What if Russia loses its war with Ukraine?

For the first time since the beginning of the war, a battlefield stalemate in Ukraine appears to be the most likely outcome. According to the British government, the Russian offensive is stalled on all fronts. Russia is now rumoured to be seeking assistance from China. It has also enlisted the help of mercenaries from Chechnya and Syria. Experts are beginning to believe that Russia can no longer win the war with its original objectives. There is now widespread concern that, in desperation, Putin may resort to using a weapon of mass destruction to break the battlefield impasse.

Putin has hinted that even he realizes this growing likelihood in his recent willingness to negotiate with Ukraine. Just two weeks ago, he would not have agreed to talks. But now, Russia is mired in the mud, and if it does not take Ukraine’s embattled cities soon, it may not be able to take them at all. Putin now needs that ‘off-ramp’ from the war.

The sanctions will begin to take effect in a few weeks. The Russian economy’s ability to support the war will deteriorate, and mounting domestic hardship will fuel domestic unrest. Battlefield casualties will stoke more outrage, and Russia’s capacity to pursue the war will be harmed as a result. Simultaneously, the West is supplying Ukraine with low-cost, easy-to-use anti-armor and anti-air rocketry. Stalemate is likely if Ukraine can hold out until April — particularly if it can keep its capital city. Indeed, by the end of the summer, the Ukrainians may begin to push the Russians back.

If Russia actually begins to lose the war in the next month, three new questions will arise:

Will Ukraine launch an attack on Russian soil?

The desire to do so will be overwhelming. For more than a decade, Russia has been pulling Ukraine apart. For years, it backed corrupt governments and instigated insurgencies and civil unrest in the east. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, which Ukraine does not recognise. For years, Ukraine’s answer has been to turn the other cheek in order to avoid giving Russia a justification to meddle further. The patience of the Ukrainian people has been remarkable.

If Ukraine succeeds in turning the tide, there will be pressure to strike Russian staging bases and airbases in Russia and Belarus. These are valid targets, at least militarily, in terms of projecting power in Ukraine. In the most heroic scenario, if Ukraine is able to drive the Russian army out, Kyiv will seriously consider retaking Crimea.

The politics around this are tumultuous. Kyiv will be irritated to offer Russia the same treatment it has got after years of allowing Russia to bully it. Of obviously, Western support poses a threat. Ukraine has received tremendous international support as an underdog. If it happened outside of the current conflict zone, there would be a lot of concern.

Will Putin be dropped by China?

China’s backing for Putin is just pragmatic and cynical (as is its support for North Korea and Pakistan). China will dismiss Putin if he causes more trouble than he is worth. China’s backing was based on Putin’s implied promise that the war would be a blitzkrieg, that it would unbalance the West and promote multipolarity in the place of Western dominance, and that Putin’s army was tough and capable, despite Russia’s shaky economy. In a nutshell, Putin was a tough and astute victor.

This is clearly no longer the case. Russia’s military ineptness is both embarrassing and unforgivable. Putin now appears to be an out-of-touch despot surrounded by opportunists incapable of defeating a third-rate military power on his border. If Putin loses the conflict, China may begin to distance itself from him as the costs of widespread Western wrath towards China outweigh the benefits.

Will Putin be able to maintain his position of power?

For autocrats, losing a war is a perilous proposition. After a devastating war with Turkey, the Greek junta of the 1960s and 1970s crumbled. After Argentina’s defeat in the Falklands War in 1982, the junta toppled. Putin will be in grave danger if this conflict, which is already a fiasco, ends in a complete loss. Putin is well aware of this. He’s hinted at purges to silence critics, and he just hosted a big, spontaneous demonstration in support of the war.

Putin can explain the war expenditures and imminent economic implosion to his public if he can coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into accepting the loss of Crimea and Ukraine’s demilitarisation, for example. His lecture on the supremacy of nationality above profiteering foreshadows his expected future claim that the war was a necessary sacrifice.

However, if Putin defence mechanism of psychology is unable to justify that sacrifice with a war win, and Ukraine begins to drive Russia back this summer, elite dissent, particularly among the military, will skyrocket. Putin has made this war a part of his legacy. If he loses, he will almost certainly be replaced.

These are still possibilities that have a chance of succeeding. It is still early in a war that could last for months. All of them, though, are now clearly possible. Russia’s element of surprise has vanished. It has sent its most capable units forward, but they have failed miserably. Its economic reserves will quickly deplete in the face of impending penalties. Despite all of the speculation about impending offensives against Ukraine’s cities, the battlelines haven’t moved much. Ukrainian morale is rising, and Western aid will soon be a deluge that the Russians will be unable to handle. Putin will very certainly lose the war if Ukraine can hold out for another month.

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