In short, the war has been a train wreck for Russia from the start. But it’s hard to understate how much of a surprise this has been for just about everyone. Western intelligence agencies also thought Kiev, and then soon all of Ukraine, would fall within days. The White House was so confident in this that they said so openly and repeatedly. Everything had been counted up in tables, and mapped out on paper, and wargamed, and the end was deemed a foregone conclusion. Many European nations, like Germany, were so resigned to this inevitability that they initially refused to send arms or otherwise complicate their relations with a Russia that they assumed would soon extend its influence much closer to the core of the continent.
The irony then is that Putin probably really was on the verge of getting exactly what he wanted out of the war, just as he’d predicted. It was only the totally unexpected failure of his own once much-feared war machine, and its humiliation at the hands of the Ukrainians, that intervened. And this shock reversed the whole strategic picture, turning Putin’s gambit into a mounting disaster for Russia.
Our enemy’s enemy is not necessarily competent:
For weeks now I have noticed a strange reluctance among some in the West (at least among my fellow let’s just say “deeply disillusioned with the establishment” observers) to accept the reality of this. As if Western leaders’ demonstrably depthless reserves of stupidity guaranteed Putin immunity from making terrible blunders too. Or as if understandable wariness of our media’s endless ejaculation of pro-Ukraine, pro-escalation, pro-the-current-thing propaganda meant that the opposite narrative must in fact be automatically true: that a Russian victory was probably just around the corner. (The fact is that good regime propaganda is often true — that’s what makes it so effective in its ability to shape narrative with lies.)
The retreat from Kiev should rightly put an end to this. Contra assertions by Putin that all is going “according to plan,” the facts on the ground don’t lie: nothing is really going according to plan for him. The undisguised glee in Washington at being on the comfortable side of a proxy war should also help demonstrate as much …
True, as a nuclear armed power, Russia cannot ever outright lose this war (contrary to the seeming expectations of some, Zelensky will never ride into Moscow on a tank to accept Putin’s unconditional surrender and drag him to The Hague to be tried for war crimes).
But Putin now also cannot win what he had envisioned, either. His original war goals — of disarming and “de-Nazifying” Ukraine (i.e. replacing the regime in Kiev with a subservient, pro-Russian government) — have now had to be abandoned. Instead, (assuming we are not all annihilated in a nuclear exchange) the two sides appear to be headed toward either a frozen conflict or an eventual negotiated settlement, with Putin now in the process of defining success down in order to try to find a politically acceptable off-ramp out of this quagmire. …
But in the end Russia’s performance in the east may not actually be that relevant. The myth of Russian military invincibility is already smashed. And even if the offensive does succeed enough to allow Putin to walk away claiming a partial victory … this “win” would in reality represent a major strategic loss for Russia.
- Left with only about the same territory it already effectively controlled before the war;
- the Russian economy now isolated by sanctions and technology import restrictions, and its ability to replenish its military strength curtailed;
- Ukraine now absolutely confident in its independent national identity, united forever by a heroic battlefield origin myth;
- Zelensky’s government still in power in Kiev, and more pro-Western than ever;
- NATO not only brought back from the dead but completely reenergized, with Sweden and Finland (the latter mere kilometers from St. Petersburg) on the verge of joining the hated alliance;
- the Europeans offering Ukraine a fast-track into the EU, and Washington eager to play Marshall Plan;
- Poland, Germany, and multiple once complacent nations in Europe now rapidly rearming;and
- the “liberal international order” stronger than ever…
Russia will come out of this catastrophe in a position vastly weaker than before blundering into it, with no significant improvement in its strategic outlook to speak of and its future prospects greatly eroded.
China loses too, because it was only into Russia for its military strength:
For China this is already a totally unasked for, absolute face-palm-inducing fuckup. From Beijing’s perspective, this situation is not, at all, what the de facto alliance with Russia was supposed to produce for China.
China tends to take an approach to foreign relations that its defenders would call pragmatic and its critics ruthlessly transactional. Close relationships are not maintained out of an abundance of friendly loyalty, but because doing so is beneficial to national interests. In this case an exceptionally close relationship with Putin’s Russia was assumed to bring China certain significant benefits, extending beyond mere political and ideological alignment. …
China is … run by a Leninist political party that firmly believes power ultimately grows out of the barrel of a gun. China, that is to say, fundamentally respects strength and is contemptuous of weakness. Russia was therefore long worthy of sincere respect because, while it’s Soviet glory days were behind it and its economy backwards and puny, it retained a military uniformly judged to be among the foremost in the world. In truth, from China’s perspective it was this, and almost this alone, that made Russia a great power worthy of standing as an equal in the councils of the world — a notion Putin himself went out of his way to encourage by staking his reputation on having remade Russia into a formidably martial state.
This martial Russia stood to be a very useful friend/asset for China, in multiple ways, merely by sitting around and looking menacing. In the event of a war over Taiwan, or any kind of regional crisis or U.S.-China conflict, Russia could act as an immensely dangerous spoiler for the United States and its allies. …
This mutual fantasy has now been shattered. Far from being poised to overrun Europe, Russia’s Potemkin army proved incapable of even making it through the rag-tag volunteers of Kiev, with their consumer drones and yoga matts. Even if it “wins” and ends up with a few more bites out of Ukraine, it no longer credibly poses any serious conventional threat to NATO. And while the United States will have to stay in Europe for a while yet to soothe local anxieties …, it will soon be free to turn eastward with far less anxiety.
For Beijing, this necessarily changes its whole strategic map. … Russia’s shameful display on the battlefield will prove the original sin that transforms China’s view of it from one of respect into one of thinly veiled contempt. … It took less than two weeks for Russia to begin begging China for arms and assistance. China has not sent them. If it is no longer a serious military power then Russia has been reduced to just another third-world oil exporter — like a big Eurasian Nigeria, but with terrible demographics. In the end, China will begin to treat it as such.
One battle Russia is winning is the value of its currency. Contra to Biden’s confident prediction that the ruble would be pushed down to 200 to the USD, the ruble is now at 71 to the USD, comfortably above its pre-war level of 80 rubles to a USD.