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By Thomas L. Friedman
I have not written much about the war in Ukraine lately because so little has changed strategically since the first few months of this conflict, when three overarching facts pretty much drove everything — and still do.
Fact No. 1: As I wrote at the outset, when a war of this magnitude begins, the key question you ask yourself as a foreign affairs columnist is very simple: Where should I be? Should I be in Kyiv, the Donbas, Crimea, Moscow, Warsaw, Berlin, Brussels or Washington?
And from the start of this war, there has been only one place to be to understand its timing and direction — and that’s in Vladimir Putin’s head. Unfortunately, Putin doesn’t grant visas to his brain.
That’s a real problem because this war emerged entirely from there — with, we now know, almost no input from his cabinet or military commanders — and certainly with no mass urging from the Russian people. So Russia will be stopped in Ukraine, whether it’s winning or losing, only when Putin decides to stop.
Which leads to fact No. 2: Putin never had a Plan B. It’s now obvious that he thought he was going to waltz into Kyiv, seize it in a week, install a lackey as president, tuck Ukraine into his pocket and put to an end any further European Union, NATO or Western cultural expansion toward Russia. He would then cast his shadow across all of Europe.
This leads to fact No. 3: Putin has put himself in a situation where he can’t win, can’t lose and can’t stop. There’s no way he can seize control of all of Ukraine anymore. But at the same time, he can’t afford to be defeated, after all the Russian lives and treasure he has expended. So he can’t stop.
To put it differently, because Putin never had a Plan B, he’s defaulted to a punitive, often indiscriminate rocketing of Ukrainian towns and civilian infrastructure — a grinding war of attrition — with the hope that he can somehow drain enough blood from Ukrainians, and instill enough exhaustion in Kyiv’s Western allies, that they give him a big enough slice of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine he can sell to the Russian people as a great victory.
Putin’s Plan B is to disguise that Putin’s Plan A has failed. If this military operation had an honest name, it would be called Operation Save My Face.
Which makes this one of the sickest, most senseless wars in modern times — a leader destroying another country’s civilian infrastructure until it gives him enough cover to hide the fact that he’s been a towering fool.
You can see from Putin’s Victory Day speech in Moscow on Tuesday that he is now grasping for any rationale to justify a war he started out of his personal fantasy that Ukraine is not a real country but part of Russia. He claimed his invasion was provoked by Western “globalists and elites” who “talk about their exclusivity, pit people and split society, provoke bloody conflicts and upheavals, sow hatred, Russophobia, aggressive nationalism and destroy traditional family values that make a person a person.”
Wow. Putin invaded Ukraine to preserve Russian family values. Who knew? That’s a leader struggling to explain to his people why he started a war with a puny neighbor that he says is not a real country.
You might ask, why does a dictator like Putin feel he needs a disguise? Can’t he make his people believe whatever he wants?
I don’t think so. If you look at his behavior, it seems that Putin is quite frightened today by two subjects: arithmetic and Russian history.
To understand why these subjects frighten him, you need to first consider the atmosphere enveloping him — something neatly captured, as it happens, in lyrics from the song “Everybody Talks” by one of my favorite rock groups, Neon Trees. The key refrain is:
Hey, baby, won’t you look my way?
I can be your new addiction.
Hey, baby, what you got to say?
All you’re giving me is fiction.
I’m a sorry sucker, and this happens all the time.
I find out that everybody talks.
Everybody talks, everybody talks.
It started with a whisper.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as a foreign affairs writer reporting from autocratic countries is that no matter how tightly controlled a place is, no matter how brutal and iron-fisted its dictator, EVERYBODY TALKS.
They know who is stealing, who is cheating, who is lying, who is having an affair with whom. It starts with a whisper and often stays there, but everybody talks.
Putin clearly knows this, too. He knows that even if he gets a few more kilometers of eastern Ukraine and holds Crimea, the minute he stops this war, his people will all do the cruel arithmetic on his Plan B — starting with subtraction.
The White House reported last week that an estimated 100,000 Russian fighters have been killed or wounded in Ukraine in just the past five months and roughly 200,000 killed or wounded since Putin started this war in February 2022.
That is a big number of casualties — even in a big country — and you can see that Putin is worried that his people are talking about it, because, beyond criminalizing any form of dissent, in April he rushed through a new law cracking down on draft dodging. Now anyone who doesn’t show up will face restrictions on banking, selling property, even getting a driver’s license.
Putin would not be going to such lengths if he was not fearful that, despite his best efforts, everyone was whispering about how badly the war is going and how to avoid serving there.
Read the recent essay in The Washington Post by Leon Aron, a historian of Putin’s Russia and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, about Putin’s visit in March to the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
“Two days after the International Criminal Court charged Putin with war crimes and issued a warrant for his arrest,” Aron wrote, “the Russian president came to Mariupol for a few hours. He was filmed stopping by the ‘Nevsky microdistrict,’ inspecting a new apartment and listening for a few minutes to the effusively grateful occupants. As he was leaving, a barely audible voice is heard on the video, crying out from a distance: ‘Eto vsyo nepravda!’ — ‘It’s all lies!’”
Aron told me that the Russian media later scrubbed “It’s all lies” from the audio, but the fact that it had been left in there may have been a subversive act by someone in the official Russian media hierarchy. Everybody talks.
Which leads to the other thing Putin knows: “The gods of Russian history are extremely unforgiving of military defeat,” Aron said. In the modern era, “when a Russian leader ends a war in a clear defeat — or with no win — usually there is a change of regime. We saw that after the first Crimean War, after the Russo-Japanese war, after Russia’s setbacks in World War I, after Khrushchev’s retreat from Cuba in 1962 and after Brezhnev and company’s Afghanistan quagmire, which hastened Gorbachev’s perestroika-and-glasnost revolution. The Russian people, for all their renowned patience, will forgive a lot of things — but not military defeat.”
It’s for these reasons that Aron, who just finished a book about Putin’s Russia, argues that this Ukraine conflict is far from over and could get a lot worse before it is.
“There are now two ways for Putin to end this war he cannot win and cannot walk away from,” Aron said. “One is to continue until Ukraine is bled dry and/or the Ukraine fatigue sets in in the West.”
And the other, he argued, “is to somehow force a direct confrontation with the U.S. — bring us to the precipice of an all-out strategic nuclear exchange — and then step back and propose to a scared West an overall settlement, which would include a neutral, disarmed Ukraine and his holding on to the Crimea and Donbas.”
It’s impossible to get into Putin’s head and predict his next move, but color me worried. Because what we do know, from Putin’s actions, is that he knows his Plan A has failed. And he will now do anything to produce a Plan B to justify the terrible losses that he has piled up in the name of a country where everybody talks and where defeated leaders don’t retire peacefully.
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