Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, most of us have been competing in an effort to game out how this all ends, assuming there is actually an ending in sight. Various scenarios have been offered, ranging from a legendary victory for Zelenski to the prospect of Europe turning into a smoking, radioactive wasteland. (And possibly the United States and Russia as well.) One commentator who clearly believes that the Ukrainians can still prevail is political scientist David Rothkopf. Writing at the Daily Beast this week, Rothkopf breaks down the current state of play and concludes that the one thing Ukraine has on its side – and Russia lacks – is time. If we can only be patient enough and not be egged into some sort of serious escalation, Putin’s efforts will largely fail and he will end up falling into a trap of his own creation. Here’s a portion of it.
The Western strategy demands time. The Russians feel time is one thing they cannot afford. The consequence is that in the very near future this already horrific war is likely to grow even more intense and its human toll is likely to soar. Each day’s toll is likely to grow higher, perhaps much, much higher.
That means for many in Ukraine there is very little time left. And for others, the minutes and hours ahead will be excruciatingly difficult. That is why, in the end, whatever the strategy or plans being developed in Western capitals, it must be left entirely up to the Ukrainians to determine whether and for how long they should endure the sacrifices of fighting on.
Putin will try to break their spirit. So far, he has not only failed to do that, his brutality has had an unintended consequence. It has seemingly given the people of Ukraine an even greater will to fight on. The consequence? With each passing day it seems the strategy of Ukraine and its allies is working. With each passing week, it increases the chances the people of that beleaguered but immensely courageous country will be able to claim this moment in history as their own.
I too would love to see the Ukrainians emerge victorious in the end. The ideal situation would be for someone inside of the Kremlin to realize that they have been following a madman and take steps to put someone else in power by whatever means they see as prudent and possible. A new leader could call off the invasion entirely and pull out all of the troops, placing all of the blame on the former despot. But few analysts seem to think that’s plausible, at least for now.
While I would like to share Rothkopf’s admittedly tempered enthusiasm, I think there might be a couple of incorrect assumptions underlying it. The basic premise being put forward is that time is on the side of the people of Ukraine, even if that time will be increasingly painful and fraught with danger. Conversely, this theory assumes that the clock is ticking for Vladimir Putin and he will be forced to give up on this misadventure if he can’t deliver something that looks like a victory and a justification for his actions.
That’s the first assumption I disagree with. The Ukrainians are fighting against the clock every bit as much as the Russians, perhaps even more so. The failures of the Russian army are certainly an embarrassment and the casualties they are suffering are staggering, it’s true. But Russia is maintaining its supply lines and can keep supplying resources to the army and shipping in new cannon fodder to replace the fallen. But most of Ukraine is now without power, heat, potable water, and lacks a functional distribution network to supply food to all of the people under attack. And as Rothkopf points out, Russia is already threatening to attack western supply lines sending in aid.
I’m hardly the first to suggest this, but Putin has always had an option available as a fallback plan if he couldn’t achieve a rapid military victory. He can simply starve the Ukrainians out and ruin their cities to the point where they become dispirited and feel they don’t have much of a country left to defend. We seem to already be seeing signs of that in some places such as Mariupol, though they are gamely hanging in there for the time being.
The other problem I have with Rothkopf’s analysis is that his predictions are perfectly reasonable and the potential outcomes he foresees could readily be expected when dealing with any rational actor. But that’s the problem. I am more convinced than ever that Vladimir Putin, once considered a master strategist, is no longer rational in any sense of the word. The idea that he might be shamed into giving up relies on the assumption that he retains the capacity for shame. The theory that the economic pain being inflicted on his people might cause him to fear massive unrest and change course assumes that he has any concern for the suffering of the Russian people or fears any consequences of his actions. I don’t believe we can safely assume any of that.
The clock would be Vladimir Putin’s enemy if he was acting like a rational leader. Of course, a truly rational Russian leader probably wouldn’t have launched the invasion in the first place. The only thing that would likely make Putin fear that his time on this stage was coming to a close would be a belief that NATO would retaliate and take things to the next disastrous level. Even in his current state, he might realize that he could lose his entire country in such an exchange. But he has been repeatedly assured by Joe Biden and the rest of the heads of NATO that there will be no military escalation unless he strikes a NATO nation first. So, at least in his mind, he has all the time in the world. And we’re probably a long way from the end of this horrible road today.