A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 21, 2022

Are There Credible Signs That Putin Might Be Reassessing His Ukraine Plan?

A respected retired officer speaks pessimistically on TV about beating the Ukrainians; the Russian Defense Minister and Chief of General Staff answer calls from their US counterparts for the first time since the invasion; and commentary about what a joke the annual remembrance day parade was was allowed to stand. 

This probably does not mean Putin is going to concede or that he will stop bombing Ukrainian cities. But it may mean he is willing to take more more time before he makes his next move, hoping that concerns about financial markets, grain shipments and other economic impacts spike more talk of appeasement from the New York Times and their fellow hand wringers. JL

Tom Nichols reports in The Atlantic, image Oryx:

The Russians now admit that they’re up against a dedicated and unified Ukrainian society and army, and that the Ukrainians have better training and better weapons than their Russian opponents. It could be preparation of the Russian public for an outcome that isn’t the total victory they were promised. What I will not expect is that Russia will scale back the violence; Putin won’t want to stop killing Ukrainians for their defiance. But he may have to settle for turning this war of conquest into yet another frozen conflict, where he feeds Russian boys into the meat grinder while pondering his next move. How long Russians - and the Russian military - will put up with that is anyone’s guess.

We are now three months into the biggest European war since the defeat of Hitler, and a country of 40 million Ukrainians, attacked along multiple axes of advance by a numerically superior Russia, is holding its own.

That’s the good news, and perhaps the only good news. (Well, along with the fact that this conflict has not blossomed into a general European or even global war.) The armies sent to Ukraine by Russian President Vladmir Putin continue to murder, rape, pillage, and destroy, all in the name of … well, no one but Putin is quite sure. But there are signs that some kind of Russian reassessment might be underway.

I don’t want to raise any false hopes here. Be assured that Putin is going to go on hammering away at Ukrainian cities and infrastructure with artillery and missiles. But his plan of capturing Ukraine whole has failed, and his forces have now lost the battles of Kyiv and Kharkiv. They’ve won—if “winning” means anything at the moment—the battle of Mariupol, by reducing that besieged city to rubble. The onslaught is not going to end anytime soon.

Nonetheless, three things have made me wonder what’s going on in the Kremlin. I am connecting these pieces of data by pure speculation at this point, but taken together they seem to be a pattern. One is Putin’s Victory Day speech, another is the phone call between U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, and the last is a striking Russian television appearance by an incisive critic of the war, retired Russian Colonel Mikhail Khodaryonok.

Let’s look at each of them.

First, the worst did not happen on Victory Day, which is (so far) a relief. I was pretty worried, based on some concerns floating around British and U.S. intelligence circles, that Putin could declare war on Ukraine and NATO and anyone else that he thinks has frustrated his hare-brained scheming in Ukraine. Instead, we got something of a damp squib of a Victory Day speech, in which Putin whined that he had no choice but to act against an imminent Ukrainian-Western-NATO threat.

No one believes this laugh-out-loud explanation in Russia or anywhere else. Putin himself probably doesn’t believe it, but what else could he say at this point?

Second, after months of American efforts to reach the Russian high command, a senior Russian defense official has finally answered the phone. Washington and Moscow have managed to keep communications open at lower levels, but neither Putin nor his top defense officials have been responding to requests for a discussion. Apparently, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has from time to time been in touch with his Russian opposite number, Nikolai Patrushev. There is a “deconfliction” line open so that U.S. and Russian forces don’t accidentally trip over each other (but the Russians aren’t answering that one often either). Putin clearly issued orders months ago that any other calls would go right to voicemail.

Last week, however, Secretary Austin got through to Minister Shoigu. This is interesting for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that a rumor went around in the British tabloids that Shoigu was supposedly sidelined with a serious heart attack. (Russia denied the story.) But for whatever reason, there have been no senior Russian–American defense contacts until now.

(And until this week, I wondering about the Chief of the Russian General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov. Rumors abound that he was fired, and then not fired but injured. None of this is confirmed, although we now know he went to the front lines to try to unscrew some of the Russian military’s problems. But now he and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, have spoken as well. This is why rumors aren’t very useful. I’m not going to discuss the “Putin is dying” rumors, either. He might be very sick, but sick Russian leaders can hang in there for a long time.)

The Austin–Shoigu call was perfunctory, at least from the Pentagon readout. Austin said hello, that it’s good to talk, and that there should be a cease-fire.

By the way, Austin’s call for a cease-fire should undermine the idea that the Biden administration wants to keep the war going to weaken Russia. On this, Biden can’t win with critics of his conduct of the war: If the administration keeps the arms flowing, it’s protracting the war, but calls for a cease-fire make a lot of people angry because they see it as appeasing Putin. But this is a discussion for another day.

Anyway, the important fact is that the call happened at all. Did Putin relent and allow Shoigu to pick up the phone? Did Shoigu do it of his own accord and just not bother to ask? Are Putin and Shoigu together playing some sort of game of “good cop, bad cop” so that they can settle in with their current territorial gains?

I don’t know. But I know that it’s better, and safer, if the secretary of defense  and the defense minister (and their two top military chiefs) have an open line of communication, and those calls are a good start.

Finally, there was Khodaryonok’s appearance on Russian television a few days ago. This is not his first time in public; Khodaryonok is a well-known security commentator and he was on Russian TV a few weeks ago. He is a sober and stoic critic of the war who stated, in very matter-of-fact terms, why Russia is losing. Even before the war, he laid out why Putin’s plan was likely to fail in an article he published in Russia, and now he’s being proven right in spades.

On the Russian television show 60 Minutes, Khodaryonok pulled no punches. He told the panel, including the reliably pro-Putin host Olga Skabeyeva, that Ukraine had better morale, better weapons, and a better reason to fight. (Skabeyeva tried to offer some token arguments, but she and the other participants mostly just listened in sullen silence.)

“The main deficiency of our military-political position,” Khodaryonok said, “is that we are in full geopolitical isolation, and however much we would hate to admit this, virtually the entire world is against us.” Russians should not comfort themselves with false “informational sedatives” about the state of the Ukrainian military, which he described as a nation in arms that wasn’t going to give up. He waved away Russia’s nuclear threats against Finland and Sweden as mere saber-rattling.

“The situation for us,” he warned, “is clearly going to get worse.”

So why are the Russians letting him go on TV? When I first mentioned this on Twitter, responses were filled with predictable jokes about poison tea and falls from windows, but this is the wrong way to think about Russian television. No one goes on a program like Russia’s 60 Minutes and surprises the hosts; the producers and everyone in that studio knew what Khodaryonok was going to say. He is not some fringe figure and his views were widely known before that moment.

If he was on Russian television, it’s because someone allowed him to be there.

But who, and why? I don’t know. Again, it could be a head fake: Khodaryonok isn’t kidding around, but maybe the regime allowed him to be on television as an example of Soviet-style “managed dissent,” where a critic of the war blows off some steam and makes people in Russia feel like they’ve been heard. (Note, by the way, that Khodaryonok doesn’t criticize Putin, just the whole idea of a quick defeat of Ukraine.)

Or it could be that there are people among the Russian elite who want to lower the public’s expectations after three months of extremist and unhinged cheerleading from leading Russian media figures. It could be someone sending a message to Putin.

I hate to leave you with such imprecision, but until there’s more data, it could be any of these things, or something else.

But taken together, this is still a striking change. All the confident and screechy bloviation we heard a few months ago from the Kremlin about a single Russian people and the great holy work of uniting Ukraine and Russia against the decadent Russian traitors in league with Ukrainian Nazis is gone. The Russians, including Khodaryonok, now admit that they’re up against a dedicated and unified Ukrainian society and army, and that the Ukrainians have better training and better weapons than their Russian opponents.

The Russians, of course, are trying to explain their failures by saying that they’re fighting NATO. They have to say this, because they know they’re fighting Ukrainians—and losing, and this is far more humiliating than losing to the United States and NATO. This, combined with sanctions, means the war fever Putin whipped up three months ago is cooling—and getting colder by the moment.

Does this new realism mean that Putin is going to lay off the wild-eyed rhetoric and escalatory threats? Maybe. Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO, and the Kremlin shrugged. Everyone in Moscow knows this is a diplomatic defeat of the first order; even in the darkest days of the Cold War, the Finns and Swedes cautiously remained culturally and politically pro-West but militarily nonaligned. Putin has done something no Soviet leader ever managed to achieve: the nearly complete unification of Europe against Russia.

But it’s one thing to wave away the long timetable of Finland and Sweden joining NATO. Is there any hope that the Russians will begin to wind down this war?

So far, there’s no evidence for that. I’ll be watching for more diplomatic openings and high-level contacts, along with any possible preparation of the Russian public for an outcome that isn’t the total victory they were promised. What I will not expect is that Russia will scale back the violence; Putin isn’t a big believer in cease-fires or humanitarian corridors. He won’t want to stop killing Ukrainians for their defiance. I’m not going to use the term off-ramp because he doesn’t believe in those, either.

But Putin may have to settle for turning this war of conquest into yet another frozen conflict, where he feeds Russian boys into the meat grinder while pondering his next idiotic move. How long Russians—and the Russian military—will put up with that is anyone’s guess.


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