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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

In 2023, Putin Has These Three Choices In Ukraine

Victory is not on the list....

Putin posing in front of Russian soldiers

RUSSIA, Rostov-on-Don, December 31, 2022. President Vladimir Putin delivers his traditional televised New Year's Address to the Nation.

Russian Defence Ministry / TASS via ZUMA Press
Pavel Lokshin

It has been more than 300 days since Putin invaded Ukraine. He has not achieved his aim of forcing a regime change in Kyiv, and Russia has recently suffered serious setbacks. Putin has many options – some of which could prove dangerous.

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Since Ukrainian troops liberated the area around Kharkiv and retook Kherson, the Russian army has come under such pressure that criticism of the military campaign is beginning to spring up even within Russia, where free speech is tightly controlled. Of course, these voices are calling not for peace, but more war.

Up until now, Putin has considered the demands of pro-war figures including Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the Wagner Group mercenary company — but only to a point.


The attacks launched on Ukrainian infrastructure since autumn 2022 represent a new strategy for Putin, but they are also a sign that the Russian army is failing, as there have been no notable victories against Ukrainian troops. In the coming year, Putin will have to decide on a strategy.

Will Russia choose all-out war?

If Putin wants to silence internal critics, he could choose all-out war. This scenario would see him placing the Russian economy on a war footing, accepting the most severe Western sanctions and rolling out mass mobilization — with the aim of permanently dividing up Ukrainian territory and forcing a regime change in Kyiv.

The "special operation" would be officially referred to as a "war," and Western weapons traveling through NATO territory to Ukraine would be seen as legitimate targets.

So far, the Russian people have accepted international sanctions and so-called partial mobilization of at least 300,000 men and women. So why not go further? Russians seem to have bought into state propaganda that paints the war as an act of defense against NATO.

Putin could transform the "Great Patriotic War" — which is how he has been selling the war in Ukraine to the Russian people — from a propaganda slogan into a bloody reality, in order to strengthen his hold on power and earn his place in the history books.

But this would be risky. The Russian army is already suffering from serious problems with organization and logistics. Introducing hundreds of thousands of newly mobilized troops at once would bring the military administration to its knees and cause instability at home.

Judging by the low numbers of soldiers enlisting voluntarily (around 20,000 – just 6% of those mobilized), it seems that the majority of Russians have no appetite for a "people's war" against a neighboring country.

And Putin himself is wary of allowing the Russian people to see how serious the situation is. While Ukrainian President Zelensky is a regular visitor to the front line, Putin has not appeared there at all.

Likelihood: low.

Russian solders in the snow

December 2022, Belarus. Signal units of Russia's Western Military District training to fight in Belarus.

Russian Defence Ministry/ TASS via ZUMA Press

Will Russia retreat?

For Ukraine — and for Russia — a Russian retreat would be the best option.

Within Russia, it would mean a victory for technocrats such as Elvira Nabiullina, governor of the Central Bank of Russia, who has been responsible for funding Putin’s war since Feb. 24 but has shown little enthusiasm for it.

Nabiullina and other technocrats have been calling for the conflict to at least be suspended. They would see a Russian retreat as a victory for common sense.

The West’s resolute support for Ukraine, the Russian army’s uncertain prospects, low morale among Russian soldiers and other problems at the front – everything is conspiring to make Putin question whether his gamble is still worth it.

If Putin is truly concerned about his country's future — and not just clinging to power — it would be in his interest to open Russia up to Western technology and investment once again. A retreat would also allow conversations about normalizing bilateral relations with Ukraine and the West to begin.

But that decision could be dangerous for Putin. Of course, the Russian propaganda machine could try to sell this humiliation to the people as a success. The war in Ukraine would not be the first armed conflict in history to see both sides claim victory.

But within Russia, this would be uncharted territory for Putin. As an autocratic leader, he relies on his image as a strongman who stands up to the West. It's unclear whether his political career would be able to recover from admitting defeat in Ukraine, and he's not keen to find out. And even if the people might forgive him for pulling troops out — even from Crimea — senior officers in the secret service would not.

Likelihood: very low.

Will Ukraine be a war of attrition?

Russia's war in Ukraine has already lasted more than 300 days — and it could easily drag on for 600 or more.

Russia is still far from defeated. Instead of taking the politically risky step of mobilizing the entire country, Putin could simply continue on his current path.

This scenario would see the Russian army forcing Ukraine to commit large numbers of units to fighting in the Donbas, even if that leads to heavy losses for Russian troops. Drone, rocket and cruise missile attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure would continue.

Behind this scenario would be Putin's calculation that his country's financial resources and the Russian people’s ability to endure hardship and loss could outlast the patience of Ukrainians and their Western allies.

From a domestic perspective, this approach would simply mean carrying on as before. The Russian people could go on pretending that their country is not truly at war.

The secret service agents and hardliners would be frustrated that Putin was not going in guns blazing, but ordinary Russians could continue to waver between willful ignorance, believing state propaganda and occasional protests.

This scenario wouldn't demand great sacrifices from anyone in Russia, and it offers the chance of a positive outcome for Putin — as long as Ukrainian troops don't make any more significant gains.

Likelihood: high.


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