Mauren: Where is Putin’s off-ramp?


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Columnist Jacob Mauren questions where Putin can go from here. 

Jacob Mauren

One thing has been made clear since Russian soldiers crossed on to Ukrainian land. This war has not gone to Vladimir Putin’s plan. Resistance has been fierce, the Russian economy is in shambles and the West has responded in a shockingly united and swift fashion. As the goals of the Russian president move out of reach, uncertainty grows about how he will try to twist this situation into a victory. 

Most signs point to Putin having truly convinced himself that this would be a swift conflict with the majority of Ukrainians welcoming Russian intervention. This was evident in the initial days of the war when Russia dropped paratroopers just outside Kyiv and sent lone units into the heart of the city, just for them to be quickly defeated. This is also made clear by the mistaken publishing of a “victory editorial” by a state news agency just four days after the war began, which was soon deleted.

Now the Russian military is two weeks into what was supposed to be a three-day war. While it has undoubtedly inflicted massive pain on Ukraine, it has faced a number of significant challenges. First, it faces its own inadequacies; Russian forces appear to be unprepared, unmotivated and poorly maintained. Second, it is fighting a determined defending army that has been armed to the teeth with millions of dollars of modern weaponry. U.S. officials estimate that Russia has lost up to four thousand troops which may include multiple generals.

The Russian president also seemed to have underestimated the West’s response. Following the annexation of Crimea, Russia was hit with notable but not crippling sanctions. Putin likely expected a similar response this time around but was met with new restrictions that will wreak havoc on the Russian economy and a pipeline of Western weapons into Ukraine to destroy its army. On Tuesday, Poland gave up all of its operatable Mig-29s to the U.S. to give to Ukraine.

Now, Putin needs to find a way to spin his debacle into a success story. But he has told his nation that they are fighting genocidal fascists. Convincing his people that a truce with Nazis is a win would be a tough sell, yet an occupation of Ukraine is looking like an impossible task. A years-long insurgency would almost certainly follow. 

The world is left with a man who will refuse to take a loss yet has no possible path to victory. Both Putin and the West view de-escalation as a weakness, but escalation is an incredibly dangerous prospect thanks to the constant threat of nuclear conflict lurking in the background. Someone will have to find an off-ramp if this situation is to ever cool off, yet backing down presents political benefits to nobody.