The Russia realist speaks about his recent change of heart
The recent Ukrainian offensive against Russia has seen an apparent reversal of fortunes. The army, as it pushes further towards the Russian border, has recaptured swathes of territory and pushed back Russia’s army near Kharkiv.
But reading the runes on this kind of warfare can be fraught with difficulty. And several questions linger: Is this bringing the conflict closer to peace? Or will we see an effective counter offensive by the Russians? Is there an end in sight? And what might the resolution of this conflict look like?
Clint Ehrlich is an analyst commonly accused of being too ‘pro-Putin’. He belongs squarely to the ‘realist’ side of the argument — critical of NATO provocations, eager for a negotiated settlement. In the past few days, however, he has done that rare thing among commentators, and admitted he made a mistake. The success of the Ukrainian offensive took him by surprise, and he is now vocally critical of Putin’s strategy.
His change of perspective — alongside observations within the Russian side – confirms that cracks are beginning to emerge within the Russian sphere. Even allies of Putin are starting to cast doubts on the operation.
“To see Russia fall back and hand this territory over to the Ukrainian military, from the perspective of Russians, is really a fundamental betrayal. It calls into question the effectiveness of Russia’s military leadership,” he says.
“It’s important” he adds, “not to think that this is bringing us close to an end to the war – that isn’t happening at all – but it is decisive in a psychological sense. This is probably the worst defeat that Russia has suffered since the first Chechen War.”
The events that unfolded the past week were mostly the product of a Russian power vacuum in the region, revealing a major impasse Putin will have to overcome in order to recoup his support.
Since its outset, the invasion has been called a Special Military Operation rather than a war – leaving the Kharkiv region occupied by paramilitary forces that did not have appropriate weapons. Russia is defending regions with insufficient troops on the ground, unable to fully mobilise its resources, left to fight “with one hand tied behind its back.” But Putin does not want to generate internal civil unrest by admitting he may have to escalate further into full war-mobilisation.
“Russia has already downsized its aims in this war, and this defeat just further calls into question its ability to achieve even those.”
The political landscape, then, means there is not exactly an equal playing field between the two sides. Ukraine already has a manpower advantage. But more importantly, we should not view this so much as a direct conflict between Ukraine and Russia but rather a conflict between the combined resources of the West and Russia, Ehrlich points out.
Nevertheless, Russia’s failure to fully capture Ukraine has confounded many strategy experts. Ehrlich took the same view early on in the conflict as much of the American intelligence community, believing Russia “would be able to achieve a quick, decisive victory in Ukraine.”
“Instead what we’ve seen is that the Russian military has struggled just to take this small portion of Ukrainian territory. It’s been humbled in this conflict. And so, the risk of Russia as a revanchist power realistically has diminished in the wake of this conflict, not increased.”
Of course this does not assuage the pervasive global anxiety that Putin may be willing to resort to nuclear escalation. The sticking point here, says Ehrlich, would be any Ukrainian advance into the Crimean peninsula. He claims that within Russia, Crimea is viewed as their own sovereign territory just like Moscow or St Petersburg. And as such, “there is really no limit to what Russia would do to defend that territory, including the use of nuclear weapons.”
Ehrlich is not convinced that a negotiated settlement is politically viable for President Zelensky. He is, to a certain extent, at the behest of the nationalist forces in his country. And it is not unlikely that Zelensky would face internal military opposition if he conceded any territory to Russia – something this contingent of nationalists would see as a seismic betrayal of Ukraine.
Some suggest that a forceful removal of Putin from office may hasten the end of the conflict. But Ehrlich does think he can be ousted “in any sort of dramatic fashion.” It is more likely that Russia’s constitution will not be amended in order to grant him additional time in office, and he will step down in an orderly transition of power with a tarnished legacy.
But even if that were come to pass, “I think we would see a more nationalist leader rise to power in Russia. And I believe that in hindsight Putin may look like a moderate compared to what’s to come.”