Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing a paradox at the moment, says Sir Lawrence Freedman, professor emeritus of war studies at King’s College London, who analyzed Russia’s eight-month invasion campaign. The Russian president cannot win the war now because Ukraine will not let him, and if Russia loses, he has to answer to his country’s citizens and loses power.
Freedman, who spoke at a series of lectures organized by the think tank Lowy Institute, said the eight-month campaign of war in Ukraine has shown that Putin is far from the master strategist many have assumed. The professor assessed that Chinese President Xi Jinping is clearly unimpressed with Putin and that Russia’s failure to subdue Ukraine has given China important lessons on the potential difficulty of invading Taiwan.
He said he did not believe Putin could negotiate his way out of the war, even though the Russian military has suffered heavy losses and recently lost control of vast territories.
“Putin is the main barrier to negotiations. To stay in power, he needs the war to continue because as soon as it’s over, there will be a reckoning,” Freedman said.
“The Russians will ask: ‘What was that for? What did we gain? What happened to our economy?’ While the war is going on, there is more patriotism and essentially martial law. He is more in control of the situation. As soon as it’s over, with the veterans coming back, it becomes very difficult.”
Biden administration officials have privately encouraged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to demonstrate that he is open to negotiating with Putin, but Freedman said the Russian leader is the main barrier to negotiations.
“If he can keep this on a level playing field and continue the war, that’s the best he can hope for,” he said. Reflecting on Putin’s character, Freedman said, “We always talk about the Russians in terms of the chess grandmasters, but (Putin’s) sport is judo. It’s not long-term like chess, thinking many moves ahead. Judo is fast and impulsive.”
Commenting on the implications of the war for China, Freedman added: “The Chinese are not impressed by the Russians. It made Xi look like he was backing a loser. American weapons seem to be working pretty well… There are a lot of reasons why Xi is not very happy.”