While pressure builds on President Zelenskyy to deliver some form of progress with the Ukrainian offensive, he is not the only leader under pressure.
Away from the battlefields, there is growing evidence that President Putin‘s authority and support base is waning as cracks start to form in the foundations of his regime.
Is there a whiff of blood in the air around Moscow, and will Putin’s evident troubles provide Ukraine (and the international community) the opportunity to capitalise?
Although Putin would have felt emboldened by Russia‘s relatively simple success in annexing Crimea in 2014, he could never have imagined that, nearly 18 months into his invasion of Ukraine, Russia could have become embroiled in such an attritional and damaging conflict.
Putin’s ambitions to halt the expansion of NATO, restore Russian “greatness”, and grow the Russian economy, have all failed to materialise. Instead, NATO has expanded, Russia has become a pariah on the global stage, and its economy is suffering under a mass of Western sanctions.
Although the Russian population is fed a Kremlin-controlled diet of Russia-friendly news, the Russian elite – whose support Putin requires – are feeling the growing impact of the sanctions.
Oil and gas revenues remain strong, but with over one million fighting-age Russian males having fled to avoid conscription, the Russian economy is contracting. And the elite will also be aware that Putin’s indictment by the International Criminal Court will have enduing impacts on Russia’s ability to recover once the conflict is over.
Putin is rapidly becoming the problem that Russia needs to solve.
Following Yevgeny Prigozhin‘s abortive coup attempt, Putin will be concerned at the apparent ease with which he was able to advance on Moscow. Did he act alone or were his actions a barometer of wide discontent?
Authoritarian leaders generally do not enjoy a comfortable retirement – they usually suffer a swift and often brutal end as a successor sweeps to power. But, Putin cannot afford a widespread purge for fear of fanning the flames of a further coup, leaving him struggling to know who he can trust.
Russia’s limited military successes to date have been delivered by the Wagner mercenaries, but they can no longer be trusted by Putin. Russia is on the back foot in Ukraine, but Putin will also need to bolster his domestic security, and retaining his grip on power will be a priority.
This all places increasing pressure on his limited military resources, forcing compromise and prioritisation, all of which risks diluting military forces in Ukraine.
A way out – with losing face
At the start of the war Putin probably felt that time was on Russia’s side – the longer the war continued the greater the chance that Western unity and resolve would dissipate.
However, now time appears to favour Ukraine – Russia continues to lose ground in Ukraine and Putin probably needs to find a way out of the conflict, without losing face, to consolidate his loosening grip on power.
That might go some way to explaining why he has pulled out of the Black Sea grain deal and targeted Ukrainian grain – in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention and international law. By reducing the global supply of grain, Putin has driven up prices: this will not hurt the West but will increase Russian profits as the world’s leading exporter of grain.
However, it might also prompt the global community to find a way to avert a global famine disaster and bring international pressure to bear on both sides in the conflict to negotiate. Putin would probably be wary of proactively calling for a ceasefire – he would be seen as doing so from a position of weakness.
However, if the international community obliged him to negotiate, he could exploit the opportunity to conclude the war in Ukraine, perhaps retain Crimea and elements of the Donbas, cede the land bridge, and thus declare victory in his “special military operation” – at least to a domestic audience.
A pyrrhic victory from the West’s perspective, but a lifeline perhaps for a beleaguered Putin.
Away from the battlefields, many analysts are now predicting that Putin’s days are numbered. His unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine has diminished Russia’s credibility, damaged its economy, and increased Russia’s vulnerability by exposing the woeful state of its military capability.
It is more important than ever that the West holds its nerve and composure, maintains international pressure on the Putin regime and continues to support Ukraine’s battle to expel the Russian invaders.
Western concerns about the lack of Ukrainian progress on the battlefield are justified, but Ukrainian strategic victory in this conflict might not only be predicated on battlefield progress.
Putin has probably already lost this war, and his future is looking increasingly untenable.