War Stories

When Will Russians Realize the Disaster in Ukraine Is Putin’s Fault?

Putin sits hands clasped with a Russian flag behind him.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via a video link at the Kremlin in Moscow on Friday. Gavril Grigorov/Getty Images

The Ukrainian army’s counteroffensive in the northeast of the country has been a wild success, pushing into Russian-held territory much deeper and faster than anyone had expected. In just the past few days, the army has recaptured more than 1,000 square miles, including Izium, which had been a key Russian supply hub, and nearly the entire northeastern province of Kharkiv, which runs right up to the Russia-Ukraine border (though Ukrainian troops haven’t advanced quite that far).

This turnaround was so potent and swift that Moscow’s propaganda machine had no time to send out the new script, leaving Russian TV pundits and bloggers—some of them, anyway—to ponder the depth of the setback on their own, howling over the retreat and even inveighing against officers and officials who had claimed from the start of the war that Ukrainians wouldn’t fight back, that Russian forces wouldn’t bomb cities, and that victory would be quick and certain.

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No one has dared criticize President Vladimir Putin for these perfidies; he remains untouchable to anyone who doesn’t want to wind up in prison. But now it is fair to question (not as a blithe fantasy, as had previously been the case) how long it will be before some in Russia begin to muse, first at the dinner table, and then out in public, that the man in the Kremlin—who, after all, exercises absolute rule over everything else in Russian politics—might be responsible for this disastrous war as well.

Then again, it’s premature for an outsider to race to these lines too quickly. First, the war is far from over. Ukraine has the momentum, but it’s worth noting that the tides have shifted back and forth a few times in the seven months since Putin launched his invasion. In the beginning, Ukraine mounted a surprising resistance, turning Russia’s tanks away from Kyiv. But Russian forces seemed unstoppable in the south, and as recently as mid-June, they seemed to be breaking through a long-slogged stalemate in the east, slowly but steadily pushing Ukrainian defenses out of the Donbas region.

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Now things have shifted in Ukraine’s favor. The swing is dramatic, but not necessarily definitive. For one thing, the fog of this war is particularly thick; there is so much that independent analysts and journalists can’t yet see. For another, though the Russians are hard-pressed when it comes to weapons, troops, and supplies, they aren’t about to run out; in terms of sheer firepower, they still have an edge over Ukraine, and they have a geographic advantage as well; while Russians attack the interior of Ukraine with impunity, Ukrainians can’t fight back on the other side of the Russian border lest they risk losing the support of American and European allies fearful of provoking a wider war.

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Still, it’s worth reemphasizing that the shift in Ukraine’s favor is dramatic—highly dramatic, even if not yet definitive. There are a few reasons for this. First is the flood of weapons coming from the West—notably the highly accurate long-range rockets, which have struck more than 400 Russian targets, including weapons depots (which have sometimes set off secondary explosions) and logistics terminals. In addition, according to a close observer on the battlefield, a fair number of Soviet-built T-72 tanks—provided to Ukraine by Poland—were vital for punching through Russian defenses. And all along in the fight, such mundane supplies as rifles, bullets, night-vision goggles, and radios have played a key role.

The second influence is the assistance from U.S. intelligence and special operations. My guess is that when the histories of this war are written years from now, these factors will loom even larger than they do now. It has been widely reported that since the beginning of the conflict, U.S. agencies have been providing Ukrainian commanders with near-real-time intel on everything about the Russian offensive—where the troops are, where they’re going, and what officers are saying to their underlings. On Saturday, as the scale of the Ukrainian success was emerging, the New York Times reported that the country’s leadership had also relied on U.S. intelligence in planning and conducting the current counteroffensive. It has also been reported that U.S. special forces have trained certain Ukrainian units in deception ops and other tools of the trade. To the extent that Ukrainian units have fought in a highly coordinated fashion and Russian units have fallen apart in battle, these enablers have likely been almost as key as the more high-profile weapons systems.

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The third reason is the even less quantifiable factor of “morale.” Ukrainian troops know why they’re fighting, and it’s for the cause that makes soldiers everywhere fight with special ferocity—the defense of their country, their homes, and their families. By contrast, many (and perhaps most) Russian soldiers don’t know why they’re fighting. Many of the Russians who retreated from Kharkiv this past weekend, and from the area around Kyiv in the early days of the war, simply threw down their weapons or abandoned their tanks and ran. Within Russia, Putin has spun a tightly woven depiction of Ukraine as a myth, the “Kyiv regime” as run by Nazis, and NATO as hellbent on exploiting the war as an excuse to invade all of Russia. It is hard to tell how many soldiers, commanders, and ordinary citizens believe any of this. (Polls surely exaggerate; those who doubt the propaganda won’t say so to a stranger who calls on the phone and asks what they think.) This past weekend’s debates about the war on TV talk shows that previously tolerated no dissent suggest that the monolith may be cracking.

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Where is the war going? The answer depends entirely on the calculations and impulses of Putin. Not since the time of the czars has one man ruled Russia with such impunity. (Even Josef Stalin had to report—albeit perfunctorily—to a Politburo, which a decade after his death ousted his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, for getting out of control.) Putin has an entourage of oligarchs, but they depend on him, not the other way around. (Recently, one who criticized Putin directly was forced to sell off his assets at a huge discount. Others have been less fortunate, with a number of executives dying under mysterious circumstances, including one who “fell” out of a hospital window this month.)

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The elites still have access to their luxury goods, and as long as that is the case, they are unlikely to bite the hand that feeds them. If conditions worsen and a few of them do rile themselves into a rebellious spirit, they will likely pause before forming a conspiracy for fear that one of their would-be comrades would turn them in. There could also be a revolt in the streets, but such events are rare in Russian history—there’s 1905, 1917, 1991, and not much else. Still, when revolts have taken place in Russia, they’ve erupted suddenly. Who knows when the next one will happen, or for what reason? One thing is for sure: It’s nothing to count on.

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What will Putin do if things keep going badly for his army? There has been talk of recruiting or drafting around 130,000 more troops, but it would take about a year to mobilize, train, and equip them for battle, and that might be too late. Many in the West fear that he might lash out in desperation with chemical or nuclear weapons. He has already, several times, bombed civilian targets for want of anything else to do; this past weekend, as his troops retreated from Kharkiv, his commanders launched shells at electrical power plants, causing blackouts in the towns retaken by Ukrainians.

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Will Putin keep doubling down? He has enough armaments to do that, even if not very effectively. Or will he seek a diplomatic way out? Two facts throw doubt on the latter. First, if he appears weak, he could lose control of his power levers at home. Second, as Ukraine makes more advances on the battlefield, President Volodymyr Zelensky will feel less inclined to make compromises. In the wake of the weekend’s triumphs, Kyiv spokespeople are defining victory as the restoration of Ukraine’s borders of 2014—meaning the reclamation of Russian-annexed Crimea and all of the Donbas areas that were taken by Russian-backed rebels that year. This is an outcome that Putin—or even some hypothetical successor—would be very unlikely to accept.

It may be, as Anne Applebaum writes in the Atlantic, “time to prepare for a Ukrainian victory.” (Actually, the magazine’s headline goes beyond her article’s argument. “This is not a prediction; it’s a warning,” she writes.) It’s at least as sound to prepare for a very long war.

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