Q. What are Putin’s options as far as Ukraine goes?
A. Putin is stuck. He’s looking for a way to claim victory, even though his initial goals to completely incorporate Ukraine into Russia will never be accomplished. He’s downsized his goals to getting the provinces of Luhansk and Donbas in addition to the Crimea, maybe go a little bit further, get to Odessa and essentially control the southeast coast. He will not get those, either. His goal is to claim victory on some subset of provinces that he can hold permanently, and that remains highly unlikely.
The Ukrainians’ goal is to drive him out of all three provinces. And there are people, not just in Ukraine, who think that should remain the goal and that it is achievable.
One of the real questions puzzling foreigners is “What does Putin really want out of this?” The Ukrainians think that he wants both provinces and will keep going. As a result, the only way to defeat him is to prove to him that he can’t have even a sliver of territory in Ukraine, and they’re going to keep fighting until he’s out.
Q. Can they do that?
A. Do they have the firepower, equipment and broader resources? The West is essential to answering that question. The more important question facing the Ukrainians is, “Do they have the national will to do it? Will they continue to suffer?”
Someone said to me, “You don’t want to get into a suffering contest with Russia.” But then someone responded by saying “Unless you’re Ukraine.” Ukraine may have that same desire to fight to the finish. And as long as the West is willing to supply them, they will continue to do so.
Q. Can Ukraine maintain Western support?
A. The theory among the Ukrainians, along with ardent supporters in the U.S., is that the technological advantages of Western-supplied military will be enough to break the Russian army.
There are many in the U.S. who aren’t sure about that proposition, but they’re willing to keep supplying because it’s a very effective way to bleed down the Russian army and take care of one of our greatest strategic threats in the world. As long as Ukraine believes that it can drive the Russians back, and as long as the U.S. and Western allies are willing to supply them, we may see continued attrition on the Russian side.
Russia’s technology has proved far more inferior to what the West expected at the beginning. Russia has resupplied with help from North Korea and Iran, but we’ve seen the limits of those weapons to make a difference on the battlefield. And those weapon systems are largely aimed at Ukraine’s civilian population, as opposed to Ukraine’s Western-supplied forces. Russia is not driving back Ukraine anywhere Ukraine is choosing to fight hard. The U.S. is continuing to arm Ukraine because it believes Ukraine has the ability to drive the Russians back.
Q. What does this mean for Putin inside the Kremlin?
A. No one knows for sure. In Russia, the four most important cabinet agencies are, in order, the secret police, the militaries, the extra-political mercenary military forces that operate with the approval of the Russian government, and the oil industry. As long as Putin controls the secret police, he will be fine. But once they feel they are losing control of the situation, things could get bad for Putin.
The military is internally divided. Most military commanders, all the way to the top, did not know they were going to invade Ukraine the day before the invasion. The secret police knew. The secret police have special forces that conduct semi-military operations, such as trying to overthrow the Ukrainian government. They didn’t have adequate support and planning from the Russian military and failed.
The Russian military lacks discipline, technology, strategy and the real trust of the Russian leadership. The military is internally divided over tactics, if not strategy. And it lives in fear of both the secret police and Putin. But it doesn’t have the operational capabilities to win the war. The only thing it can do is throw more bodies at the problem. Then add the militia groups that operate independently and are trying to prove their worth to Putin and the secret police as a way of elevating their status in the Russian system.
If the Russian army collapses on the ground, then the secret police have to figure out how to defend the Russian border. The U.S. will restrain Ukraine from crossing the Russian border. But can the Russian secret police and what’s left of the Russian army hold Crimea? Crimea is a massive territory and heavily fortified, but Ukraine continues to claim that it wants to retake the territory. That’s what I’m looking for. I personally don’t see Putin falling before the fall of Crimea, but if for some reason Crimea were to fall, I think that could be very destabilizing. It would prove not only that the Russian army wasn’t up to the task, but also that the Russian secret police weren’t up to the task of keeping Crimea.