How Putin’s Game Ends

Marcus Yam/LA Times
Julia Ioffe
April 1, 2022

Thursday marked five weeks since the Russian army crossed the border into Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s dreams of a lightning conquest of the cradle of Russian civilization went up in smoke. When Ukrainian soldiers ambushed columns of Russian tanks, they torched not just the military hardware, but the dress uniforms that Russian soldiers carried with them for the planned victory parade in Kyiv. And yet, victory for either side remains elusive. 

These days, the question asked most frequently in Washington and in Russia and foreign policy circles is: How does this end? No one, myself included, has a good answer—or much of an answer at all. This week brought more talks between Ukrainian and Russian delegations, first in Istanbul on Tuesday, then by video conference on Friday. The negotiations on Tuesday, in particular, seemed to produce something that many, especially in the West, were eager to cling to as a ray of hope: The Russian deputy defense minister announced that Russian troops would be withdrawing from the areas around Kyiv to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.” The Ukrainian delegation, in turn, put neutrality on the table—that is, giving up the dream of joining NATO—and suggested tabling discussing the status of Crimea for 15 years. The Russian side seemed to toy with the idea of dropping their demands that Ukraine make Russian one of the country’s official languages. 

It seemed like a hopeful sign—or one that was better than no sign at all—but the Biden administration was quick to tamp down expectations. “There is what Russia says and what Russia does,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken cautioned. It was a wise warning: the Russian government has yet to keep its word. After all, Russian officials claimed all winter that they had no intention of invading Ukraine. And who can forget Putin’s declaration that thousands of Russian troops would be returning to their bases from the Ukrainian border on February 15—nine days before Russia invaded.

And indeed, by Thursday, NATO announced that it was seeing evidence that the Russian army was regrouping, rather than withdrawing, around Kyiv. As the week drew to a close, fierce battles continued to rage around Kyiv. It was hardly surprising. To those of us who watched Russia’s behavior during the Syrian peace talks, as well as the Minsk talks, we knew exactly what this was: Russia creating an elaborate simulacrum of diplomacy as cover for pressing forward militarily. “Russia has failed to commit to anything they’ve said thus far,” one U.S. government source told me. “We should recall that 37 days ago the Russians said this was a training exercise. Our expectation is that the Russians are not interested in any kind of real negotiation.”

There are other reasons to be cautious. “I would treat this very skeptically,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst with the Carnegie Center of Moscow. “It’s too early to discuss whether the two sides are getting closer.” 

She’s right. So far, there’s little reason for either side to compromise. Yes, it has been a bloody and traumatic five weeks, for Ukrainians first and foremost, but also it has only been five weeks, a blink in wartime. Both sides clearly still think they can win this thing, which isn’t a great mindset for compromise. And the question of what winning would even look like is another sticky issue; it is the paramount question that is being agonized over in Washington, Kyiv, and Moscow.

On the Ukrainian side, there is a concern that Volodymyr Zelensky is simply unable to offer the Russians, say, the Donbas and Crimea in exchange for an end to the war. There is so much anger (understandably) and distrust (even more so) toward Russia that such a deal might get him run out of power. Galvanized by the war, Ukrainians now want total victory: that is, driving out all Russian forces from every square inch of Ukrainian territory, including the Donbas and Crimea. Offering the regions up as part of a deal only five weeks into a war where the Ukrainian army seems to have seized the momentum would be political suicide. Nor would it be a guarantee that Putin won’t decide that he wants more land after all, and send his troops right back in.

There is a similar dynamic occurring on the Russian side. While Russia does not have a political system where Putin faces any accountability, the Kremlin does obsess over public opinion polls and keeps zealous control over the media to make sure the public’s opinions are not formed spontaneously. But now it seems that Putin has become a prisoner of his own success. As Stanovaya and others have pointed out, the news of compromise from the Russian delegation to Istanbul triggered a massive outcry from Putin loyalists and the extreme nationalist wing in Russian society that has been encouraged to flourish in the last decade. Russian social media networks lit up with rage that Vladimir Medinsky, one of the Russian negotiators, was selling out Russia and its dreams of empire by acceding to anything in these talks. Even Ramzan Kadyrov, the theatrically cruel and deranged leader of Chechnya, who rarely disagrees with Putin in public, asked the Russian president “to let us finish what we started.” “We warriors do not consent to these negotiations and to these agreements,” he said in a video address. 

The Far Right Red Line

Earlier this week, I spoke to Andranik Migranyan, a star of the Russian foreign policy establishment and a close friend of the Russian foreign minister. I’ve spoken to Migranyan for years about Russian foreign policy and, though he has always been passionate in his views and extremely colorful in his expressions, I’ve never heard him so agitated and angry. He did not think there should be negotiations at all but he could see the logic for why they should be happening: If they didn’t, he said, “Russia would’ve been accused that it doesn’t want to negotiate.” That is, the negotiations were clearly for show, to tick a box. 

“It is my personal hope that the negotiations don’t succeed because anything they produce will be unacceptable in Russia,” Migranyan told me. “This is an all or nothing situation.” Migranyan explained his vision of victory to me: Russia had to fight until Ukraine was reduced to a landlocked rump state in the west, nestled beside Romania and Poland. First, Migranyan went on, Russia would retake the entirety of the Donbas, as well as Mykolaiv and Odessa and the coasts of the Azov and Black Seas. “This would form Novoroissya, stretching from Odessa to Transnistria,” he said, referring to the area between Moldova and Ukraine where Putin fomented a frozen conflict. The new government of Novorossiya, Migranyan explained, would also include the cities of Kharkiv and Dnipro, known in Russian as Dnepropetrovsk. “In the central part of Ukraine, after we take Kyiv, Poltava, we will create a government entity called Kievan Rus. Then Belarus, Novorossiya, and Kievan Rus would join Russia in a union state,” he said, turning ebullient. 

I think he heard me choke on the other end of the line because he added, “Isn’t it beautiful?” When I asked him if the people living in these places get a say, or if the Kremlin would simply make these decisions for them, Migranyan scoffed and compared Ukrainians to Germans living under Nazi rule. “They’ve all been brainwashed and they need to be reeducated,” Migranyan spat. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t ask anyone.”

The stakes, in Migranyan’s view, were now enormous. “Either Russia will emerge from this war as a serious victor and will play an even more important role in the world, or it won’t and Russia will be the world’s doormat,” he explained. “It is an existential dilemma.” It is why, he says, Russia should fight to the end and win, no matter what. “This isn’t a war with Ukraine,” he added. “This is a war with the entire Western world. That’s why Russia can’t lose.” 

Z Is for Victory

There is emerging evidence that, after the initial shock and despair of a poorly planned invasion, Russians are now rallying around their flag and their president. According to several Russian polls (which are inevitably hard to trust, as I’ve previously noted), Putin has become more popular since he started this war, not less. The Levada Center shows Putin’s approval rating spiking from 65 percent in December to 83 percent now. And even as Western sanctions decimate the Russian economy, more Russians than ever think things are trending in the right direction, from 48 percent in December to 69 percent now. Again, polling is hard enough in the United States, which has free (if not totally fair) political and media ecosystems, and it is harder still in an authoritarian system that has unleashed a vicious crackdown on any anti-war sentiment. 

But the polls are not the only evidence. Farida Rustamova, one of the very best and well-sourced Russian journalists of our generation, who is now in exile, wrote a terrifying piece (here in English) about some of these dynamics. Many in the Russian economic and political elites, she writes, were initially horrified by the invasion and devastated by what Western sanctions would mean for their livelihoods and lifestyles. These were the people whom the West had hoped to peel away from Putin by imposing the sanctions. But now, according to Rustamova, they are turning against the West, feeling offended by the punishment and defensive of their country, and their president. “Russian society, my sources tell me, has also rallied in support of Putin’s actions under the pressure of propaganda and under the consequences of sanctions,” Rustamova wrote. “In a situation where, as it seems to them, the whole world is against Russia, its citizens “will hate the West and consolidate.” 

One source who is very familiar with the thinking in the Russian government told me that, though “there is a lot of splintering of the elites and a lot of people feel misled and betrayed, they feel misled and betrayed for different reasons.” The source added that “Putin’s supporters are devastated and feel a little betrayed [by the announcement at Istanbul]. The commander in chief made a commitment to go all the way.” Despite some of the grumbling and resignations we’ve seen coming out of the Russian government and state media, the source said, “I think that for a lot of these people, as ridiculous as it seems, this was a labor of love.”

In the first days of the war, the West was buoyed by anti-war protestors all over Russia, some 15,000 of whom have been arrested since February 24. People here hoped, as they always do when Russians protest and despite all evidence, that these brave souls would sweep Putin from power. But the dynamic inside Russia is starting to look very different. “I think Putin is afraid not of anti-war protests but pro-war protests,” Stanovaya told me. “This constituency is not huge, it’s marginal, but it’s radical and it’s real. And Putin will have to deal with these people. Russian state TV has created it and there are now many people who really believe in it. Putin inspired these people. And now they see him as a potential traitor.”

As for how this ends, the U.S. government source told me that, despite Russia’s early setbacks on the battlefield, there is still a lot of manpower and materiel that the Kremlin could throw at the problem. “The Russians have a massive military machine,” the source said. “We should make no mistake, they have the combat power to press this forward.” Added Stanovaya, “I don’t see Russia reexamining its earlier position. I would leave some probability that Putin will still want to finish the job. He may explain the failure of the military operation in different ways, but he hasn’t changed his starting assumption that he is historically right. He thinks that Ukraine has to stop its existence in the form it existed before February 24.”