Columnist Richard Fein: Is Vladimir Putin worried? He certainly should be


Published: 04-23-2023 9:18 AM

My last column was about reasons Russian President Vladimir Putin may not be worried about the war he launched against Ukraine. This column is about why he should be.

Ukraine’s security situation may be getting stronger, not weaker

Putin seems to be betting that Ukraine will simply reach a point that it is no longer able to fight. Yes, Ukraine has suffered enormous military casualties, massive destruction of basic infrastructure and the exodus of about 30% of its population. But Ukraine has not lost the will to fight and it is becoming better armed with a continuous supply of top-line Western artillery and tanks.

Far from losing its determination to support Ukraine, the European members of NATO have awakened, united, and are adding Finland to the alliance. The United States has been strongly committed to Ukraine from the start. Foreign Affairs Magazine has called it “The Astonishing Endurance of Unity on Ukraine: Russia’s Threat to Security and Moral Values Has Bolstered the West’s Resolve.” The West seems less intimidated by Russia’s threat to used tactical nuclear weapons than it was at the beginning of the conflict.

By announcing his determination of restoring past Russia’s glory, Putin has made Poland, the three Baltic countries and Finland realize that they themselves are facing an existential threat. All five countries were once part of the Czarist empire. A Ukrainian victory, or a least a non-defeat, is essential to their own security.

So far, the burden of supporting Ukraine is not stopping the West from providing financial and military assistance. Looking ahead, the cost of post-war reconstruction of Ukraine could be met in large measure by the $300 billion in frozen Russian assets held by the West.

Putin is relying on China to help win this war, but China has a different agenda

China proclaims that it has a “no limits friendship” with Russia. However China benefits from a war that Russia continues to fight but not win. That may explain why China is not, at least so far, supplying Russia with weapons. As long as Western military and financial resources are absorbed in supporting Ukraine, it harder for them to oppose Chines expansion in the South China Sea. A protracted war in Ukraine benefits China’s economy. Because of Western sanctions Putin has few large markets for his oil. China is now buying Russian oil at a steeply discounted price.

President Xi has declared that he is a peacemaker, not explicitly favoring Russia over Ukraine. He also has said that Russia should not use tactical nuclear weapons in the war, thus weakening Putin’s efforts at nuclear blackmail.

Russia cannot achieve the victory Putin sought

Russia will not conquer Ukraine, obliterate its culture or make Ukraine part of the Russian empire again. Putin’s military strategy, if he has one, has been a failure. Russia casualties are three times greater than Ukraine’s. The Russian army is poorly trained, poorly led, short of weapons and has low morale.

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Putin’s reliance on private militias appears to be growing. In addition to the well-known Wagner Group, Russia has announced that four more private militias will be established. By contrast, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry announced the creation of additional assault brigades. In the first two weeks, almost 15,000 volunteers enrolled.

Western intelligence has penetrated Russia’s military. The U.S. is telling Ukraine about Russian battle plans and when missile attacks against Ukrainian cities will be launched.

Wagner Group leader YevgenyPrigozhin recently posted online that Putin should proclaim that the goals of the “special military operation” have been achieved and end the war now.

Putin’s absolute control over Russia is not a sure thing

Foreign Affairs magazine reports that “the war means Putin is becoming more vulnerable than most people think. If Russia faces military failures and, consequently, social unrest, the siloviki ( secret police and other security agencies) might gain the upper hand. Putin may find he has less control over policy making as security officials speak out or refuse to neatly follow his orders.”

Putin has tried to increase spending on the population’s needs to mitigate social discord but Russia’s swollen military spending is limiting the resources to do that.

According to Eurasia Review magazine, in February 2023 Putin referred to the possibility that not only the Russian Federation but also the Russian nation itself could disintegrate. Some scholars believe that Putin’s references to parts of Russia, such as the Urals, breaking off is “not just something intended to frighten the people. This is a genuine and deep fear in Putin himself.”

While Ukrainians and Russians suffer, Putin still holds on to his delusions of grandeur. We cannot know for sure what Vladimir Putin is thinking but we can be certain that Putin has plenty to worry about.

Richard Fein holds a master of arts degree in political science and an MBA in economics. He can be reached at]]>