Putins Ukraine gambling ranked as biggest threat to his rule

Putin’s Ukraine gambling ranked as biggest threat to his rule

Vladimir Putin says he learned from his childhood brawls in his hometown of St. Petersburg: “If you want to win a fight, you have to see it through to the end like it’s the fight of your life.”

This lesson, cited in the Russian President’s recent biography, seems to guide him as his invasion of Ukraine suffers setbacks and deadlocks. The Kremlin strongman who started the war on February 24, 2022 and could end it in a minute seems determined to assert himself ruthlessly and at any cost.

Trumping his compatriots this month on the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad that turned Moscow’s fortunes in World War II upside down, he said: “The willingness to go beyond borders, to do the impossible for the sake of the fatherland and the truth, has always been and will remain in the blood, in the character of our multi-ethnic people.”

But so far, Putin’s gamble to invade his smaller and weaker neighbors appears to have backfired spectacularly, creating the greatest threat to his more than two-decade rule.


He launched the “special military operation” in the name of demilitarizing and “denazifying” Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians, prevent Kiev from joining NATO, and keep it within Russia’s “sphere of influence.” While he claims Ukraine and the West provoked the invasion, they say exactly the opposite – that it was an illegal and brazen act of aggression against a country with a democratically elected government and a Jewish president whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust.

Putin laid the groundwork for the invasion in 2021 with a 5,000-word essay questioning Ukraine’s legitimacy as a nation. It was just the latest chapter in a long obsession with the country and a determination to correct what he believed was a historic mistake, to slip it out of Moscow’s orbit. He reached back three centuries to Peter the Great in support of his quest to reclaim rightful Russian territory.

The story goes on

But history’s rectification soon met modern roadblocks.

“Literally everything he set out to do has gone disastrously wrong,” said British journalist Philip Short, who published his biography Putin last year.

Despite armed interventions in Chechnya, Syria and Georgia, Putin overestimated his military and underestimated Ukrainian resistance and Western support. Russian media tries to bolster its authority with images of a shirtless Putin riding a horse, shooting at a military firing range and attracting government officials on TV, but the war has its flaws and the weakness of its military, intelligence agencies and some industries .

Ukrainian troops have liberated more than half of the territory captured by Russia. The war has killed tens of thousands on both sides, wreaked widespread destruction and prompted not only Ukraine but also Sweden and Finland to seek NATO membership. It has increased the security threat to Russia and undone decades of Russia’s integration with the West, leading to international isolation.

Increasingly, in a conflict, Putin seems to improvise much longer and more difficult than he expected. For example, he threatened to use nuclear weapons and then backed down. You know the strategy from his lifelong passion, judo: “You have to be flexible. Sometimes you can give way to others when that’s the way to victory,” Putin told American director Oliver Stone in flattering interviews in 2015-17.

From Putin’s point of view, an aggressive West wants to destroy Russia. His narrative, along with increasingly repressive measures to quell domestic dissent, has roused patriotic support from many of his countrymen. But it comes up against an inefficient top-down power structure inherited from the Soviet Union, the porous borders of the connected world, and the sacrifices Russians are making themselves suffer.


In interviews with The Associated Press, Short, other analysts and a former Kremlin insider describe the 70-year-old Putin as an unpredictable, weakened leader, rigid and outdated in his thinking, who has gone too far and denied the difficulties.

They say he appears concerned about waning, if still strong, domestic public opinion – albeit from unreliable polls. Mostly isolated due to COVID-19 concerns and his personal safety, Putin is speaking to a small group of advisers, but they seem reluctant to offer honest assessments.

Observers see a long, grueling war that Putin is determined to win and the outcome of which is difficult to predict.

“It is not Putin who rules Russia. It is circumstances that dominate Putin,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, senior fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Short believes the Kremlin boss has “cornered himself”. … He’ll be looking for ways to advance, but I don’t think he’s found them.

Fiona Hill, who has served in the last three US administrations and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes Putin wanted to win quickly in Ukraine, install a new president in Kiev and force it to join Belarus in a Slavic union with join Russia. A successor would rule Russia, she said, and Putin would rise to lead the larger alliance.

But now, according to Stanovaya, “there seems to be no hope that the conflict can be resolved in any other way than militarily. And that’s scary.”


Analysts see multiple scenarios for Putin depending on battlefield developments. The scenarios, which are not mutually exclusive, range from what could be his worst nightmare – a coup or riots like the ones he experienced as a KGB agent in East Germany in 1989, in the USSR in 1991, or in Ukraine in 2004 and 2014 – to towards winning re-election next year. That would extend the already longest reign of a Kremlin leader since Joseph Stalin.

Dmitry Oreshkin, a political scientist and professor at Free University in Riga, Latvia, said Putin could revise his goals in Ukraine and said he achieved them by establishing a land corridor from Russia to Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to the east took over. Then he could announce: “We have punished them. We showed them who’s boss in the house. We defeated all NATO countries,” Oreshkin added.

But Kiev has shown no willingness to cede territory, and for Putin to sell this as victory, Orsehkin believes, “he has to convince himself that he defeated Ukraine. And he understands better than anyone that he actually lost.”

As military setbacks mount, Russians are retreating morally and psychologically, thinking, “Yes, we see something is wrong in the war, but we don’t want to know,” Oreshkin said.

Such a shutdown, coupled with economic difficulties, could backfire on Putin, he said, perhaps this spring when Russians ask, “You promised victory, so where is it?”

Former Putin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov said the Russian president doesn’t admit mistakes or defeats and “urgently needs a win just to prove he’s a strongman”.

Even some in the military are becoming critical, he said.

“If he’s hated by more than half — and we’re going in that direction — the odds of a coup, an elite coup, a military coup, will increase,” Gallyamov said, giving a timeframe of 2024 “plus a couple of those years .”

Stanovaya and Short believe that no uprising is imminent.

“Even though people can suffer and be dissatisfied and angry, there is no way to make it political,” Stanovaya said.

Gallyamov sees a way out for Putin if he can get the recognition of “new territories plus a declaration by NATO that it will, for example, stop expansion, or Ukraine’s inclusion of its neutral status in its constitution…or its declaration that Russia will be can speak the second official language.”


Another possibility is that Putin dies in office, but CIA director William Burns is skeptical.

“There are many rumors about President Putin’s health, and as far as we can tell, he’s far too healthy,” Burns, a former US ambassador to Moscow, told the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado in July.

Short said Putin has set up such tight security controls and rival centers of power that he is “more likely to have a totally unexpected heart attack than to be overthrown by those around him.”

He and Hill believe Putin will eventually start looking for a successor. Gallyamov names “technocrats” like Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin as possible candidates. Hill said Dmitry Medvedev, whom Putin offered to be president from 2008 to 2012, “appears to be auditioning again for that role.”

At the moment, Putin remains largely at the helm. In his authorized 2000 biography, he observed: “Many mistakes are always made in war. … You have to be pragmatic. And you always have to think about victory.”

When a reporter asked him in December if his “special military operation” in Ukraine had taken too long, Putin responded with a Russian idiom about gradually achieving great goals: “The hen pecks grain by grain.”


Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine