Russia continues to make gains on the ground in Ukraine, particularly in the Donbas region where the war’s fighting is now most intense. President Vladimir Putin can and will inflict more pain, and though his military isn’t strong enough to overthrow Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government and capture all of Ukraine as he initially hoped, he’s confident that Ukraine isn’t strong enough to oust his troops from the territory it already holds. He also knows that the global food and fuel inflation his war is creating will test the limits of Western resolve to continue support for Ukraine at its current levels.
But from a longer-term perspective, Russia has already lost this war, and Putin’s decision to invade will be remembered as one of the biggest blunders by any leader of a major power in decades.
What did Putin hope his invasion would accomplish? His stated goals were the “de-Nazification and demilitarization” of Ukraine. By de-Nazification, he meant the removal of any Ukrainian government that preferred stronger ties with Europe than with Russia. With demilitarization, he wanted to strip Ukraine of any ability to challenge Russian dominance in the future, whoever was in charge in Kyiv.
His ambition extended well beyond Ukraine. He also wanted to demonstrate to the US and Europe that Russia must be treated as a great power capable of defining its own sphere of influence. He wanted to expose the Western powers as weak-willed and divided. He also hoped to bolster his standing with the Russian people, as the 2014 seizure and annexation of Crimea had done.
What has he achieved?
Putin has exposed Russia as a delusional and dangerous power that wants to redesign Europe’s security architecture and redraw the boundaries of a neighboring democracy with brute force and a steady stream of lies about its motives. He has demonstrated that he has no idea what Ukrainians are willing to fight for or how the West will respond to large-scale, naked aggression.
He has inflicted generational damage on his own military. More Russians were killed in action in 100 days in Ukraine than Soviet soldiers died in a decade in Afghanistan. Large numbers of tanks and other heavy weapons have been lost. Artillery supplies have dwindled. US export controls on the sale of critical parts to Russia will further undermine Russian efforts to restock. He has given the rest of the world an unobstructed view of Russian capabilities, limitations and vulnerabilities. He also inflicted substantial damage on the morale of a fighting force that was badly ill-equipped for the mission its leader had in mind.
Putin has given Europe and the United States a sense of common purpose that hasn’t existed since the Cold War’s end. He has reminded many Europeans why American help is so valuable and shown Americans that Europeans will make tough choices and painful sacrifices to defend Western values. He has expanded NATO, current objections from Turkey’s President Erdogan notwithstanding, and doubled the length of the Russian-NATO border by persuading Finland and Sweden that they are safer inside the Alliance than outside it. Two-thirds of voters in Euro-skeptic Denmark have now voted to tighten defense ties with the EU.
He has saddled his economy with US and European sanctions that are unlikely to be lifted while Putin remains in power. He has created long-term shortages of critical spare parts for Russian manufacturing. He has left himself vulnerable to criticism from Russians who hate the international isolation they know is coming but also from those who feel he has mismanaged a war Russia should easily have won.
He has persuaded the European Union to make drastic cuts to its imports of Russian energy, a vital source of revenue for Putin’s government. He has proven to European leaders that they must spend much more money on Europe’s defense. All these developments were all but unthinkable before Russia started amassing troops along Ukraine’s borders.
Putin has also left his country deeply dependent on China’s (still limited) good will. The process of diverting large volumes of Russian energy from Europe to Asia will take a lot of time and money – and, with fewer willing buyers, Russia will have to sell its commodities at discounted prices.
In return for all that, he might win control of Ukraine’s Donbas region and more Black Sea coastline to link that territory with Russian-controlled Crimea.
Russia isn’t entirely isolated, of course. There are still people and governments in every region of the world who consider the United States a greater threat than Russia to the world’s peace and shared prosperity. Many governments will continue to buy Russian commodities and weapons, especially at necessarily lower prices.
Βut the worst of all this self-inflicted damage is irreversible for at least as long as Putin remains in charge. That’s why, though fighting in Ukraine may continue for months, even for years, Putin has already lost this war.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of “The Power of Crisis.”