the annexation of Crimea, the two “autonomous” republics, and the neutralization of Ukraine – he tied his own hands.
This could lead to a coup in Moscow itself, in which the dictator will be overthrown, replaced by a newly emerged leader who will withdraw Russian troops and contribute to the lifting of sanctions placed on Russia. Putin will then share the fate of Ceausescu (a more humanitarian version perhaps, where he will be brought to trial). It is not impossible: the regime in Russia changed in a similar fashion in 1905 (although Nicholas II did not resign, but introduced the Duma), in 1917 (the fall of the tsarist regime), or after 1989 – the defeat in Afghanistan and the erosion of the Soviet Union’s power.
In a second scenario, it may be that Putin will endure, counting on the fatigue of the Ukrainian side. A mass influx of refugees in millions, related problems, social riots, provocations, additionally the sudden deterioration of the condition of Western economies – it will cut both ways and sanctions that hit Russia, will hit the West – will cause that after the period of enthusiasm and euphoria, there will be attempts to reach an agreement with Moscow at the expense of Ukraine. This variant is so far unlikely but cannot be ruled out.
The third scenario is an attempt to involve NATO countries in war. It is difficult to say what this would give Russia. Since it has so many problems with the Ukrainian army, it would have even more problems with the troops of Western countries. So for what purpose? On the other hand, involving NATO in the war could mobilize Russians to fight and force, should human losses begin to affect citizens of Western countries, peace negotiations, one element of which would be the withdrawal of sanctions on Russia and concessions on Ukraine. In the extreme, least likely, case, Russia always has a nuclear weapon in its hand. Its use is very questionable, but a drowning man catches at a straw.
Finally, the fourth scenario, when there will be another, serious conflict in the world, for example between the United States and China over Taiwan, which will increase Moscow’s bargaining position.
For now, Putin has found himself in a trap that he set upon himself. Hopefully he won’t get away with it this time. But history can be capricious.
1 From Russian: mess, disorder
This article was published in March 2022 in “Do Rzeczy” weekly.