The liberation of Russian-occupied territory might bring down Vladimir Putin.
By Anne Applebaum
September 11, 2022
Over the past six days, Ukraine’s armed forces have broken through the Russian lines in the northeastern corner of the country, swept eastward, and liberated town after town in what had been occupied territory. First Balakliya, then Kupyansk, then Izium, a city that sits on major supply routes. These names won’t mean much to a foreign audience, but they are places that have been beyond reach, impossible for Ukrainians to contact for months. Now they have fallen in hours. As I write this, Ukrainian forces are said to be fighting on the outskirts of Donetsk, a city that Russia has occupied since 2014.
Many things about this advance are unexpected, especially the location: For many weeks, the Ukrainians loudly telegraphed their intention to launch a major offensive farther south. The biggest shock is not Ukraine’s tactics but Russia’s response. “What really surprises us,” Lieutenant General Yevhen Moisiuk, the deputy commander in chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, told me in Kyiv yesterday morning, “is that the Russian troops are not fighting back.”
Russian troops are not fighting back. More than that: Offered the choice of fighting or fleeing, many of them appear to be escaping as fast as they can. For several days, soldiers and others have posted photographs of hastily abandoned military vehicles and equipment, as well as videos showing lines of cars, presumably belonging to collaborators, fleeing the occupied territories. A Ukrainian General Staff report said that Russian soldiers were ditching their uniforms, donning civilian clothes, and trying to slip back into Russian territory. The Ukrainian security service has set up a hotline that Russian soldiers can call if they want to surrender, and it has also posted recordings of some of the calls. The fundamental difference between Ukrainian soldiers, who are fighting for their country’s existence, and Russian soldiers, who are fighting for their salary, has finally begun to matter.
That difference might not suffice, of course. Ukrainian soldiers may be better motivated, but the Russians still have far larger stores of weapons and ammunition. They can still inflict misery on civilians, as they did in today’s apparent attack on the electrical grid in Kharkiv and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine. Many other cruel options—horrific options—are still open even to a Russia whose soldiers will not fight. The nuclear plant in Zaporizhzhia remains inside the battle zone. Russia’s propagandists have been talking about nuclear weapons since the beginning of the war. Although Russian troops are not fighting in the north, they are still resisting the Ukrainian offensive in the south.
But even though the fighting may still take many turns, the events of the past few days should force Ukraine’s allies to stop and think. A new reality has been created: The Ukrainians could win this war. Are we in the West really prepared for a Ukrainian victory? Do we know what other changes it could bring?
Back in March, I wrote that it was time to imagine the possibility of victory, and I defined victory quite narrowly: “It means that Ukraine remains a sovereign democracy, with the right to choose its own leaders and make its own treaties.” Six months later, some adjustments to that basic definition are required. In Kyiv yesterday, I watched Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov tell an audience that victory should now include not only a return to the borders of Ukraine as they were in 1991—including Crimea, as well as Donbas in eastern Ukraine—but also reparations to pay for the damage and war-crimes tribunals to give victims some sense of justice.
These demands are not in any sense outrageous or extreme. This was never just a war for territory, after all, but rather a campaign fought with genocidal intent. Russian forces in occupied territories have tortured and murdered civilians, arrested and deported hundreds of thousands of people, destroyed theaters, museums, schools, hospitals.
Bombing raids on Ukrainian cities far from the front line have slaughtered civilians and cost Ukraine billions in property damage. Returning the land will not, by itself, compensate Ukrainians for this catastrophic invasion.
But even if it is justified, the Ukrainian definition of victory remains extraordinarily ambitious. To put it bluntly: It is hard to imagine how Russia can meet any of these demands—territorial, financial, legal—so long as its current president remains in power. Remember, Vladimir Putin has put the destruction of Ukraine at the very center of his foreign and domestic policies, and at the heart of what he wants his legacy to be. Two days after the launch of the failed invasion of Kyiv, the Russian state-news agency accidentally published, and then retracted, an article prematurely declaring success. “Russia,” it declared, “is restoring its unity.” The dissolution of the U.S.S.R.—the “tragedy of 1991, this terrible catastrophe in our history”—had been overcome. A “new era” had begun.
That original mission has already failed. There will be no such “new era.” The Soviet Union will not be revived. And when Russian elites finally realize that Putin’s imperial project was not just a failure for Putin personally but also a moral, political, and economic disaster for the entire country, themselves included, then his claim to be the legitimate ruler of Russia melts away. When I write that Americans and Europeans need to prepare for a Ukrainian victory, this is what I mean: We must expect that a Ukrainian victory, and certainly a victory in Ukraine’s understanding of the term, also brings about the end of Putin’s regime.
To be clear: This is not a prediction; it’s a warning. Many things about the current Russian political system are strange, and one of the strangest is the total absence of a mechanism for succession. Not only do we have no idea who would or could replace Putin; we have no idea who would or could choose that person. In the Soviet Union there was a Politburo, a group of people that could theoretically make such a decision, and very occasionally did. By contrast, there is no transition mechanism in Russia. There is no dauphin. Putin has refused even to allow Russians to contemplate an alternative to his seedy and corrupt brand of kleptocratic power. Nevertheless, I repeat: It is inconceivable that he can continue to rule if the centerpiece of his claim to legitimacy—his promise to put the Soviet Union back together again—proves not just impossible but laughable.
To prepare for Putin’s exit does not mean that Americans, Europeans, or any outsiders intervene directly in the politics of Moscow. We have no tools that can affect the course of events in the Kremlin, and any effort to meddle would certainly backfire. But that doesn’t mean we should help him stay in power either. As Western heads of state, foreign ministers, and generals think about how to end this war, they should not try to preserve Putin’s view of himself or of the world, his backward-looking definition of Russian greatness. They should not be planning to negotiate on his terms at all, because they might be dealing with someone else altogether.
Even if they prove ephemeral, the events of the past few days do change the nature of this war. From the very beginning, everybody—Europeans, Americans, the global business community in particular—has wanted a return to stability. But the path to stability in Ukraine, long-lasting stability, has been hard to see. After all, any cease-fire imposed too early could be treated, by Moscow, as an opportunity to rearm. Any offer to negotiate could be understood, in Moscow, as a sign of weakness. But now is the time to ask about the stability of Russia itself and to factor that question into our plans. Russian soldiers are running away, ditching their equipment, asking to surrender. How long do we have to wait until the men in Putin’s inner circle do the same?
The possibility of instability in Russia, a nuclear power, terrifies many. But it may now be unavoidable. And if that’s what is coming, we should anticipate it, plan for it, think about the possibilities as well as the dangers. “We have learned not to be scared,” Reznikov told his Kyiv audience on Saturday. “Now we ask the rest of you not to be scared too.”
Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic.