Losing Wars and Saving Face
Russian flags dumped in the aftermath of a pro-war rally at the Luzhniki Stadium on the 18th March (Photo via @mbk_center)
The futility of Russia’s war against Ukraine is matched only by its brutality. The longer it goes on the greater the potential humiliation of Putin and his army, but also the greater the suffering of the Ukrainian people. Both sides have incentives to conclude this war. Channels of communication between the two have been open since early in the war. A number of would-be mediators have tried to identify the basis for a cease-fire. Occasionally there have been hints that progress is being made, and disclosures about possible terms, but no agreed text. Meanwhile with each passing day, the stakes for the belligerents are going up, along with the levels of distrust.
Those who assumed that Ukraine would be unable to resist the formidable Russian military machine also assumed that Ukraine would therefore have to offer big concessions to escape being crushed. That assumption lingers on in laments that Zelensky and his Western backers are being unrealistic in refusing to recognise the compromises that will need to be made to end the war. If nothing else, according to this argument, without something to show for all this effort Putin dare not withdraw for fear of a loss of face.
It is however extremely difficult to identify a compromise solution that can be made to work. Moreover, as Ukraine is not being crushed, and the tide of war may be turning in its favour, instead of asking Kyiv what is it prepared to do to stop the war, perhaps it is time to direct that question to Moscow.
Many students of international relations, especially those who adopt a ‘realist’ approach, warn that the understandable desire to see Ukraine win, and moral outrage over Putin’s actions, might interfere with the cool judgements necessary when faced with such a deadly conflict, one with potential repercussions that go well beyond the belligerents.
Such realism is not amoral. It counters the moral imperatives of punishing the aggressor by pointing to the intense human costs of a continuing war. It correctly warns of how the war could soon lead to forms of instability and chaos engulfing neighbouring countries. The longer the war drags on the greater the risk of NATO getting drawn into the fighting and Putin lashing out in even more dangerous ways.
It is true that a long war will only add to the upset and dislocation already caused, going well beyond the current war zone. The ripple effects, whether in higher food and energy prices or disrupted trade, are starting to be felt, and they will increasingly require international attention. It is also true that any settlement will have to be a degree “realist” in that it must reflect not only our views about right and wrong but also the balance of power between the two sides and the interests at stake.
This is why realist logic has led to warnings that in circumstances in which neither side can declare victory the war can only end with some messy compromise, with both sides walking away dissatisfied. But that is not the only possible conclusion from a realist analysis that pays close attention to the shifting considerations of power and interest.
Too often, especially among the American commentariat, those who argue that Russia must be given something tangible to end the war, however painful and unjust that may seem, appear to be advising the Biden Administration on its negotiating strategy, or at least on the sort of deal Zelensky should be encouraged to accept. It must always be stressed that it is up to the Ukrainian government to decide on what steps they are prepared to take to achieve peace. As Western governments are not direct belligerents they are in no position to criticise Ukraine for being either too conciliatory or not conciliatory enough. These are difficult choices for any government. It might be an easier one if there was an obvious compromise available.
Zelensky has always claimed to be ready to explore the options for a peaceful settlement, and has asked for direct talks with Putin, but Putin will only accept a meeting to accept Ukraine’s surrender and that he is not going to get. Zelensky has been adamant that he is not going to compromise on his country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Those searching for a settlement must therefore look elsewhere, exploring whether Ukraine will move away from its past demand to join NATO and accept some alternative arrangement that promises to guarantee their security.
But security guarantees, even from friendly states, are inherently problematic. They require relying on others, who have not been directly threatened, taking severe risks on your behalf. Ukraine was given security guarantees before and these turned out to be worthless in 2014 and again now. That is why Ukraine will not agree to “demilitarise” when it owes its survival to the tenacity of its defences.
Zelensky can stick to his core demands because he believes that Ukraine cares more than Russia how this war ends, and also that the balance of power is trending in Ukraine’s favour.
From the start of this war the decisive factor was always likely to be not only the balance of military power but also the balance of motivation. Put simply this is a total war for Ukraine yet only a limited one for Russia. Whether Putin sees it this way I consider below, but it matters that most Russians, including those doing the fighting, are not as highly motivated as the Ukrainians. Unlike Russia, Ukraine is battling for its very existence as a free nation. This is why even if Putin and his generals expect the murderous assaults on towns and cities to undermine Ukraine’s willingness to continue with the war they will be disappointed. In practice it has so far made their targets even more determined. To capitulate now would be seen as a betrayal of the family, friends and colleagues whose lives have been taken or ruined.
For Ukrainians the war with Russia began in 2014, when it took Crimea and sponsored separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. Before 24 February 2022 the conflict had already led to thousands of deaths. The actions of Russian forces in those towns and cities that they have recently occupied, including abducting officials, firing on demonstrators, and looting shops, therefore come as no surprise. Ukrainians have no illusions about what would happen in any territory ceded to Russia or what a puppet government would be expected to deliver. That is why they are so committed to the fight. This is illustrated by their readiness to do whatever it takes to stop Russian advances, adding to the damage by blowing up their own bridges and creating floods, and fighting amidst the rubble of destroyed properties. It is why Mariupol did not surrender.
Nor, despite the suffering, are they despondent about the direction of the war or divided about what to do next. While most support direct negotiations with the Russians over 90% now believe in the possibility of the country’s ability to repel the Russian attack and about half believe that this can be achieved over the coming weeks, with a quarter accepting that the war may last several months. Very few expect defeat. On these matters the country is remarkably united, more than it has ever been. They do not expect this war to end with the country being split.
Another poll, from a week earlier, showed pride in the war effort, wishing to honour those cities that had taken the brunt of the fighting as “hero cities”. Well over half (56%) are convinced that “the main goal of Russia's invasion is the complete destruction of the Ukrainian people”. Many assume that Russia wanted to annex the country. “Only 15% to 17% think that Russia is pursuing the goal of changing Ukraine's political course or preventing the deployment of NATO bases.…Those who believe that the Russian invasion was aimed at protecting Russian speakers comprise only 2%.” Most “believe that Ukraine should use all the opportunities to return the occupied territories of Donbas (86%) and the Crimea (80%). Residents of all the regions believe so, and this share is now higher than in the pre-war times.” These results are consistent with a survey published early in the month by Lord Ashcroft’s pollsters. If, as Zelensky has stated, any peace deal should be put to a referendum, it is not hard to guess that any debate will be dominated by hawks rather than doves.
The optimism about victory may seem like collective wishful thinking. Russia still has formidable military capabilities to bring to bear and is doing its utmost to replenish its beleaguered front-line forces. It has not completely run out of military options, even though its troops are weary and demoralized. Ukraine also has its difficulties with replenishing stocks, as it is highly dependent upon external suppliers, and not all that has been promised has yet been delivered. Modern armies get through ordnance at a rate that is unsustainable for a prolonged period.
Yet despite all the caution, during the course of this past month, the question has moved from “Can Russia Win?” to “Will Russia Lose?” Russia’s initial moves left it stretched and its forces too dispersed, exposing serious deficiencies in logistics, equipment, command and control, and basic tactics. The failure of its initial offensive led it to compensate by pummelling Ukrainian cities, as well as ruses such as using over-hyped “hypersonic weapons”. These are not game changers. As with the massive air raids of the Second World War, those against Ukrainian cities might leave a legacy of hurt and bitterness, but they have only a marginal effect on the military struggle to seize and hold territory. Slowly Ukraine is starting to push back Russian forces from key positions and at some point Moscow may have to decide on whether to withdraw troops and their equipment from exposed positions that cannot be easily supported. Fuel is needed to retreat as well as advance and Russian commanders will be desperate to avoid situations in which substantial units are obliged to surrender.
Wars can develop in unexpected ways and this one is far from over. For now, however, Zelensky is under no military or domestic pressure to make the running in the negotiations by coming up with substantial compromises.
On the Russian side we know that there is broad support for the war, as Sam discussed in his post on Russian popular opinion, but this is for a war that has been presented as being limited in intent and scope – in fact no more than a “special military operation” largely, although not solely, confined to the Donbas region. The Russian government also claims that the “special operation” is on schedule and going to plan, but even an information-deprived Russian does not need to read too far between the lines to realise that all is not well. They will know from their own experiences about the economic consequences of this war. But they will also know that dissent leads to trouble and so prudence requires that they stay quiet. If Russian ambitions are being scaled down, neither the elite nor the wider population have been prepared. If Putin is aware that he must back away from his maximalist demands then he has yet to show it.
So he is not asking for anything to “save face”. His problem is that he needs substantive gains but none are on offer through either military action or diplomacy. Anything that might be achieved now in negotiations will appear trivial compared with Putin’s opening demands. Even his propaganda machine at its most creative will struggle to turn vague reassurances about future security arrangements, promises about protecting the Russian language, or, at most, an acknowledgement of the status quo in Crimea, into a great victory - especially as the costs begin to be tallied. If saving face means avoiding any reputational damage, that is a battle already lost.
Moreover, Putin may have more to save than merely his face. The priority for Russia could soon shift from demonstrating gains to mitigating losses. Sooner rather than later, it will need some relief from the sanctions. As I noted in my previous post, the economic pressure may not persuade Putin to abandon this campaign, but the conditions under which they might be eased will be an important part of any peace negotiations.
This leads into one of the perplexing aspects of the “saving face” argument. Because this is one man’s war, launched from an isolated but apparently secure position in the Kremlin, governments, diplomats, intelligence agencies, and even lowly commentators, are spending an inordinate amount of time trying to work out what is going on in Putin’s head. Winston Churchill’s famous quote about Russia – “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” – now applies to Putin as an individual. For Churchill the key to the riddle was the “Russian national interest”. That is a good realist answer but what is Putin’s personal interest and how can we address it?
From the start this war has been bound up with Putin’s delusions about Ukraine but also fear of what might be unleashed should Ukraine continue on its pre-war course.
Ever since Ukraine’s “orange revolution” of 2004-5 Putin has been bothered by the prospect of something similar happening to him, of his position being challenged by a popular movement in Russia. He is convinced that the West is doing all it can to foment one. Putin is not the first autocrat to confuse his personal destiny with that of his country. After all the international denunciations of Russian aggression and inhumanity, which were water off a duck’s back, only when President Biden made it more personal, calling Putin a “pure thug” and a “murderous war criminal”, was there a strong reaction from Moscow. “Such statements … are not worthy of a high-ranking statesman,” sniffed the Russian Foreign Ministry. They had “put Russian-American relations on the verge of rupture.”
What if, in the end, the vital issue for Putin is his personal security and that of his regime? Does that mean that the West should signal that it is not out to get him, just as the question leading up to Japan’s surrender in August 1945 was whether the constitutional position of the Emperor Hirohito should be protected? What are the implications for proposals heard in the West that the current sanctions should stay in place so long as Putin stays in power? What will the Americans do with the evidence they claim to be accumulating of his responsibility for war crimes?
These may be more important questions than trying to identify something for Zelensky to put on the table to give Putin as political cover for a colossal failure. He will not jeopardise his country’s sovereignty and security out of consideration for Putin’s bruised ego. Ukraine is better prepared for the long haul politically and even possibly materially than Russia.
A political leader responsible for such a disastrous campaign, palpably failing to achieve his objectives, causing many casualties, putting the country into a deep recession, should be looking to cut his losses. But Putin is caught in his own lies and mythology about what is at stake and the nature of Ukraine. He blames subordinates for poor preparations and scrambles around for the extra resources to turn the battle round. To the outside observer the whole Russian political system appears paralysed. We do not know whether anything is stirring among the oligarchs, the spies, the apparatchiks and the generals, all past beneficiaries of the system’s corruption and now contemplating huge losses. At times like this apparently robust political structures can suddenly show cracks.
A cornered leader can be dangerous. He might be tempted to escalate in more terrible ways. But he has put himself in this corner by the way that he launched and conducted this war. We can warn him of the consequences of escalation but we cannot entice him out of his corner with minor concessions. Perhaps it will take a shock on the battlefield to administer a shock to Russia’s political system. Whatever the prompts, in the end, the major concessions necessary to end this war must come out of Moscow, and they will only come with a realistic appreciation of the tragedy which Putin has inflicted on Russia as well as on Ukraine.
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