Ukraine celebrates his biggest breakthrough in our war with the Russian invaders, let’s try to imagine how this conflict you need to look into the minds of two leaders – one who has just won a stunning victory, the other who has suffered a stunning defeat.
Zelensky’s army brilliantly planned its offensive. The initial assault on Kherson in the south was no ruse. It was a major strategic blow, which could still push back Russian troops from the western bank of the Dnieper. But the Ukrainians deftly moved in the Kharkiv region to the northeast, while the Russians were sleeping there. They took their time; they weakened the Russian position and then, last week, broke through in a devastating attack that forced Russia into a disorderly retreat and reclaimed over 1,100 square miles of territory.
Zelensky refused to negotiate due to weakness. Now, after seven agonizing months, he is strong. Speaking to his violent country, he talks about the liberation of the entire territory of Ukraine. But he must know that this is not realistic yet. And the moment may be approaching when Zelensky, from his new dominant position, will open the door to diplomacy. Even if the Russians snub his gesture, it reinforces the notion that Zelenskiy has the upper hand.
Now let’s try to imagine ourselves as Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is the loser in this last round, but he is also a man who cannot lose. What was Putin doing as his troops fled Kharkov in panic over the weekend? He opened a new Ferris wheel at the celebration of the anniversary of Moscow.
Putin has always wanted to turn Ukraine into a living room war that Russians could watch on TV while Chechens and Dagestanis fight. It wasn’t even a real war, it was a “special military operation” against a country that Putin claimed didn’t really exist. Most Russians seemed to welcome the war because they shared Putin’s displeasure that NATO and the Americans were to blame.
Putin’s problem now is that all those TV viewers in Moscow and St. Petersburg see that the Russian leader’s refusal to go to war is a complete mess. His strongest supporters on the Telegram channel, and even some commentators on state television, say Russian forces have suffered a severe defeat. The accusations began in earnest, and daggers were drawn against General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, and Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister.
But not yet for Putin, and probably never. That’s the beauty of the system he created. There is, almost literally, no one to succeed him. If it falls tomorrow, Russia’s interim leader will be Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, the former head of Russia’s tax service. Have you ever heard of him? Of course not. That’s the point.
So what does a perennial winner do when he loses?
Putin expected that there would be a walk in Kyiv in the first week of the war, and he had to retreat. He assumed that his formidable tanks and artillery would crush Ukraine in the Donbas region, and reached a dead end. And now the Ukrainians have taught Russia a lesson in maneuver warfare in Kherson and Kharkov. How will Putin respond? This is the question that will keep you up late this week at the CIA and the National Security Council.
Putin could define victory in descending order. He could say that his special operation never touched Kherson and Kharkov. It was about defending Donetsk and Lugansk, two Russian-speaking cities in the east that Putin took over in 2014. Of course, he could say that he was talking about Crimea, a sentimental prize for which Putin could risk starting a full-scale war.
Or Putin may respond angrily by stepping up his attacks on Ukraine and even its Western allies. Putin drew a series of red lines that were broken. He warned against supplying Kyiv with deadly weapons, and the Biden administration did it anyway. He indirectly warned against providing precision weapons like HIMARS missiles that could hit Russian command nodes, but President Biden did it anyway.
But what now? This is one reason why Zelenskiy would be wise to avoid strategic excesses. As reckless and destructive as Putin is, he could do worse. This may be one of the reasons why Ukrainian Chief of Staff General Valeriy Zaluzhny warned last week that Russia can escalate the conflict to a “limited” nuclear war. He outpaced and possibly undermined the capabilities of the Russian leader. Zaluzhny also talked about the decisive battles that are coming in 2023. His message seemed to be that Ukraine was preparing for a long war.
The Biden administration has consistently emphasized three aspects of this war. He is committed to supporting Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend itself; she does not want war with Russia; and it believes that in the end this conflict must be resolved through diplomacy. All three goals should become clearer after the successful offensive of Ukraine.
With its fighting courage, Ukraine is rewriting the history of the 21st century. Having stopped the dictator’s daring invasion, he became a symbol of those values that the West cherishes. We can only welcome the heroism of Ukraine and hope for new victories and, when the time comes, for a worthy end to this terrible war.