What does Putin do now?

Senior Teaching Fellow Jonathan Jackson looks at what could lay ahead in the on-going Russian - Ukrainian conflict.

Jonathan Jackson
Teaching Fellow in Criminology

What does Vladimir Putin do now?

This question will likely be on the minds of every European citizen and the answer is as elusive as the man to which it refers. Vladimir Putin, a former obscure KGB agent who worked his way up the often violent and slippery ladder of post-Soviet politics, has emerged as the undisputed ruler of Russia and his geo-political ambitions have clearly reached a new level of intensity.

His decision to conduct ‘military exercises’ along the Ukrainian border over the winter months of 2021/22 drew similarities from historians of Operation Barbarossa, in which the Nazi regime amassed three million troops at the edge of their bloodstained empire with the USSR, claiming that they were also carrying out much-needed training when in fact they were preparing for an invasion. The assault on Ukraine by Russian forces in February 2022 has marked a moment of global horror as well as unity.

Protests and vigils have been held around the world condemning the actions of the Russian state, with the western military alliance of NATO promising unprecedented economic sanctions against the regime, Putin himself and his close-knit circle of associates known as oligarchs. In Britain, politics has been united, as parties of all persuasions have put their differences over COVID antics to one side and joined in condemnation of the actions of the last few days. Labour and Conservatives have spoken as one voice, in a motion more reminiscent of the governments of national unity of yester crises.

It is becoming clear that the often described ‘chess player’ may have not necessarily predicted his opponents’ next moves well. The world may now be realising that he has been playing poker rather than chess, bluffing and covering for a weak hand, which he is now being forced to play. As with many conflicts of history, deployment of forces in an attempt to bully has only one of two possible outcomes.

The first is to demonstrate to others that threats you have been making can be matched with overwhelming force. This has been the outcome eventually chosen by Putin, but not likely to be the one which he had always wanted.

The second, a strategy rarely chosen by autocratic leaders, is to withdraw and recognise that some - if not all - of the objectives initially planned may have been achieved. As the strongman of Russia and with one eye on a historical legacy, Putin has chosen the first of the two options, believing that his overwhelming military force will crush Ukrainian resistance in a short blitzkrieg offensive.

As with Hitler in 1941, convinced as he was that the Soviet state would collapse under the weight of his raging army groups, Putin has committed ground forces on multiple fronts. Following the long-established Blitzkrieg doctrine of coordinated heavy armour and air power, Russian forces are attempting to take control of the country quickly in order to avoid being bogged down in costly urban fighting.

However, as the German armies found in the vast territories of the USSR, nationalism and a sheer willingness to resist can galvanise the minds of the defenders and strengthen resolve. The Russian forces are certainly meeting much heavier resistance than previously expected with the future of this conflict having all the hallmarks of a ruthless and protracted insurgency, being supported and influenced by foreign powers.

Similar to the underestimation of the Ukrainian military’s strength has been the miscalculation of western military response. NATO has been tough, with economic sanctions escalating daily, no fly-zones being established and even football club owners being forced to hand over the running of their expensive toys to the boards of trustees and fans. The billions of dollars held in reserve and a spiralling cost of living crisis in Europe may of course make the wests commitment to this continuing policy waver, as the months go on, but clearly the initial appetite to challenge global aggression has been positive. Even the images of Russian people protesting against his actions in cities like Moscow and St Petersburg shows a divisive Russia, with many seeing the actions of their government as monstrous and barbaric.

So, we are forced to ask the question again which was raised at the beginning of this piece - what does Putin do now? What he certainly can’t do is withdraw and his rhetoric over the last few days of nuclear escalation is to be expected, raising the fear stakes and no doubt hoping to disentangle the alliance forming against him.

As with most dictators, dialling back from a decision is never an option and forward even into certain destruction is the only course of action. Hitler, once praised by his people as a military genius, condemned thousands of his once glorious army to a freezing and miserable death in the ruins of Stalingrad 1943, rather than allow them to break from the Red army encirclement. Hubris and ego of an all-powerful leader will always dictate their actions and no doubt this response will be repeated.

Tactics are likely to get tougher and more ruthless as Russian forces attempt to achieve their objectives quickly and ultimately force the Ukrainian government to come to the negotiating table. As the famous and entirely pragmatic Henry Kissinger once said, ‘always negotiate from a position of strength’, suggesting that it may be that defeating the Ukrainian military is less of an objective compared to forcing them to make concessions around NATO entry and an increasing west facing approach. Putin would need to do this quickly and maintain control of the narrative, for as long as the conflict continues and the more that the sanctions imposed take effect, his loyal attack dogs in the Kremlin may choose to cease supporting their once infallible leader.

Are we facing a possible divided Ukraine similar to that of Germany in 1945, split by a new iron curtain forged from steel and blood? What is evident is that Putin will want to end this conflict quickly, employing tactics which will send analysts cold with fear. The people caught up in this terrible crisis will experience great hardship and suffering as with all wars and the west must be firm in their support and manage the subsequent domestic issues and tensions that mass migration from the country will bring to the European Union. Putin will want to avoid the rise of a devastating insurgency, the impacts of which are still being recorded and felt by the citizens of Iraq, twenty years after the invasion.

It is clear that Vladimir Putin, the once feared geo-political chess player, has miscalculated many aspects of this campaign. Fears of increasing escalation should not be ignored and the desire to bring things to a close quickly is certainly going to increase the suffering of those on the ground. A negotiated settlement would seem the only way forward without risking his position domestically, which for him would have to be done sooner rather than later. However, the only guarantee that the Russian leader has given in recent days is that we can’t predict anything and all we can do is continue to support the Ukrainian people and remained unified in challenging the actions of this once forgettable Soviet spy.