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The Failure of Putin's Gamble

Every day in the past months it has become increasingly clear that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is being reversed. Those who are attentive will see a familiar pattern; extensive and ill-directed Russian shelling across the frontline, numerous piecemeal incursions by Russia, especially along their western front, all of which are invariably repelled, followed up with Ukraine recapturing villages and townships with occasional well-directed counter-shelling. Recent weeks have witnessed Ukrainian forces take centres like Kupiansk, Lyman, and Borova in the north along with a large number of territories and settlements near Kherson. Russia's responses - a confusing partial mobilisation, sabre-rattling on the potential use of nuclear weapons, and a stage-managed referendum with implausible results - have not changed the reality on the ground that they are losing this war.

Putting aside the amorality of initiating an invasion of another country in the first place, on paper and viewed with an entirely instrumental perspective, it did look like the invasion was a worthwhile gamble. The Ukrainian government had shown itself completely unable to even begin to recapture Crimea from Russia, let alone the Russian-supported separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, heavily populated (Donetsk first, Luhansk seventh), industrialised, and with substantial and concentrated mineral resources. Despite this, the country was progressing well in other regards; the GDP per capita reaching its highest point in history by 2021, for example (still the lowest in Europe and with widespread corruption).

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union successive elections in Ukraine had shown a significant split between the western and central parts of the country and the south and east, where there are a significant majority of Russian-speaking populations (c75% in the Donetsk Oblast, c70% in the Luhansk Oblast, and c80% in Crimea). The ousting of president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 proved to a pivotal moment. Yanukovych, representing The Party of Regions, made a decision to reject the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement and instead pursue closer ties with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union.

This led to the Euromaidan Revolution and Yanukovych's overthrow and exile to Russia, which was followed by pro-Russian protests and insurgency in Ukraine's eastern and southern regions, and shortly afterward, Russia's invasion of Crimea, where, for what it is worth, successive opinion polls showed a large majority supported integration into Russia rather than remaining part of Ukraine (and, where it had already been announced, by the chairman of the Supreme Council of Crimea, that Crimea would secede from Ukraine if there were a change of power). The details of these events and their background are available in the article "The Ukrainian Crisis: Electoral History, Great Powers, and Self-Determination" from July 2014.

Of course, one major difference in the circumstances of the article from 2014 and now is that Russia decided that Ukraine was weak enough to attack quickly. The casus belli, from the Russian point-of-view, has been the eastward expansion of NATO, which includes Poland (1999), the Czech Republic (1999), Hungary (1999), Bulgaria (2004), Estonia (2004), Latvia (2004), Lithuania (2004), Romania,(2004), Slovakia (2004), Slovenia (2004), Croatia (2009), Albania (2009), Montenegro (2017), and North Macedonia (2020). These countries, it must be noted, joined NATO on their own terms and in preference to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, which consists of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden have also applied to join NATO, an ironic turn on Putin's desire to prevent further countries from joining the body, and the threat from Russia of "military and political consequences" if they attempted to so.

Russia's rapid advances in the opening weeks of the war saw them capture large swathes of the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, and Kyiv oblasts. However, in early March is became clear that the Russian advances were stalling and then reversed by a counter-offensive, leading to a retreat from Kyiv and revealing the notorious Bucha warcrimes, adding to the already prevalent use of indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets. Attempts to lay siege to Chernihiv and Sumy and capture Kharkiv also failed in the north and east, although they eventually succeeded in capturing a destroyed Mariupol, and Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, albeit at great cost. Ukraine's counter-offenses in the Kharkiv oblast in September, and then the Kherson oblast led to a very substantial regaining of Ukrainian territory. The reality is, with the benefit of significantly superior supplies from NATO countries, with an impressive level of resistance, and with Russia's own allies being lukewarm in their support, Ukraine now has the upper hand.

Russia, through Putin, has attempted to argue that the people of Ukraine really aren't entitled to national self-determination, because they aren't really a nation; they're Russian, which certainly comes as a surprise to actual Ukrainians. As an interesting twist, Putin has also argued that Ukrainian statehood was an invention of the Bolsheviks and that Ukraine's policy of "Decommunization" (the outlawing of communist symbols and parties) would be complete with forcible integration with Russia. "Do you want de-communization? Well, this quite suits us. But you must not stop halfway. We are ready to show you what genuine de-communization means for Ukraine".

As expected, far-right nationalists in both Russia and Ukraine have supported their respective sides. Likewise, among the "campist" left, they too support Russia's actions; everything is always the fault of the United States in their worldview, and they will see NATOs expansion as "provoking" Russia. Arguments of self-determination, held strongly when they agree with the political direction of such an argument, are discarded when they do not. These "campists" are inevitable losers in the long run because of their moral inconsistency and blatant opportunism. Their approach represents a peculiar madness of tribalism; that rather than support actual and visceral human rights, independent of what flag is flying or who is doing it, they attach themselves to names and symbols rather than on-the-ground reality.

The idealised and counter-factual proposals of the article on Great Powers and Self-Determination, now over eight years old, are still valid. In a better world, the oblasts under dispute would come under a temporary UN administration, with peacekeepers from countries without an alignment with either NATO or Russia. Under such neutral management, proper referenda could be conducted - not a refusal, such as with Ukraine, or a sham, as conducted by Russia - on whether the people of these oblasts would prefer to be part of Russia, Ukraine, or independent, in order of preference. It is probable that the populations of Crimea, Donetsk, and perhaps Luhansk, will - or would have - joined Russia in a peaceful, properly conducted referendum, conducted by neutral powers. Instead, Putin's gamble has failed terribly.

At this stage, the only viable option for Putin is to negotiate a settlement that respects the self-determination of Ukraine or risk losing everything, including his own government (although the iron grip he has on that country suggests that is a long way off). The lesson that Putin is learning now is the same lesson that the United States has learned in Afghanistan, that the United Kingdom has learned in Ireland, that Turkey is learning in Kurdistan, and that indigenous people remind colonial successors every day; you simply cannot attempt to take over another country by force of arms and expect the population to simply give up. Perhaps an aggressor can "bomb them back into the stone age", as American airforce general Curtis LeMay threatened North Vietnam, in an attempt to enforce compliance. Perhaps Russia should recall how well that approach worked for the Americans, and how well it is currently working in Ukraine.


I was in Russia listening to a stand-up comedian making fun of Putin.

The jokes weren’t that good, but I liked the execution.