What Vladimir Putin is planning is a question we have been asking ourselves since before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Well, we don’t have a crystal ball, nor do we have Putin’s phone, and getting into the Kremlin leader’s mind is a nearly impossible task. Still, that doesn’t stop us from trying.
Former US President George W. Bush once said that when he looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes, he was able to “feel his soul.” But did it end well for relations between Russia and the West?
There is no doubt that the Russian president is under pressure. The so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine turned out badly for him. It was supposed to last only a few days, but almost eight months have passed and its end is still in sight, writes the BBC in its analysis.
The Kremlin admits that in recent weeks, the Russian military has been losing territory in Ukraine that it had previously occupied. To increase his troop numbers, President Putin last month announced a partial mobilization – something he has vowed not to do. Along with all this, the sanctions continue to worsen the Russian economy, informed the Moscow correspondent of the British public television.
But let’s get back to Putin’s state of mind. Will he accept that his decision to invade was a fundamental mistake? Don’t even think about it.
“Putin’s perceptions determine how this conflict will eventually develop,” believes Konstantin Remchukov, owner and editor-in-chief of the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
“He is an authoritarian leader of a nuclear power and the undisputed leader of this country. He has such strong beliefs and perceptions that they drive him crazy. He has come to believe that this is existentially important. Not just to him. But also for the future of Russia,” adds Remchukov.
And if this conflict is existential, how far is Vladimir Putin willing to go to win it?
In recent months, senior Russian officials (including Putin himself) have been dropping hints that the Kremlin leader is prepared to use nuclear weapons in this conflict.
“I don’t think he will,” US President Joe Biden told CNN. “But I think it’s irresponsible for him to talk about it.”
The intense Russian bombing of Ukraine this week shows that the least the Kremlin is determined to do is escalate its relations with Kyiv.
Is it with the West?
“He is trying to avoid a direct confrontation with the West, but at the same time he is ready for it,” believes veteran liberal politician Grigoriy Yavlinski.
“I am most afraid of the possibility of a nuclear conflict. Second, I am afraid of endless war,” he added.
But “endless war” requires infinite resources. And this is something that Russia does not seem to have. The wave of missile strikes on Ukrainian cities is a dramatic show of force, but the question is how long can Moscow keep it up?
“Can Russia continue this missile flow for days, weeks, months? Many experts doubt that we have enough missiles,” says Mr. Remchukov.
“Also, from a military point of view, no one has ever said what would be the sign of the supposed ultimate Russian victory? What is the symbol of victory? In 1945 it was the flag over Berlin. What is the criterion of success now? A flag over Kyiv “Over Kherson? Over Kharkov? I don’t know. No one knows,” he adds.
It is not even clear that Vladimir Putin knows.
It appears that as early as February, the Kremlin’s goal was to quickly defeat Ukraine and force it back into Moscow’s orbit without a protracted war. However, Putin’s calculator did not calculate correctly. He underestimated the determination of the Ukrainian army and people to defend their land and seems to have overestimated the capabilities of his own army.
And what is he thinking now?
Is Vladimir Putin’s current plan to consolidate control over the Ukrainian territory he claims to have annexed and then freeze the conflict? Or is he determined to continue until all of Ukraine is back in the Kremlin’s sphere of influence?
This week, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote: “The Ukrainian state in its current configuration will be a constant, direct and clear threat to Russia. I believe that the goal of our future actions should be the complete liquidation of the political regime in Ukraine.”
If Mr. Medvedev’s words reflect President Putin’s thinking, expect a protracted and bloody conflict.
But Vladimir Putin’s actions abroad inevitably lead to consequences in Russia as well. For years, the Kremlin has painstakingly cultivated the image of Putin as “Mr. Stable,” encouraging the Russian public to believe that as long as he is in charge, it will be safe. Now, however, this is hard to fathom.
“The previous contract between Putin and society was: ‘I protect you,'” says Remchukov.
“For many years, the main slogan was ‘predictability’. What predictability is there today? The concept is no longer possible. Nothing is predictable. My journalists don’t know if they will get a call-up letter when they go home today,” he said he too.
Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine surprised many. But not Mr. Yavlinski.
“I think Putin has been moving in this direction all along – year after year he’s been building the way to what we’re witnessing now,” Mr Yavlinsky says, arguing:
“An example of this is the destruction of independent media. He started this in 2001. And in 2003 he started to destroy independent business. Then what happened with Crimea and Donbass. You have to be blind not to see it. “
“Russia’s problem is in its system. It is this system that created such a person as Putin. However, the question of the role of the West in its creation is very serious.
The truth is that this system did not create society. There are many, many good people in our country. But there is no civil society. And this is precisely the reason why Russia cannot resist.”