This week marks six months into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric war against Ukraine. Our CIA must be assessing with great concern the trajectory of the bloodiest land war in Europe since the Second World War, and its impact on Putin’s regime. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine has churned out a litany of pretexts for Putin’s "special military operation," but only to conceal that he is at war with democracy to defend his regime security, preserve his legacy, and set the stage for a successor to follow his monstrous path.
A Western-oriented Ukraine focused on economic and strategic integration with Europe and the U.S. is an existential threat to Putin’s kleptocratic autocracy. Nothing threatens Putin more than a democratic Ukraine, with its sizable Russian-speaking population, which would serve as a beacon of hope to the Russian citizens whose human rights Putin ruthlessly suppresses. Putin falsely labels Ukrainian democrats as "fascists" and deliberately conflates what scares him most – liberty, freedom, and democracy – with non-existent military threats. Painting Russia as a besieged fortress only he can defend, Putin dials back his propaganda machine to 1941 when the enemy was at the gates, and only Russia’s military and Intelligence Services could be counted on to defend the motherland.
The Pentagon reportedly assesses Russian forces have suffered at least 80,000 casualties and lost at least 4,000 armored vehicles. Putin is now relying on Wagner Group and other mercenaries to keep up the fight while his military has been forced to deploy Soviet era munitions and tanks because supplies have been seriously degraded and depleted.
But Putin’s propaganda is holding in spite of a poorly devised and executed battle plan, which failed to topple the Zelenskyy government and has resulted in a costly war of attrition. The West’s sanctions have been nowhere nearly potent enough to induce a change in Putin’s strategy. Russia’s energy exports this year have increased almost 40 percent to over $300 billion. NATO provision of military support has kept Ukraine in the fight but not been enough to turn the tide of the war.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis only grows worse by the day as does the intensity of shocks to the global economy. And fighting at and around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant threatens another humanitarian catastrophe.
There are at least three key transformational developments resulting from Putin’s ghastly war, which indicate the Kremlin is poised to stay in the fight for the long haul and negotiate only on its own terms.
First, Biden administration officials have rightly emphasized the value of Finnish and Swedish NATO membership, which will make the alliance stronger and more able to defend against any future Russian aggression. But seeing the world through Putin’s twisted KGB eyes, we should expect the Kremlin to use this latest round of NATO expansion to bolster its claims of a NATO’s military threat to Russia, even though NATO is a defensive alliance. Putin’s goal is to spew his propaganda chimera to bolster his regime security.
Second, Putin has begun shifting Russia into China’s orbit as an economically subservient junior partner increasingly reliant on the Chinese market for its hydrocarbon exports. Even if for now Russia has been forced to rely on its own dwindling supplies of military equipment and Iranian drones, the signs of an increasingly close alliance are ominous. China and Russia stepped up their joint military exercises to boost their interoperability.
Third, Putin has aggressively turned the screws on repressing domestic dissent while dialing up the Kremlin’s control over Russia’s intelligence services including by using FSB Chief of foreign intelligence Sergey Beseda, as a scapegoat for Russia’s intelligence failures at the start of the war. Russian Intelligence services have been cowered into telling Putin what he wants to hear rather than what he needs to know. They disseminate Putin’s propaganda, but they know the truth about the extent to which Putin’s war in Ukraine has degraded Russia’s economic, military and strategic position in the world.
At this point however, there is no indication Putin’s inner circle believes that betting on Putin is a losing proposition. And that’s why there is no end in sight to Putin’s strategy of raining down hell on Ukraine, which sits on the geopolitical fault line between dictatorship and democracy.
The question then for the Biden administration is what additional policy measures will it undertake with the greatest alacrity in coordination with our NATO allies, favorably to change the trajectory and successful conclusion of this destructive and perilous war.