This has been a terrible week for Vladimir Putin. On the battlefield, Ukraine is celebrating gains, while victory for the invaders is out of sight. Even worse than the military setbacks is the diplomatic carnage. As world leaders gather in London for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, Russia’s international isolation will be harshly highlighted.
Closer to home the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand featured a litany of bad news. The SCO is meant to be a showcase framework for authoritarian regimes to cooperate on countering extremism, separatism, and terrorism. China used the meeting in the Uzbekistan capital to complain about the war (so much for the “no limits” friendship). So did India. Pax Rossica — Kremlin hegemony in compliant parts of its former empire — is fraying. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are fighting each other; Azerbaijan just attacked Armenia. Rumors abound of Kazakhstan’s withdrawal from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a Russian-led security block that was supposed to be a counterweight to NATO.
In his heyday, Putin used unpunctuality as a weapon. Victims of this power play include the Pope, American presidents, and the British Queen. Now other leaders (recently: Turkish, Azeri, and Kyrgyz) keep him waiting.
Disrespect heralds danger. The Russian leader’s grip on power rests on three elements: his personal popularity, the perception of invincibility, and the lack of any opposition. These factors have for two decades reinforced each other. But when they unwind, they create a vicious circle. Nothing succeeds like success. But failure begets failure.
Options now are few and bad. Military escalation against NATO is too risky. Full mobilization would be a humiliating U-turn. The use of the biggest economic weapon against the West — energy cut-offs — has destroyed Russia’s reputation for reliability but has not cowed or split the Europeans. Attacking Ukraine’s electricity, water, and gas supplies further are horribly destructive and cruel, and therefore emotionally satisfying. But they do not change the big picture: cold and darkness are bearable amid the scent of victory.
While Putin is losing the ability to maneuver, others are gaining it. Inside Russia’s ruling mafia, calculations of risk and reward are shifting. The system is inherently unstable. Once you think the boss is doomed, why take risks on his behalf? Better to move quickly and land on the winning side. You can blame your own mistakes on the losers. As military disasters multiply, the pressure will rise. The knock on the door may come with violence or peace. It may come in days, weeks, or months. But it is hard to imagine Putin surviving another year like this.
It is easier to imagine him, living like Nikita Khrushchev in a well-guarded dacha, glumly watching talk-show pundits explain what has happened: “Despite his many past achievements, Vladimir Vladimirovich lately made serious errors. Chiefly, the former president underestimated NATO’s willingness to support the Banderites. Our soldiers have paid a heavy price for this, and we have had to accept an operational pause and the loss of some liberated territories.”
For now, the overwhelming priority is to ensure Ukraine wins, by supplying more weapons, training, and money. Recent gains vindicate this once-controversial strategy. Those decision-makers and experts who opposed it should find another line of work. Ukrainians have paid grievously for their mistakes.
A Ukrainian victory will solve one problem. But it highlights another: the West’s lack of a long-term strategy for dealing with Russia. A post-Putin regime is not going to admit past mistakes and seek redemption through reconciliation with Russia’s neighbors. It will snarl, lick its wounds and seek scapegoats, making it a menace at home and abroad, most likely for many years.