Measure Putin’s defeat in Ukraine

Provided that an accident, another miscalculation by Putin, or a disastrous success by Ukrainian forces on the battlefield could always upset the dynamic, the answer seems to be yes. Unfortunately, the situation also appears to be stabilizing in a way that is more tolerable for Ukraine’s western allies than for Ukraine itself.

Militarily, battle lines have become static over the past two weeks. On key fronts, the Russians had the obvious aim of avoiding contact with the Ukrainian army while shelling cities from afar. At home, Kremlin propaganda began to suggest that the aim all along had been to “liberate” those parts of Ukraine that Russia had already occupied since 2014, with the new line made official at a Friday briefing. Ironically, the greatest risk of destabilizing a stabilizing situation now could be that the Ukrainian military itself goes on the offensive and a sizeable Russian force disbands and flees the battlefield, with unpredictable consequences.

In economic terms, where the long-term damage being done to Vladimir Putin’s regime and unlikely to be reversed in a decade or more, the initiative belongs to the allies. Think of Mr Putin’s feeble attempt this week to exploit Germany and Europe’s fears over their gas supplies without actually threatening their gas supplies by demanding they start paying their bills in rubles instead of euros or US dollars.

This was an apparent ploy to trick Europeans into using the $700 million they spend on gas every day to increase demand for the ruble, eroding sanctions and making it easier for Russia to import needed ones to buy. But Mr Putin was quick to insist that he would not turn off the gas. If he thought an escalation in the energy war could get him out of his mess, he would shut it down now, or at least issue an ultimatum demanding that the Europeans stop arming Ukraine. He hasn’t.

During his visit to NATO on Thursday, President Biden put forward plans to speed up shipments of US gas to offset Russian exports. Europeans would still hate losing Russian gas – Chancellor Olaf Scholz says it would cause a recession – but see the energy map cut both ways. Europe will reject Russia’s ruble demand, throwing back Mr Putin’s decision on whether to cut gas. Indeed, one possible outcome is one that this column has advocated: Europe depositing its gas payments until a ceasefire is agreed or a legal dispute over Putin’s new payment terms is resolved.

Here’s the point I think we’ve reached: Mr. Putin is left with no more possible escalations that would not only make his situation worse, like unleashing a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon, withholding energy exports, or targeting a destructive cyberattack in one or more NATO countries.

If he is sane at all, such moves would only persuade NATO countries to act more vigorously and tolerate greater risk when they oppose him, such as enthusiasm for arming Kiev to bolster its offensive operations.

More crucially, Mr. Putin would risk exhausting the Chinese tolerance on which his regime and personal survival now depend.

Russia has become North Korea: as damaging as the Pyongyang regime is to Beijing, China was willing to endure almost any headache to avoid overthrowing its client, lest the example break the heads of 1.4 billion Chinese infected. Notice I said almost all headaches. Because of Putin’s reckless actions in Ukraine, because of Russia’s greater importance to the US and the European Union, because President Xi Jinping knows the world suspects that the Russian leader lied to him about his intended war, China will Regimes are more likely to write them off than the Kim regime. Mr Putin knows he is one miscalculation away from becoming a liability.

For now, Mr. Putin and his regime appear to be surviving the Ukraine debacle, at least in the short term. But there’s no end in sight that doesn’t leave him in far worse shape than when he started. I suspect this is a fully satisfactory outcome for the western allies, the details of an eventual ceasefire clearly being secondary. These details are not secondary to the 44 million Ukrainians whose actions created a great nation, mobilized the free world and still hold important cards in the crisis.

Another observation: the world’s problems with Mr. Putin will not be solved until he is done, no matter what the outcome of the next chapter of the Ukraine struggle.

Journal Editor’s Report: Paul Gigot interviews General Jack Keane. Images: Reuters/AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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