What If Putin Had Not Made a Miscalculation?

The prevailing view holds that Vladimir Putin made a disastrous miscalculation.

He expected his forces to be welcomed by Russian-speaking Ukrainians. They didn't do it. He expected to remove Volodymyr Zelensky's government quickly. He hasn't done so. He planned to divide NATO. He's brought it together. He believed he had sanctioned his economy. He ruined it. He expected the Chinese to assist him. They're trying to hedge their bets. He expected his modernized military to annihilate Ukrainian soldiers. On certain fronts, the Ukrainians are making mincemeat of him.

Putin's blunders raise concerns about his strategic judgment and mental health. Who, if anyone, is giving him advice? Is he out of touch with reality? Is he physically sick? Mentally? "He's not in control of his emotions," Condoleezza Rice cautions. Something isn't right." Russia's sieges of Mariupol and Kharkiv — two mainly Russian-speaking cities that Putin claims are being "liberated" from Ukrainian despotism — are reminiscent of what the Nazis did to Warsaw, and what Putin himself did to Grozny.

Several observers have likened Putin to a cornered rat, making him even more dangerous now that he is no longer in command of events. They want to provide him with a safe way out of the situation he supposedly created for himself. As a result, nearly universal derision was heaped on Joe Biden when he said in Poland, "For God's sake, this man cannot continue in power."

The prevalent wisdom is completely credible. It has the added virtue of vindicating the West's defense backing for Ukraine. And it tends to conclude that the optimum ending is one in which Putin finds some face-saving way out: more Ukrainian land, a Ukrainian commitment of neutrality, a partial relaxation of sanctions.

But what if prevailing wisdom is incorrect? What if the West is once again playing into Putin's hands?

The prospect is highlighted by The Times' Carlotta Gall's poignant recollection of her experience reporting Russia's siege of Grozny during the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s. Motivated Chechen soldiers annihilated a Russian tank brigade in the early stages of the war, surprising Moscow. The Russians regrouped and used artillery and air force to annihilate Grozny from afar.

Russia is still following the same playbook. When Western military specialists say Putin can't win militarily in Ukraine, they really mean he can't win cleanly. Since when has Putin ever acted honorably?

"There is a whole next step to Putin's script, which the Chechens are fully aware of," Gall writes. "As Russian military took control of the ground in Chechnya, they crushed any remaining dissent through arrests and filtration camps, as well as by turning and empowering local protégés and collaborators."

Assume for a moment that Putin never intended to win all of Ukraine, and that his true aims were the energy resources of Ukraine's east, which include Europe's second-largest known natural gas reserves (behind Norway's).

Combine this with Russia's previous territorial seizures in Crimea (which has massive offshore energy fields) and the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk (which contain a portion of a massive shale-gas field), as well as Putin's bid to control most or all of Ukraine's coastline, and the shape of Putin's ambitions becomes clear. He is more concerned with ensuring Russia's energy dominance than with reuniting the Russian-speaking globe.

"Under the pretense of an invasion, Putin is carrying off a massive theft," Canadian energy analyst David Knight Legg stated. What remains of a mostly landlocked Ukraine will very certainly become a welfare case for the West, which will assist foot the bill for relocating Ukraine's refugees to new homes outside of Russian influence. In time, a Viktor Orban-like figure could take over Ukraine's presidency, mimicking Putin's preferred strongman-style of governance in his neighbors.

If this theory is correct, Putin does not appear to be the calculating loser that his enemies portray him to be.

It also explains his tactic of targeting civilians. More than just a means of making up for Russian troops' failure, the mass death of civilians puts enormous pressure on Zelensky to yield to the same things Putin has requested all along: territorial concessions and Ukrainian neutrality. The West will likewise seek any opportunity to de-escalate, especially now that we have convinced ourselves that a mentally unstable Putin is willing to use nuclear weapons.

The war has already suited Putin's political aims within Russia. Many members of the professional middle class, who sympathize with dissidents like Aleksei Navalny, have gone into self-imposed exile. The last vestiges of a free press have been closed, very likely for good. To the extent that Russia's military has embarrassed itself, a well-targeted purging from above is more likely than a widespread revolution from below. Russia's fresh oil wealth may eventually assist it in breaking free from the shackles of sanctions.

This alternative assessment of Putin's performance could be incorrect. However, in combat, politics, and life, it is always better to treat your foe as a cunning fox rather than a mad fool.

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