As the war in Ukraine drags into its fourth month with no end in sight, a number of observers are beginning to ask, “Will the West grow tired of supporting Ukraine?” Some commentators have opined that “time is on Putin’s side,” and that the fierce response of NATO and other global democracies will gradually wane in the face of economic challenges stemming from inflation, Russia’s choking off of Ukrainian agrarian and hydrocarbon products from the global economy, internal political divisions (especially in the U.S.), and issue fatigue as the relentless 24/7 news cycle moves on.
I’m old enough to remember the U.S. experience in Vietnam, and Putin’s situation is increasingly reminiscent of that long, painful misadventure. His hand of cards, weak at the start of the conflict, is getting weaker by the day. Time is more on the side of Ukraine and the west than on Putin, and as the year wears on this will become more apparent.
Let’s start with the military facts on the ground. Putin’s original goal was to conquer all of Ukraine in one sweeping thrust, decapitating the Zelensky government and installing a puppet regime in Kyiv. That “Plan A” has failed, a result of over confidence, bad intelligence, worse generalship, execrable logistics, and terrible on-the-ground leadership. His “Plan B,” is a retreat to traditional Soviet/Russian tactics: grinding out small stretches of territory and terrorizing the Ukrainian civilian population with a deliberate campaign of war crimes.
But like the U.S. in Vietnam, the majority of the population in Ukraine is deeply opposed to the outside aggressor. Instead of being greeted with promised bottles of vodka when they invaded, Russian soldiers were greeted with Molotov cocktails. The revelations about war crimes will only stiffen the resistance and will of the Ukrainians, and time will only strengthen their resolve.
Thus Putin’s chances of truly upending the situation on the ground and gaining a significant additional amount of territory appear small. In essence, he started with control of 15% of Ukraine before the invasion, set of goal of gaining nearly 100%, and may end up at best at with 20-25%. That’s a failing grade on any test.
Also similar to the U.S. experience in Vietnam, Putin faces a determined foe with access to outside sanctuaries and bases. The U.S. never successfully cut off the flow of weapons to the Vietcong, and the Russians will likewise be unable to stop significant assistance headed to the Ukrainians. Indeed, the Ukrainians enjoy vastly greater weapons flows across their borders, superb intelligence and cyber support, and far more significant financial resources than the Vietcong ever did.
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Casualties are also mounting rapidly, both to Russian soldiers and to their equipment. Reliable estimates indicate Russian killed in action heading toward 20,000—a staggering number almost triple what the US lost in 20 years of the forever wars. The sinking of the Black Sea flagship Moskva was a dagger in the heart of the Russian navy. Over a thousand Russian tanks have been destroyed. This level of loss is unsustainable without Putin putting Russia on a full war footing, something over time that will impact his hold at home, regardless of his media control. LBJ would understand the painful choices ahead for Putin.
In some ways, Putin’s situation is worse than the U.S. in Vietnam. Putin’s democratic opponents—the U.S., most of Europe, all of NATO, Japan, Australia and others—represent nearly 60% of the world’s GDP. Russia’s economy is only around 10%, and they are thus seriously outgunned in the economic sphere. China is showing little appetite to provide Russia a lifeline, and if the U.S. imposes secondary sanctions of those doing business with Russia, the economic situation will only become more dire over time for Putin.
Fortunately for Kyiv, the cost of support to the Ukrainians—set against the huge size of Western economies—is quite small. Compared to the billions per day pumped into Afghanistan and Iraq at the peak of operations, the cost of Ukraine at current standards of support, is modest.
Finally, strategic communications are working against Putin. President Zelensky has proven a master communicator, easily outstripping the ham-handed and implausible Russian narrative of toppling the “Nazi regime” in Kyiv. Over time, Zelensky’s skills in promoting the cause of his nation will strengthen his case.
Putin’s most likely course of action will be to secure as much territory as he possibly can before the “burn rate” in terms of Russians killed in action, destroyed equipment, crushing sanctions, and international opprobrium really kicks in. As an exit strategy, he is probably hoping the west will simply pressure the Ukrainian people into accepting an armistice that gives Russia de jure control over 20% of their nation.
That appears unlikely at this point, given all the war crimes and the Ukrainian’s spirited resistance. Both of those factors will harden in the months to come. Putin holds a bad hand of cards, and like the U.S. in Vietnam, is headed for a significant defeat. Time is not on his side.