Putin needs a Plan B

It’s been a while since I have written about the war in Ukraine because so little has changed strategically since the first few months of this conflict when three overarching facts pretty much drove everything – and still do.

The first fact is that the war in Ukraine emerged entirely from Vladimir Putin’s head, and there has been only one place to be to understand its timing and direction – and that’s in Putin’s head. Unfortunately, Putin doesn’t grant visas to his brain.

The second fact is that Putin never had a Plan B, and he thought he was going to waltz into Kyiv, seize it in a week, install a lackey as president, tuck Ukraine into his pocket, and put an end to any further European Union, NATO, or Western cultural expansion toward Russia.

The third fact is that Putin has put himself in a situation where he can’t win, can’t lose, and now, more worryingly, can’t stop. He can’t seize control of all of Ukraine anymore, but at the same time, he can’t afford to be defeated after all the Russian blood and treasure he has expended.

Putin has defaulted to a punitive, often indiscriminate rocketing of Ukrainian towns and civilian infrastructure – a grinding war of attrition – with the hope that he can somehow drain enough blood from Ukrainians, and instil enough exhaustion in Kyiv’s Western allies, that they give him a big enough slice of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine he can sell to the Russian people as a great victory.

This makes this one of the sickest, most senseless wars in modern times – a leader destroying another country’s civilian infrastructure until it gives him enough cover to hide that he’s been a towering fool.

The key question is, why does a dictator like Putin feel he needs a disguise? Can’t he make his people believe whatever he wants? If you look at his behaviour, it seems that Putin is quite frightened today by two subjects: arithmetic and Russian history.

Putin knows that even if he gets a few more kilometres of eastern Ukraine and holds Crimea, the minute he stops this war, his people will all do the cruel arithmetic on his Plan B, starting with subtraction.

Putin is worried that his people are talking about the casualties in Ukraine, as the White House reported that an estimated 100,000 Russian fighters have been killed or wounded in Ukraine in just the past five months and roughly 200,000 killed or wounded since Putin started this war in February 2022.

Putin is clearly frightened by the atmosphere enveloping him and one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned studying defence affairs in autocratic countries is that no matter how tightly controlled a place is, no matter how brutal and iron-fisted its dictator, EVERYBODY TALKS. They know who is stealing, who is cheating, who is lying, who is having an affair with whom. It starts with a whisper and often stays there, but everybody talks.

Putin would not be going to such lengths if he was not fearful that, despite his best efforts, everyone was whispering. Putin’s Plan B is to disguise that Putin’s Plan A has failed.

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