Russia-Ukraine war: What would a victory look like now to Putin?

Having failed to take over Ukraine, what are President Putin’s military prospects now? Three defence experts weigh in.

People walk in Red Square where municipal workers install decorations for the celebration of Victory Day in Moscow, Russia.
People walk in Red Square where municipal workers install decorations ahead of the annual Victory Day parade to commemorate the Nazi surrender of World War II. Ahead of this symbolic day, as the war in Ukraine enters an attritional phrase, it is unclear what victory would mean to Putin at this point [Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo]

Russia’s Victory Day parade is an annual extravagance in Red Square. Falling on May 9, it commemorates the Nazi surrender of World War II with a lavish spectacle meant to project might. Formations, tanks and sophisticated hardware go on display to remind the world of Russia’s lasting power. Celebrating what is known locally as the “Great Patriotic War” is used to stir nationalism and pay homage to the 24 million lives lost to fend off Hitler.

Rehearsals on the streets in front of the Kremlin in recent days hint at the spectacle next week. Show stoppers include an intercontinental ballistic missile and 11,000 marching forces. Fighter jets will fly above in a Z formation, the symbol of the invasion of Ukraine.

The Kremlin does not have much to celebrate, however. President Vladimir Putin has failed at his aim to take over Ukraine, a country he wrongly assumed would be a walkover. Tactical mistakes led to catastrophic Russian losses that the United Kingdom estimates at 15,000 over just two months.

What the world thought was a relatively modern and well-equipped army performed shockingly badly. Supply lines were attacked and stretched as troops scattered on too many fronts. The Russians underestimated their much smaller adversary or that a unified West would firehose billions of dollars of military support to Ukraine. Beaten back from Kyiv, the Russians have recalibrated to the Donbas region in the south and east to solidify territory they have occupied since 2014 and gain more. Yet securing that front by May 9 to declare triumph looks unlikely. Over the past week, that offensive, too, has struggled to gain any significant ground. 

Winning means different things to different people. Having failed to occupy all of Ukraine, it remains unclear what victory would mean to Putin at this point. The highly motivated Ukrainians continue to enjoy Western support and will fight fiercely to defend their territory. On some level, one could argue that Ukraine has already won strategically because it united NATO and demonstrated effective wartime leadership. The vastly outnumbered Ukrainian military prevented the fall of their capital and pushed back against massive force.

The war now seems to be entering an attritional phase, where each side will try to wear the other down with no clear advantage by either. As the war on which he staked his tough-man reputation, as well as his country’s economy, fails to meet any of its objectives, how will Putin frame “victory” on May 9? And what are his military prospects for the months to come?

Al Jazeera sought answers from three defence experts who focus on the Russian military and security.

A view of the Historical Museum decorated with the Order of Victory, the highest military decoration awarded for World War II service in the Soviet Union as a part of decorations for the celebration of Victory Day in Moscow, Russia.
Victory Day, which Moscow is currently preparing for, is likely to include portrayals of the current moment as a time when Russian people must be ‘heroic while under attack,’ says Margarita Konaev, a research fellow at Georgetown University in the US [Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo]

‘Putin’s proven himself quite capable of twisting truths’

Margarita Konaev, research fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology

Konaev expects that to save face, Putin will try to distract from the reality of the war and double down on the narrative that has worked thus far: a call to nationalism and the argument that this is a war forced on the Russians by NATO expansion and that Ukraine is not a real country. “He will insist that the US and NATO are willing to risk continued violence and economic downturn around the world just to humiliate Russia and limit its power in the international order,” she says.

“Since it is May 9, they will evoke the Great Patriotic War and portray this moment as another when the Russian people must be steadfast and heroic while under attack,” she says. “Putin’s proven himself quite capable of twisting truths and reorganising the narrative in a way that might seem logically unsound but resonates nonetheless. It’s not his first rodeo or Russia’s with propaganda.”

In terms of how the war evolves, she expects the fighting to drag on through the northern summer, over modest patches of territory that might change hands back and forth, with small villages and towns destroyed in the process and Russia occasionally bombarding cities to frighten the population and demonstrate force. On the political side, she sees no real incentive for either side to compromise.

Ukraine has several advantages, Konaev says. It can move weaponry to the front lines faster than the Russians, even though what they need is coming from outside the country on the western flank. They have the benefit of internal supply lines and, with the help of Western backers, can gather good intel to avoid, prevent and retaliate against attacks.

Additionally, Russia thus far has suffered from a regimented top-down style of command that does not allow leadership on the ground to be flexible. “The Ukrainians strike as the situation unfolds on the ground as opposed to what they expect it to be,” Konaev says.

Yet it would be a tremendous challenge to push Russian forces completely out of Ukraine, including Crimea, which it has occupied since 2014, and the separatist areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia has airpower and favourable positions in the east. It also has math on its side: 900,000 active personnel and two million reservists. In contrast, Ukraine’s entire standing army, consisting of active-duty troops and reservists, numbers less than 300,000 (not counting the civilians who have joined the war effort). Russian forces will expand even more if Putin declares a mass mobilisation, although newcomers will need time to become combat-ready.

While Ukraine is receiving weaponry that gives them the ability to attack tanks and supply lines, like howitzers and drones with intelligence gathering radar systems, the survivability of equipment is important, too. “It’s not clear if they have enough parts and skills to maintain them as they wear down,” Konaev says.

But six months from now, “who knows where we will be,” she adds. “We’ve continued to be surprised by the incompetence of the Russian military and the defences of the Ukrainians.”

Putin, surrounded by loyalists, is likely to cling to power, according to Tracey German, a conflict and security expert

‘A long way from winning militarily’

-Tracey German, professor of conflict and security at King’s College, London

German noted that there is a big difference between a military and a political victory. One can win on the battlefields but not politically. “And they’re a long way from winning militarily.”

For that reason, she believes, the Russians have made great fanfare domestically about “liberating” Mariupol, the strategic port that has been levelled by the worst carnage of the war. Putin’s rationale for invading was to free Ukrainians from a “genocidal” government and restore them to Mother Russia. For sure, controlling this strategic port would curtail Ukraine’s industrial and agricultural exports, and help Russia create a land bridge between the separatist regions and Crimea. It also scores a propaganda win. Another pretext for the war was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, and the city’s defence has included the members of the far-right Azov battalion.

But “liberation” from what? The bombardment of a city that, as of today, is still putting up resistance has shattered 90 percent of its buildings and left 20,000 dead. More than three-quarters of the 450,000 residents have fled. Those who remain struggle to find food, water, heat and electricity.

“What’s interesting is that the Russians were keen to make a big song and dance about something,” German notes.

The new offensive has gone so badly that she finds it hard to speculate what a victory for Putin could look like. The point of refocusing to the east and south was to solidify and gain more territory to encircle Ukraine from all sides. “Whether any of this is feasible right now, who knows,” she says.

Her gut is that Putin will manage to cling to power, even as sanctions begin to bite in a few months and if he calls an unpopular mass military mobilisation to plump up depleting forces. Putin has surrounded himself with loyalists who fear him and are as paranoid about threats to both him as a leader and to the regime more broadly. They buy into his conviction that a demonic West wants to break up the country, which makes a palace coup unlikely, she believes. “I think Putin is aware, if you look back at Soviet imperial history, that there’s a long history of leaders dying in office.”

People shout toward Russian army soldiers during a rally against the Russian occupation in Svobody (Freedom) Square in Kherson, Ukraine, Monday, March 7, 2022. Ever since Russian forces took the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson in early March.
Mathieu Boulege, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, says no matter what, “Putin will not admit defeat” and will present his “version of history”, which could entail announcing the city of Kherson – occupied since March with residents shown here at a rally against the occupation – as a republic [Olexandr Chornyi/AP Photo]

A war of attrition that will last ‘as long as Putin is in place’

-Mathieu Boulege, senior research fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London

Boulege believes that, after initially receiving poor intelligence, Putin is finally cognisant that his forces are overstretched. He now knows that all in all, there is only so much his military can achieve. But he cannot be seen to be looking desperate.

“Putin will not admit defeat. The Kremlin will not compromise,” Boulege says. “Right before May 9 there will be a big moment for Putin to say, mission accomplished, this is my version of history. This is my legacy. It needs to be presented as a mission accomplished. Forget about taking over Kyiv. We’ve flattened Mariupol, we’ve liberated more parts of Donbas. Maybe they will announce a republic in Kherson [a city in the south that has been under Russian occupation since March].”

Going forward, he predicts a war of attrition that will last “as long as Putin is in place.” Boulege points out that much is unknown about his state of mind, and how far he is prepared to take down the country with him.

“He’s a spent 70-year-old Russian man,” Boulege says. “There might be something that we don’t know about his mental or physical health. This is about the hubris of a man who wants to make a stand, have a legacy. And it happens to be in Ukraine.”

Would he resort to nukes? “As far as I am concerned, he is destructive but not suicidal,” Boulege says. “Unless proven otherwise. All scenarios are on the table.”

Source: Al Jazeera