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Vladimir Putin is increasingly isolated in Russia and abroad

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By: Matthew Sussex

One of Vladimir Putin’s oft-quoted maxims is that “sometimes it is necessary to be lonely to prove you are right”. As his ill-fated invasion of Ukraine drags on, he seems to be heeding his own advice.

Putin looks increasingly isolated, not just on the world stage, but inside Russia as well. The longer the war goes on, the harder it will be for him to extricate himself with any credibility, either at home or abroad.

So where does he go from here?

Dwindling allies

In a recent United Nations General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s sham “referendums” annexing chunks of Ukraine, Putin was on the end of a thumping censure, with 143 votes in favour, 35 abstentions and five against (including Russia itself).

If the vote was any indication, Russia has precisely four friends: North Korea, Syria, Belarus and Nicaragua. As the “anti-colonial movement” Putin announced Russia would lead in his bizarre annexation speech of September 30, it hardly inspires confidence.

And among those who abstained from the vote, powerful actors with influence in Moscow including China and India have publicly signalled their disquiet about Putin’s war.

In the Middle East, where Moscow has tried building diplomatic clout around its highly questionable support for non-interference, both Qatar and Kuwait two energy giants have called for Ukraine’s territory to be respected.

Closer to home, all the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States abstained, with the exception of Georgia and Moldova voting in favour of condemning Russia, and Belarus that voted with Moscow.

Domestic ructions

On the home front, the picture is of a disconnected leader finding it difficult to keep rival factions in check. Recent criticisms of Russia’s top military leadership have targeted Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

The chief malcontents appear to be Yevgeniy Prigozhin, head of the Wagner group (allegedly a “private” military company, but in reality a military arm of the state) and Ramzan Kadyrov, currently the head of Russia’s Chechen Republic.

Aside from their opportunism and naked ambition, such critiques present Putin with a problem. He has previously been comfortable purging lower levels of Russia’s elite cadres: the military, the intelligence services and other parts of the Russian bureaucracy. But Shoigu is one of the most powerful people in Russia after Putin. While dismissing him would rid Putin of a potential rival, it would also upset a delicately balanced circle of patronage and power. That could end up rebounding on Putin himself.

It’s true that Putin has contained rumblings among the population. The estimated 700,000 Russians who fled the country following Putin’s mobilisation order are no longer a potential hub for disquiet.

But if jockeying for position at the top feeds popular discontent, Putin may find himself trapped between two unhappy constituencies: the Russian citizenry with whom he broke his contract by sending them to war; and Russia’s elites who are expected to carry out his orders without question, and then take the fall when they fail.

There are signs this is already occurring. General Andrey Kartapolov, a member of Russia’s parliament, and until recently the head of its influential Defence Council, has called openly for the government to “stop lying” to the population about its military failures in Ukraine. “The people know”, Kartapolov observed, adding:

Our people are not stupid, they see they are not telling them the truth and this can lead to loss of credibility.

Where does Putin go from here?

So how does Putin extract himself from this mess of his own creation? Realistically the only way to do so is to win the war in Ukraine, or at least to win sufficient concessions that would permit him to spin it as a victory.

However, that’s now highly unlikely. Putin has broadened the parameters of the conflict by endorsing the narrative amplified by Russia’s far right that he’s at war not only with Ukraine, but with NATO itself.

Putin evidently judged that necessary to rally flagging domestic support. But doing so also redefined his concept of victory. In order to “win” in Ukraine, Russia’s armed forces must now not only achieve their stated aims but dramatically exceed them, compelling the West to accept Putin’s demands for a new security compact in Europe on his terms.

Another problem for Putin is that Ukraine is unlikely to accommodate Putin, either on the battlefield or at the bargaining table. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has already said he would only negotiate with Russia’s “new president”. He has also doubled-down on Ukraine’s war aims, amounting to the complete liberation of its territory.

The spectacular strike on the Kerch Bridge, sometimes referred to as Putin’s “wedding band to Crimea” was a direct insult to Putin, who had personally overseen its construction. In comparison to wilting Russian morale, it also symbolised the sense among Ukrainians that the war’s tide had turned.

Finally, Russia’s military position in Ukraine is now looking hopeless. Its forces are exhausted and they continue to retreat.

Putin’s decision to appoint Sergei Surovikin the general who ordered indiscriminate bombings in Syria and Chechnya to oversee Russia’s war has been uninspiring.

Indeed, his shift in tactics to mass cruise missile strikes against Ukrainian population centres and power generation facilities has backfired completely: it has made Ukrainians even keener to fight, and been seen globally as a vindictive act of petulance.

Unable to win on the battlefield, Surovikin has so far expended some US

400-700 million in missiles from a dwindling stock in an attempt to cow Ukraine’s population. This included hitting cities Russia had purportedly annexed, effectively targeting its own territory and people.

The upshot is that unless Putin chooses to escalate dramatically, even by crossing the nuclear threshold (which itself is fraught with risk), his only option is to find a face-saving way out.

3 hints at saving face

Putin has recently tried to do that in three ways. Instructively, they’re at odds with his more customary violence and threats. They also suggest a growing sense that his position is untenable.

Turkish diplomats communicated Putin’s desire for a new “grand bargain” with Europe. This reportedly envisaged talks between Russia, the US and the EU. But doing so shut Ukraine out of the process, and little has come of the proposal.

An apparent attempt to weaponise SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who tweeted a peace proposal for Ukraine and warned Russia would use nuclear weapons if its Crimean Black Sea base was threatened. Despite denying he had spoken to Putin, Musk’s proposal closely matched Putin’s past demands, including specific details about access to fresh water for Crimea.

An overture from Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, claiming Putin would be open to peace talks with US President Joe Biden at the upcoming G20 Summit in Bali.

The West shouldn’t react to these Kremlin hints. For one thing, they only restate its long-standing ultimatums. For another, Putin has ignored every previous diplomatic off-ramp offered to him, instead escalating his campaign against Ukraine ever more brutally.

It’s also likely Putin will use any ceasefire merely as a pause to refashion his forces for a renewed onslaught.

To his credit, US President Joe Biden has already said he has no intention of meeting Putin, and the recently-released US National Security Strategy paints a picture of continued mistrust of Putin’s intentions.

Ultimately, if peace breaks out in Ukraine it will be something Putin must arrive at himself. Otherwise, it looks increasingly likely Ukraine’s armed forces will bring him to that realisation.

And although Putin would find any climb-down unappealing and embarrassing, he has already lost his dignity. It now only remains to be seen whether he can retain his political skin. (The author is researcher at Australian National University-The Conversation)


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