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Putin (not Russia) is winning: a response to Lawrence Freedman

In his article in Foreign Affairs magazine dated 23 February 2024, entitled A War Putin Still Can’t Win, Lawrence Freedman paints an optimistic analysis of the Russian war in Ukraine from the western point of view, suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin is bogged down in an interminable war that has no credible way out for him and therefore the stalemate in contemporary Ukraine is to the West’s benefit. Freedman uses a “David and Goliath” Biblical metaphor in describing the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and then proceeds to suggest that David (Ukraine) struck a tremendous but not fatal blow to Russia in the early weeks of the war in routing the Russian attempt to occupy Kyiv and in forcing Russian troops out of Kharkiv Oblast in the northeast of the country. However, he says, Ukraine’s initial blow against the Russian monster was not fatal and therefore unlike the Philistines, who conceded defeat and promptly retreated, Russia is continuing to engage in the struggle against Ukraine. Friedman then continues, somewhat confusingly, to argue that the larger party in a conflict such as this has the benefit of time, which ought to entail that as the war drags on Russia will gain the upper hand. Nevertheless he concludes by saying that Russia cannot win the war. This seems inconsistent with his assertion that time is on Russia’s side.

With the greatest of respect to Mr Freedman, his use of the Biblical metaphor is misconceived as are his assumptions about Russian strategy and indeed the dynamic of the war in general. There are several points that can be made.

The “David and Goliath” metaphor is not entirely accurate because Ukraine is no David. Ukraine has been fighting Russia for a full ten years since 2014 and has a massive, highly experienced and mobilised army that fought off the initial Russian attempt to extend their occupation of Ukraine by virtue of the experience they had already acquired in resisting Russian invasion over a decade and by virtue of the very large size of their army. At the time of writing the number of actual troops in combat operations on the front line might be estimated as some 500,000 for the Ukrainian side and 800,000 for the Russian side. There are then serving troops not in front line combat operations that might amount to a further 250,000 on the Ukrainian side and 400,000 on the Russian side. This is not in fact a war in which one of the sides is a tiny fraction of the size of the other and in which a plucky minute party struck an extraordinary blow against a vastly superior opponent early on in the conflict that turned the course of the war around. To imagine the Russian invasion of Ukraine in such terms would be quite misconceived.

In fact the Ukrainians began the war as the superior military force, with superior morale and superior knowledge of the land because it was their own homeland they were defending, even though the Russians in principle had the numerical advantage. Moreover by all accounts the size of the fatalities on the Russian side in this conflict are far higher than those on the Ukrainian side; this fact is overlooked because there is less information about Russian casualty numbers in the public domain and also because in Russia, as an autocracy, there can be a far greater tolerance of high casualty numbers than in Ukraine which is a free country. Mr Freedman is right that time is on the side of Russia, because Russia has larger resources both in terms of personnel available to serve in military functions and also in terms of investment in ordnance and munitions. Therefore if Russia is left in a position of numerical and financial superiority over the longer term then, contrary to Mr Friedman’s supposition in his article, Russia will be able to overcome Ukrainian resistance and occupy still more Ukrainian territory, possibly the entirety of the country and thereafter move onto occupation of Moldova and even of NATO member states. So there is plenty to be concerned and pessimistic about.

Mr Freedman reflects upon Vladimir.Putin’s negotiating strategy and concludes that Mr Putin will not have much to negotiate about with Ukraine because Ukraine will never concede transfer of the occupied territories to Russia. Mr Freedman is right about that, of course; but this is not why Mr Putin is not interested in negotiation. It is because Mr Putin’s strategic objectives are distinct from those of a Russian nation state acting rationally and in its own self interests. Mr Putin’s objectives are the maintenance of a state of constant war in order to preserve the tyranny of his regime in which absolutist rule is preserved across a still-enormous Russian Empire with him at the apex of power for as long as he remains alive. In this way Mr Putin is to be considered as a Russian Emperor in the style of Josef Stalin, determined to maintain perpetual conflict on one from or the other as a means of preserving totalitarian control within. The reason Mr Putin will not resort to negotiations is because at the current time, with a constant state of war, he has precisely what he wants from the Russian invasion of Ukraine: the indefinite propagation of himself in power as a dictator. It would not be in Mr Putin’s interests that the war came to a conclusion and for that reason any peace negotiations on the part of Russia are feints, charades intended to deceive the international community.

Finally, the principal problem with the David and Goliath analogy is that Russia is not the Goliath; the European Union and the United States are, in terms of their institution-building support and military support for Ukraine respectively. Ukraine is a country with a GDP of some US$130 billion per annum, virtually all of which consists of military and institutional budgetary aid from the United States and the European Union. This is not Russia at war with Ukraine; this conflict is about Russia being at war with the West, and she will be comprehensively defeated just as the Soviet Union was: even if it takes 40 years, as did the Cold War, the sprawling chaotic incontinent mass that is the Russian Empire is no match for the civilisation, values and rule of law that motivate the West.


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