In October 1989, I was in what was then West Germany. It was one month before the Berlin Wall was breached — a stunning moment that would lead in short order to the collapse of communist East Germany and the reunification of the German state less than a year later. In hindsight, the discussions I had in West Germany that fall were almost as remarkable as the globe-changing events that followed; every German leader I met with then — to a person — insisted that Germany would not and could not be reunited in their lifetimes.
I was there with then-CIA Director William Webster, meeting with senior intelligence and government officials to better understand the changes sweeping across the Soviet satellite countries of Eastern Europe. These people simply could not conceive of a reunified German state and an effective end to the Cold War, nor could they envision the path that might take them there. Never mind that CIA analysts were telling me that the “German Question” — a phrase implying reunification — was back on the table.
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Such forward thinking may be especially difficult for the Russians themselves. I sensed this in recent off-the-record meetings with very knowledgeable, internationally minded Russians, people who strongly oppose the war (”off-the-record” meaning I can discuss what they said, but not who said it). These are sophisticated policy analysts who left Russia as President Vladimir Putin went to war. While they fully understand that the war in Ukraine is going very badly for their country, and that Russia might actually lose, they can’t quite get their heads around how that would look and where it might lead.
In particular, the idea that Putin’s regime might collapse is almost impossible for them to visualize. Putin and his system are so deeply embedded in their experience of Russia that even the most clear-eyed Russians I have spoken with believe that even if the Russians lose (I can’t speak to whether they think a win is still possible), Putin would hang on to power in some weakened state.
It’s only the latest in a series of events that raise questions about what a Russian defeat might look like — and then what it will mean for the region and the world.
These are questions as profound as those the world wrestled with when the Berlin Wall came down. Perhaps more so.
Might Russia lose?
I believe some version of defeat is increasingly likely for Russia. I base that on all that we now see, and on my own and others’ experiences with war.
Then there is the more elusive metric: the will to fight. My own understanding of this comes from direct engagement in one war (Vietnam) and indirect involvement in two others (Afghanistan and Iraq). Ultimately, any war becomes very personal and its success rests heavily on whether individual soldiers are ready to risk their lives to defeat an opponent. An army arrives at that readiness through some combination of strong identification with a cause, a government that commands respect, and a conviction that one must destroy the adversary to save oneself and one’s comrades. By now, it is clear that on all these fronts, the Ukrainians hold the overwhelming advantage.
So a Ukrainian victory over the vaunted Russian army is increasingly possible.
What defeat might look like
How to define a victory for Ukraine? Or, from the other side, what would defeat look like for Russia? To some degree, only Putin himself can answer that — given that he has shifted his war aims and narrative multiple times since the first troops rolled in. But I think he would see it as a defeat if his forces were driven back to the small areas of Donetsk and Luhansk where Russian proxies held sway as Putin’s invasion kicked off on Feb. 24.
That said, the way things are going, “defeat” could look worse from the Russian perspective; Ukraine may push further and expel Russian forces from those territories Putin held prior to the war. It is harder perhaps to imagine a Ukrainian recapture of Crimea, which Putin seized in 2014, but even this is no longer out of the question.
Something doesn’t add up.
The nuclear fears
If the Russians lose, or appear on the verge of losing, then what?
The fall of Putin?
It is no longer unthinkable that Putin will lose power in the event of a catastrophic outcome in Ukraine — the collapse of the Russian military or its expulsion from the country. Exactly how this would unfold is not clear, which helps explain why even those sophisticated Russians I spoke with find the scenarios so hard to fathom.
Under Putin’s own last round of constitutional changes, in the event that a sitting president leaves office, the prime minister (currently an obscure former taxation official hand-picked by Putin), would become president for 90 days or until a new election can be held. Of course, the problem with this orderly scenario is that no one sees Putin allowing it to happen.
One possibility is that as the bad news persists, Russian military and security service leaders might act as a kind of informal “politburo” and inform Putin that they can no longer support him, and that it is time for him to retire to his dacha with some honor intact.
That may prove to be wishful thinking as well. Other outcomes are possible — including a breakdown of public order — but with Russia’s highly centralized system and the security services willing so far to brutally put down all forms of protest, that scenario is even harder to imagine.
Finally, some Russians — struggling to imagine the aftermath of a Russian loss — sketch yet another scenario, one that might be described as a slow fading away for the Russian leader. A weakened Putin would cling to power, many more Russians would leave the country, and Russia would for a time simply exist as a dispirited and weak country.
This is what Putin’s monumental miscalculation has wrought for a country that, whatever its shortcomings, has no shortage of proud traditions and gifted citizens, and which during his early years in power had attained a place of significant influence and respect in the world. Russia has arrived at a critical, even existential, crossroads at least three times since World War I — during its 1917 revolution, facing the German onslaught on its territory that began in 1941, and then in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. These were huge and very different challenges, and Russia is in some ways still working its way through the consequences of all those upheavals.
With his Ukraine invasion, and the folly of his many moves since, Putin appears to be driving the country toward another crossroads. The outcome looks every bit as uncertain and potentially destabilizing as those earlier cataclysmic events.
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