Opinion: How does Putin extract himself from this nightmare of his own making?

Mark Galeotti
Mark Galeotti

Paralysed by Ukraine, the Russian president will need his security services to keep him in power, says Professor Mark Galeotti (UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies).

Vladimir Putin, once a wily political operator, is painting himself into a corner. His initial calculation seems to have been that Kyiv would fall in two days and the whole operation would be over in a fortnight.

Given that Putin does not believe that Ukraine is a real country, perhaps it is not surprising that he assumed it would fall apart at the first push. The Ukrainians had different ideas and the Russians are defaulting to their more habitual way of war, assembling huge task forces and relying on massed bombardments to prepare the ground for their advance.

The president can revise his military strategy but not his political situation. How does he get out of this mess? He probably cannot: there are several paths he could take, but they all lead to the same dead end.

Some in the West seem to be putting their hopes on a coup that ousts Putin, but at present this seems unlikely.

The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was toppled by a political coup in 1964, but that was because the rules of the Communist Party created a mechanism for a leader’s removal.

Article 93 of the current Russian constitution allows for impeachment, but requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers of a parliament packed with political appointees. Many are opportunists who would throw Putin under a metro train if they felt it was in their interests and was safe to do, but so long as he controls the Federal Security Service (FSB), any such conspiracy would be nipped in the bud - and everyone knows that.

Perhaps the only institution that could oust Putin

would be the army. However, as in Soviet times, the various security forces counter each other. The military have two elite divisions outside Moscow, but these are carefully watched by the FSB. Meanwhile, the National Guard has an oversized division in the capital, as well as a couple of regiments of Omon riot police. The separate Federal Protection Service controls the Kremlin Regiment. Any move by the military would be a bloody and contested affair. There are no indications to suggest that Putin is vulnerable.

Assuming Putin remains in office, the war will continue. The Russian military may be able to break Ukrainian forces on the battlefield, but that would be the easy part of the war: controlling and pacifying Ukraine is a wholly different proposition.

Ukraine and Afghanistan are of broadly similar size and population. During their ten-year war in the latter, the Soviets fielded a force that peaked at 150,000 troops, supported by another 100,000 Afghan soldiers. It would be difficult for today’s Russia - with an army a third the size of the Soviets’ - to maintain a quarter of a million men in Ukraine in the long term.

Putin’s assumption is presumably that once he has Ukraine in his grasp he will be able to negotiate a new relationship with the West from a position of strength. Yet according to a foreign policy specialist working for a Russian think tank, "no one in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the expert community shares that belief".

As a fallback, if the whole country proves indigestible, he could concentrate on the territories east of the Dnieper river, or just the contested Donbas region and the Azov coastline connecting Russia to the Crimea. This would be more defensible, and allow him to negotiate "freeing" the rest of Ukraine as part of a deal that would require the rump of Ukraine that was left to accept neutrality.

It is questionable that the Ukrainian leadership would accept this. However, some western leaders are reportedly willing to support any move that would end the bloodshed and, on a less altruistic note, stop the outflow of refugees.

In any case, whether Putin closes his grip on all or part of Ukraine, whether some inequitable bargain is forced on Kyiv, the invasion seems to have crystallised a sense in the West that Putin’s Russia has become a rogue state, a threat to European security and the stability of the international order. His announcement that he was putting Russia’s nuclear forces "on a special level of preparedness" and his willingness to see the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station shelled made him sound like a hostage-taker rather than a statesman.

There is thus no question of the West forgiving and forgetting, even if European countries continue to import Russian gas and oil. At the height of the Cold War, Europe was doing the same with the Soviet Union: it is possible to have pragmatic, limited and transactional trading relations without having to make concessions over politics and morality, and while still engaged in ceaseless political competition. While there may be scope to barter some of the minor sanctions for concessions over ceasefires and the provision of aid for refugees, the primary ones relating to Russian finance will remain in place at least so long as Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil.

Nor does there seem any prospect Putin will withdraw them willingly. The passion and venom in Putin’s recent public statements on Ukraine demonstrate that this is a personal crusade, not a mere geopolitical gambit. Perhaps even more importantly, he has staked his historical legacy and his political credibility on destroying what he called "this ’anti-Russia’ created by the West".

He cannot walk this back without something pretty substantial to show.

According to the respected analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, elements among Russia’s beleaguered and horrified business elite are suggesting that Russia buy its way out of the war, offering perhaps $150 billion in return for Crimea and the territories held by the rebel "people’s republics". This war has never been about territory, though, but Russia’s status as a great power - and Putin’s status as a great ruler. To him, a great power takes what it feels it deserves, it does not haggle for it.

So Putin cannot back down. It is unlikely that he can lose, in the immediate sense of his forces being driven back over the border. For all the evident weaknesses on display, Russia still has the military advantage, and can if all else fails retrench in the east. But there is a difference between not being able to lose and winning. Any "victory" would be a Pyrrhic one, leading to an endless campaign against Ukrainian partisans, while struggling under the burden of unprecedented sanctions.

Putin will now have to dig in. The first half of his presidency was a period of state-building after the anarchy of the 1990s, in which Russians enjoyed stability, unprecedented prosperity and even a degree of personal liberty, so long as they did not seek to challenge the state. Since his return to the presidency in 2012, Putin has squandered those achievements, and is in effect turning the clock back, not to the 2000s, but the 1970s.

Those were the years of his majority - and of the Soviet general secretary, Leonid Brezhnev. At first, Brezhnev had seemed a dynamic and competent manager, and he offered his long-suffering people a degree of stability and consumerism in return for political quiescence. Over time, though, stability became stagnation, as an ageing leadership ran out of ideas, the arms race drained the national coffers, and the party’s rule was increasingly resented, and had to be maintained by police state methods.

The 69-year-old Putin can constitutionally stay in office until 2036, but may once have been toying with stepping down. Indeed, the invasion may have been his last attempt to write his entry in the history books. How can he give up office on a low, though? More to the point, in a system with no meaningful rule of law, he would be entrusting his fortune, life and fate to a successor to whom he had also just left a monstrous policy disaster and every incentive to scapegoat him. He will presumably remain in power, and he and his closest allies and cronies - all from the same generation - will likewise follow the same gerontocratic decline as Brezhnev’s Politburo.

An economy already in stagnation will deteriorate rapidly under the pressure of sanctions. China may remain a trading partner, but it is unlikely to jeopardise its 950 billion bilateral trade with the West for 87 billion with Russia. It will push at the limits of sanctions to make a point about its own autonomy, but not flout them wholeheartedly. In February, Xi Jinping and Putin may have declared that Sino-Russian friendship had "no limits", but Russia will discover that business and friendship do not always mix.

The economy could shrink by as much as 10 per cent, its worst performance since 1994. Putin may be able to maintain his military and indulge his cronies, but at the expense of ordinary Russians.

Just as under Brezhnev, Russians will feel the implicit social contract is broken, and the state will again respond to this collapse of its legitimacy with repression.

Many Russians have demonstrated exceptional bravery in protesting, but since the crackdown on the opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s organisation last year, the authorities have been preparing for a new, repressive era. Social media channels that used to organise protests or spread anti-government information are being closed or restricted. The last remaining vestiges of a free and critical media such as the Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio station and Dozhd TV channel have just been taken off the air.

A new law has been rushed through parliament threatening up to 15 years in prison for distributing "false news" about what is only allowed to be called the "special military operation", never an invasion. Anti-war protesters have been arrested in their thousands, and one university administrator told me that "already, the police have come asking about faculty who criticise the war. They took files and told me they would be back."

A declaration of martial law would be the logical next step, unlocking a whole new arsenal of measures, from exit restrictions to the seizure of the assets of foreign companies in a tit-for-tat response to sanctions.

In these circumstances, so long as the security forces remain disciplined and loyal it becomes difficult to organise any kind of co-ordinated protest, let alone challenge a powerful and vicious state. Most Russians will, as in the Brezhnev era, retreat into sullen disaffection, and those who can, will leave. For the Kremlin, this will be good enough: authoritarian regimes tend to rely on fearful apathy more than genuine enthusiasm.

In the long term, of course, things may be difficult. Disasters in Ukraine or plunging standards of living may galvanise protest even in the face of repression. A new generation of security chiefs may be more ambitious and less personally loyal. Just as Russian soldiers are proving often unwilling to fight Ukrainians, the security forces may tire of being stormtroopers of the Kremlin.

It may sound trivial, but I remember a riot policeman in the final days of the Soviet Union saying he was thinking of handing in his badge because "none of the girls want to date an Omon".

Indeed, according to Kyiv, at least three assassination attempts on President Zelensky have been foiled because disaffected FSB officers leaked the details to their Ukrainian counterparts.

The prospect of the security state unravelling is probably months or years in the future, though.

In the meantime, just as Putin is stuck in Ukraine, Russia is stuck with Putin. As one Russian entrepreneur on a train heading out of Russia texted me, "We’ll all have to wait for Putin to die. Only the Grim Reaper can save us now."

This article first appeared in The Sunday Times on 6th March 2022.