The War on Ukraine: The Beginning of the End of Putin’s Russia
BY MIKHAIL MINAKOV
On February 24, 2022, the Russian Federation launched a full-fledged war on Ukraine. This attack is the next—and hopefully the final—stage of an aggressive course that first showed its colors in 2014. It also represents a continuation, more focused this time, of the same revanchist ideology that drove the earlier incidents. An aging President Putin and his entourage are hurrying to revise the post–Cold War international order and reconfigure Russia’s place in it. They want Russia—or rather an enlarged Union State—to be among the weightiest states geopolitically, yet their every step since 2013 has led to further isolation and a declining influence on the international scene: Russia is no longer a G8 member, its impact is waning in the post-Soviet space, and Central and Eastern European countries are receiving a growing number of NATO forces. Despite getting results opposite its goals, the Kremlin continues adding to its snowballing mistakes and violations of international norms. Blindly pursuing its aims, Putin’s regime has moved from the hybrid warfare it has waged against Ukraine in particular in 2014–2021 to bad old ground warfare against its western neighbor starting February 24, 2022.
A Shared Destiny for Ukraine and the West
Putin’s most recent actions show him to be engaged in a high-stakes test of how Westless the world is. If in February 2020 Westlessness was more a hypothesis, today the Russian regime is trying to prove it empirically. And this exercise is something that the great powers of Asia are also attentively watching. China has increased its cooperation with Russia during the invasion of Ukraine. India has not reacted officially to the atrocities being committed against Ukraine, and Imran Khan, prime minister of Pakistan, while expressing his regret over the “conflict,” met with President Putin on February 25. Make no mistake: the war in Ukraine is testing the geopolitical value of the West as much as it is the resilience of Ukrainians. Whether the United States and the EU are ready for that or not, the destiny of Ukraine and that of the West-led order are inseparable.
There are signs that the West is coming together with a single voice and will and presenting a united stance in the face of the Kremlin’s new war. The decisions made last week—both in Moscow and in the West—have established a new Iron Curtain. But is it enough to stop the war against Ukraine?
A Failed Blitzkrieg
The first four days of the war exploded the Kremlin’s initial plan to mount a blitzkrieg: General Valery Gerasimov was unable to deliver a swift victory for Putin. The focused military operations were aimed at a speedy takeover of Kyiv, southern Ukraine, and left-bank Ukraine. Even though Russian troops have reached the northern suburbs of Kyiv after gaining entry into the country through Belarus, the city is neither under siege nor in a panic. Diversionary forces were liquidated, while the local population is organizing itself into groups for territorial defense, equipped with arms recently delivered from NATO partners.
Despite some uncertainty in the West as to how he would perform under pressure, President Zelensky and his team have exhibited courage and the strong leadership needed by a country at war. It seems likely that one of the primary goals of the Russian attack on Ukraine was to seize Zelensky and force him to sign a capitulation agreement. But from the moment of capture, the president would no longer lead the country; and if the president becomes unable to fulfill his or her duties, the Rada speaker, Ruslan Stefanchuk, is constitutionally next in line to lead the nation. The Kremlin would need to hunt for that person as well, and for others in the line of succession, but all its efforts would be for naught. Furthermore, the Ukrainian president—or his or her substitute—does not have the power to sign any sort of capitulation document without parliament’s collective decision to that end. And the collective will in Ukraine is singularly focused on a diametrically opposite scenario: resist the attack, overcome the attackers, and win. No legally binding capitulation is possible.
The security situation in the East and South of the country is, however, grave. At the time of this writing, the Russian troops south of Kharkiv and armed insurgents in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic are moving toward each other to merge, despite the Ukrainian army’s heroic fight. The Russian troops moving eastward from Crimea will try to join the guerrilla factions of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and lay siege to Mariupol, the largest port and industrial city in the government-controlled Donbas. The Russian troops moving westward from Crimea besieged Kherson and Mykolaiv, and now move toward Odesa. In all these zones the best Ukrainian army units are fighting so well that the plan for a speedy takeover of these cities with a significant Russophone population has pathetically failed. The citizens of these cities are putting their lives on the line to defend Ukraine and Ukrainian sovereignty, and to dismantle the revanchist hopes of the Kremlin.
Ukraine’s resilience has improved significantly since 2014, and, despite the heavy blow delivered to the Ukrainian military infrastructure in the first days of the war, the defense system was able to derail the Kremlin’s plan A, the blitzkrieg.
Beginning of the End
The attack on Ukraine was not just an absolute crime (which never bothers autocrats), it was an irreparable mistake that put into motion the end-game for Putin’s regime in Russia. The military campaign was not prepared for an operation of any duration. Already on the third day of fighting there were signs of personnel shortages among the assaulting troops, who cannot get control of the besieged but resisting Ukrainian cities. The Russian population was not mobilized to support this war (as it so shamefully was in 2014), and the antiwar movement in Russia is growing. The Western sanctions are set to destroy Russia’s economy at large and the economic security of households in particular.
Nor are Russia’s Asian partners its allies. They may feel no solidarity with the Ukrainians experiencing tragedy, but they also don't care to risk getting into a conflict with the West. Putin’s geopolitical adventurism may speak to some Asian leaders’ hidden hopes, but they keep those hopes close. Putin’s Russia is alone in its war against Ukraine and its conflict with the West.
Understanding his failure, Vladimir Putin has had recourse to the ultima ratio—the last hope—of terrified dictators: the threat of deploying nuclear weapons. Yet just as before, his means lead away from the desired end. They just hasten the end of his rule, which most probably will come about as a result not of external but of internal forces awakened by the autocrat’s mistake.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
About the Author
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more