The horrors that Putin is wreaking on the Ukrainian people are increasing, but this news is no longer at the forefront. Though the fading attention is understandable and probably inevitable, it’s just what Putin is counting on.
He is playing the long game, figuring that once the forbidding winter weather sets in, the Ukrainians won’t be able to keep fighting back as they have been doing. And if the Allies stop providing Ukraine with the weaponry it so desperately needs, he knows it’s “game over.”
Yet the question arises: beyond all the Putin bluster, can we get a more accurate picture of what’s going on in Ukraine? I am far from an expert on Russia and Putin, but I’ve been reading about and listening to someone who is.
Remember Fiona Hill? You may recall her no-nonsense testimony against the former guy in his first impeachment trial. From 2017 to 2019, she served as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European Affairs on the National Security Council. She’s now a senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy program.
Hill was recently interviewed by Foreign Policy Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Ravi Agrawal. He described Hill as “an expert who has studied what makes Putin tick more than perhaps any other western analyst.” Among her books is Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (2015).
She also participated in a podcast I listened to on Ukraine: “Talking Feds: Blood and Gasoline.” In both discussions, her message was the same.
Yes, Putin and his henchmen talk as though they’re just getting started: the worst is yet to come. But the story they’re presenting to the world omits Russia’s own vulnerabilities and the fact that the ticking clock is very worrisome to them as well.
According to Hill, when Western analysts suggest “time is not on our side,” that view “hides the fact that Putin, himself, may also be running against time limits.” It’s to his advantage to have us wonder if we can persevere. “This is part of an information war.”
Hill notes that although Russia is now flush with oil cash, after the winter, the sanctions will begin to bite. And Russia’s military hardware and infrastructure have been badly degraded: they depend upon the West for the computer circuits and components needed for their systems. It will take them four years to replace the tanks they’ve lost. They also have serious manpower issues.
Here is what I found most important—and potentially hopeful: just as our 2024 election is critical, Putin also faces election in 2024. He begins his election effort two years earlier—as in now. He thought his Ukraine gambit would be a quick win that would solidify his people’s devotion. “The West has capitulated to me,” was the narrative he expected to be enacting.
When Agrawal asks why a dictator should be worried about reelection, Hill responds:
“Because he’s fearful of a repetition of what happened when he last returned to the presidency in 2011 and 2012, where we had protests in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other major [Russian] cities. Putin knows that there is a lot of dissatisfaction hidden beneath the surface. People seem to be supportive of this special military operation as long as the children of the elite are not being sent off as cannon fodder to the front lines.
“We’re starting to see some backlash from the marginal areas of Russia: Buryatia, for example, where there’s been an awful lot of Buryats sent to the front lines. You start to see protests of women wanting their husbands and sons brought home. They’re starting to have a hard time recruiting in places like Dagestan, not so much as Chechnya, where there’s a lot of compulsion for people to fight in the war. Putin knows that this grind is having an impact.
“We have to look out for when things start to hurt people in their pocketbook. The biggest demonstrations or protests in Putin’s long tenure as president and prime minister of Russia since 2000 have been over economic issues. And then also over this sense of unfairness of him keeping himself in power. He’s not that popular in Moscow and St. Petersburg. When you get down into the depths of the polling, it looks a little bit like the new polling about Donald Trump right now. People would actually like an alternative.”
Hill is forthright about the worldwide damage Putin is creating, including the impact on the global economy and the prospect of famine. And she’s emphatic that left to his own devices, he’ll never stop. Peter the Great—even Catherine the Great—are his models.
Her timely and forceful message is that we must not allow ourselves to buy into Putin’s rhetoric. “We can defeat ourselves here,” she said. “We are falling into a trap. We keep falling for their narrative all the time.”
I don’t know how the Ukrainians continue to mount their super-human effort, barraged as they are by such unspeakable cruelty. But yesterday, BBC News (World) reported: “Ukraine war: West’s modern weapons halt Russia’s advance in Donbas.”
And today, The New York Times described Ukraine’s preparations for “one of the most ambitious and significant military actions of the war: retaking Kherson,” which has been the “Russian beachhead, from which its military continuously launches attacks across a broad swath of Ukrainian territory.”
So I hope that Americans will continue supporting Ukraine in every way possible for as long as they need us. Putin is depending on our dysfunction. Let’s hope the Russian people will soon say “Nyet!” to his dysfunction—and to him.