In the high plains of the Western United States there is a winter phenomenon called “false spring,” when the warm weather of the south drifts north for a brief time. Trees and flowers bud. It’s a nice relief for locals from the winter chill. And then, as locals know, the winter comes roaring back. I am afraid this is what we are encountering in Ukraine — a false spring of hope.
I’ve spent four decades of my life in national security and intelligence, and I always warn my Hill friends to beware of the deadly biases — confirmation and bandwagon. The first is because that’s what you want something to be and the second is because everyone else thinks so too.
For those of us of an earlier time, this whole ‘Russia collapses, and Putin goes’ business smells a lot like Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. On those biases, we went to war. We found no weapons. And more than seven years of war — resulting in 4,000 U.S. casualties and tens of thousands Iraqis killed — ensued. Wishing is not being.
A riddle, wrapped
Despite the recent encouraging Ukrainian wins, I believe this is Putin’s war to lose. And, based on my two decades of following him, Putin does not like to lose. This is man who likes to tell an anecdote of his childhood where he cornered a rat and the rat jumped over him. Putin is now looking for ways to jump over his enemies. In my opinion, Putin is now at his most dangerous.
Internally, Putin seems beleaguered. His public appearances seem to show a man of likely ill health, with rumors of Parkinson’s Disease leading the list of supposed ailments. Incompetent generals and bumbling intelligence officials are being blamed — quite publicly — for the current troubles. Admissions of major setbacks are being made. A recent report of a possible attempted attack on Putin’s limousine has spread on the internet. But, is it just a false spring?
In my experience, judging a leader’s health from long distance is a fool’s errand. Putin has plenty of doctors and medicine to keep him going. And those around Putin who depend on him for their existence — well, they’ll keep him propped up. Think Mao in China and his staged appearances.
As for economic sanctions, they have not really worked as China remains a buyer of oil and likely seller of war materiel to Russia. And, if I may add a note of history as someone with a couple degrees in economics, these sanctions — at best — cause chronic, not fatal disease. They’re political feel-good actions.
The NATO revival has hurt Putin in Europe politically — but he will likely weaponize oil and gas this winter by cutting European countries off from their needed supply. Thus, NATO leaders will be soon be explaining to their people why they are freezing in the dead of winter for the people of Ukraine. A worthy sacrifice, I believe, but a tough one to explain.
And make no mistake: On the battlefield, Putin still controls a fifth of Ukraine, and Ukraine taking it back will be a costly and long, casualty-filled slog. Putin has given the go to terrorize the places held — killing and kidnapping the locals. And his long-strike weapons, such as planes armed with versions of cruise missiles, continue to fire from Russian air space at will. Is NATO willing to help Ukraine fire back into Russian territory in a large scale way? So far, the answer has been no.
Another hold card is that Putin has yet to seriously call out the draft. This gives some people here hope that such an act will cause internal protest. However, Putin has ramped up the patriotic rhetoric, using losses on the ground for potential political gain. Concerns expressed by Russian pundits on mass media are not just criticisms of the military; they also lead the pretext of defending the “Motherland” with more resources, fighting the “evil fascists” in Ukraine. And the Russian people are buying it.
As for serious opposition to Putin, there is also much confirmation bias in that area, with hope for an internal revolution and overthrow. In reality, still not much. Yes, perceived or real enemies in the oligarchy and a few bureaucrats of the Siloviki seem to be falling from windows these days — the fine Russian tradition of defenestration. The internet is full of rumors of street protests — all quickly put down. There is a whiff of smoke… but, certainly, no fire.
Hope is good, winning better
Throughout my life in national security work, I have seen time again the wishful thinking we are currently involved with in Ukraine. We are in a long, ugly war that will not end soon.
Please don’t get me wrong: I want the Ukrainians to win, and I want to see Putin out — but also understand that dictators like Putin have no retirement plan. They leave either dead or at gunpoint.
The war in Ukraine will not be won by optimism alone nor with the desire to see facts as we want them to be. We are in a false spring. And, I fear, winter is definitely on the way.
Ronald Marks is a former CIA officer who served as Senate liaison for five CIA Directors and intelligence counsel to two Senate Majority Leaders. He currently is a non-resident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center at The Atlantic Council and visiting professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.