Ukraine has made some impressive progress on the battlefield, but let us hold the applause for a moment: It’s too soon to tell whether Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive heralds a Ukrainian victory in the war with Russia, but the remarkably rapid Ukrainian advance on the one hand and the equally remarkable rapid retreat by the Russians on the other do testify to Ukrainian military prowess and, perhaps more critical, Russian military incompetence.
It should be amply clear by now that, expert expectations to the contrary, Russia cannot win the war. In fact, the irony is that Russian troops have responded to Ukraine’s Blitzkrieg in the same manner that Ukrainians were expected to respond to Russia’s February 24th offensive: by throwing down their arms and heading for the hills.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive testifies to a fivefold failure—of Russian intelligence to foresee the offensive, of Russian military planning to fortify its defenses in potentially vulnerable regions, of Russian rank-and-file troops to be willing to die for what most of them now know is a stupid, criminal war, of the Russian people to have the courage to save their sons from certain death, and of Vladimir Putin to leave the job of war-making and warfighting to his general staff.
Putin bears the largest share of the blame for Russia’s embarrassing retreat. He started the war, he embarked on genocide, he turned ordinary Russians into aiders and abettors of a criminal enterprise, he continually intervened in the work of the general staff and placed politics above military strategy, and he showed—and still shows—that he is absolutely indifferent to the fact that as many as 50,000 Russian soldiers may have died. For what? For his bloated ambition to be a great czar and to countenance the destruction of Ukraine, Russia, and the world to that end.
Russian soldiers bear the largest burden of the war. They were transformed both into war criminals and cannon fodder. While Putin and his pals spoke of victory in the gilded halls of the Kremlin, while their sons and daughters enjoyed life in the decadent West, ordinary Russian men and boys were dragooned and sacrificed on the altar of Putin’s ego. At least now, as the pell-mell withdrawal suggests, Russian soldiers appear to have realized that their deaths are meaningless, that they are complicit in genocide, and that the real criminals are Putin and his collaborators.
Putin’s days are numbered. Few dictators can survive a disastrous war. None can survive the complete loss of legitimacy that the Ukrainian Blitzkrieg has brought about. Putin, the erstwhile macho grandmaster who promised to make Russia great, has been exposed as a third-rate checkers player with little to show for his decades of rule beside a bare chest.
It’s increasingly possible now that the days of the Putin fascist regime are also numbered. If Putin goes, the system he’s painstakingly constructed since 1999 will not survive, in the same way that a wheel without a hub will collapse on itself. Indeed, it is no longer farfetched to plan for a collapse of the Russian Federation and its replacement by a multiplicity of non-Russian states.
Still, as Ukrainians say, it’s far too early for euphoria. Russia’s armed forces remain enormous, and the war could easily continue for months. But the outcome is increasingly clear: Ukraine will win if it continues to receive Western support, while Russia can at best, mitigate the extent of its defeat.
Expert Biography: Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”