Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb...

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow Thursday. Credit: AP/Pavel Bednyakov

A year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, expatriate Russian broadcast journalist Alexander Nevzorov invoked a striking metaphor for Vladimir Putin’s situation, likening him to a crocodile who has swallowed a time bomb and is crawling around with the bomb ticking inside it while periodically opening its jaws in a menacing gesture. The Kremlin strongman may indeed be doomed; the challenge is to minimize the damage to the rest of the world when the bomb detonates.

Putin’s Feb. 21 address to his puppet parliament underscored the failures of his war. The Russian military was reportedly under heavy pressure to take at least the small town of Bakhmut — the object of casualty-heavy battles since August — before the speech so Putin would have a victory to report. It didn’t happen.

Indeed, Russian troops haven’t made any significant gains in Ukraine since May while Ukrainian troops have liberated thousands of square miles of occupied territory. While Putin touted the “unification” of four Ukrainian provinces with Russia (read: annexation following “referendums” at gunpoint), a good portion of these “Russian” lands are under Ukrainian control — including a provincial capital, Kherson, recaptured by Ukraine in November.

As a result, Putin’s nearly two-hour monologue had to celebrate such dubious successes as the fact that the Russian economy has shrunk less than predicted despite international sanctions. But even that success is largely illusory. Some sanctions such as the ban on European import of Russian petroleum products have only just kicked in. Important sectors of Russian industry, including arms production, are already suffering from the ban on exports of Western technology to Russia.

The high support for Putin and the war seen in Russian opinion polls is likely to be illusory as well. The polls have record-low response rates; in the repressive atmosphere of today’s Russia, dissenters may be afraid to speak even in an anonymous survey. And even in those polls, a majority now say they want the war to end.

Observers also note that signs of popular pro-war enthusiasm are virtually absent. There are no spontaneous rallies (a state-sponsored rally and concert in Moscow on Tuesday was filled with people who were either required or paid to attend, mainly government employees and college students), virtually no volunteers to fight, and extremely few individual displays of pro-war slogans or logos. The viewership of warmongering propaganda shows on official Russian TV has been dropping precipitously. Some estimate that hard-core support for the war is somewhere between 10 and 20% of the population.

Under these circumstances, Putin’s ability to pull off another wave of mass mobilization — which would almost certainly be needed to mount a strong offensive before Ukraine receives a game-changing infusion of military hardware from the West — is very much in doubt.

Is there an “off ramp” that would allow Putin to end the war, especially when Ukraine has a realistic chance of pushing Russian forces back to pre-2014 borders and rejects any compromises such as a special status for Crimea that would preserve some Russian claims? Could the dictator with a nuclear arsenal be mad enough to unleash Armageddon?

While the nuclear threat cannot be ignored, it also cannot dictate Western policy; it’s worth noting that Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling has grown muted and that his zealous safety precautions indicate a strong interest in the preservation of his life. There is room for negotiations on such details as postwar reparations or prosecutions for war crimes. But if the West now fully supports a Ukrainian victory, that means supporting full Russian withdrawal.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.

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