Former President George W. Bush believed he had seen part of “his soul.” Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair believed he deserved a place at the “chief table” and Emmanuel Macron invited him to the French president's summer residence for hours of discussions.
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For more than 24 years in power in Russia, Western leaders have often believed they understood Vladimir Putin's strategy and defended Moscow's place as an international partner.
However, this approach was dashed on February 24, 2022 with the invasion of Ukraine, and images such as that of the smiling Russian leader in August 2019, flowers in hand for Brigitte Macron, in Fort de Brégançon, where the heads of state of France rest in the summer .
In the early months of the conflict, the Russian army failed to capture major Ukrainian cities in a supposed lightning offensive this winter.
But the Kremlin strongman is now increasingly satisfied after his troops neutralized a much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive this summer and large swaths of territory in Ukraine's south and east remain under Russia's control, as did the peninsula it annexed in 2014 Crimea.
“President Putin is convinced that he can survive the West. It is therefore up to us to show determination to prove him wrong,” a senior Western official warned at a recent meeting on condition of anonymity.
Vital support for Ukraine
The Russian president has appeared increasingly optimistic in recent weeks, emphasizing, for example, in December that Ukraine “has no future” or recently in an interview broadcast on Thursday with the controversial American presenter Tucker Carlson that Russia's strategic defeat is “existing.” . impossible by definition.”
Western leaders responded by saying that Russia's defeat in Ukraine was the only option or, like Mr. Macron, that Europe's priority should be “not letting Russia win.”
However, many analysts believe that only increased Western support for a Ukraine that will soon run out of ammunition can change the situation. But that support is not guaranteed at a time when American elected officials are divided over a new aid program, when a victory for Donald Trump in this year's American election appears possible and when the Ukrainian issue is further dividing Europe.
“Both sides are trying to rebuild their offensive capabilities. If Western funds are not released and Russia gains an advantage one way or another, it has the opportunity to make further progress,” said Andrea Kendall Taylor, a researcher at the Washington-based Center for New American Security.
“The dynamics have changed,” said this analyst, emphasizing that “from Putin’s perspective, 2024 is a crucial year.”
Russian “Window of Opportunity”
Ukraine is particularly concerned about a possible second presidency of Donald Trump, who said in 2023 that he wanted to settle this war “in one day and 24 hours” if re-elected. Right-wing extremist parties that are more flexible towards Russia are also booming in France and Germany.
The year 2024 therefore represents a “window of opportunity” for Vladimir Putin to exploit the weaknesses of the West, analyzes Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the consulting firm R.politik.
The Russian head of state is particularly relying on “a temporary restriction of Western military support, with ammunition production not increasing until the beginning of 2025,” she wrote on her Telegram channel.
“The electoral process in the United States could lead to a less committed American strategy in support of Kiev, and it is unlikely that the European Union, plagued by internal disagreements, will compensate for this support on its own,” she adds.
For Westerners, however, there is reason for optimism in Russia's internal weaknesses, an economy lagging behind the war, a declining population and the first signs of conflict fatigue in public opinion. Russia and the scale of human losses Western sources estimate 350,000 people were killed or injured on the Russian side.
“Maintaining domestic stability takes up a lot of Putin’s bandwidth,” emphasizes Dara Massicot, a researcher at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace, who sees Russian officials’ current tone as an “overestimation.”
But without significant Western support, “I don’t know what negotiating position the Ukrainians would be in.” That would be terrible,” she analyzes.