Russian President Vladimir Putin once claimed that, as a kid, he learned a big life lesson in power politics from the time he cornered a huge rat.
In a series of interviews published as a quasi-autobiography during his rise to power two decades ago, Putin recalled chasing big rodents with a stick around his dismal, communal apartment building in St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad:
“There, on that stair landing, I got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word ‘cornered.’ There were hordes of rats in the front entryway. My friends and I used to chase them around with sticks. Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me. It jumped across the landing and down the stairs. Luckily, I was a little faster and I managed to slam the door on its nose.”
Now, the biggest military gambit of his life is falling shockingly short of expectations, and his country has become an international pariah. Close Kremlin-watchers are wondering whether Putin may be the one who feels cornered—and they’re worried about how he’ll respond.
Western observers warn that Russian forces may be shifting to a more brutal and destructive phase of war by encircling major cities and deploying siege tactics, escalating violence in an attempt to force Ukraine to its knees. Despite logistical and strategic setbacks, Putin is showing no sign of turning back, and U.S. officials are warning the assault may intensify.
A 40-mile column of Russian armored vehicles is bearing down on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. A security camera captured a massive fireball erupting outside the local government headquarters in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv after a missile smashed into the central city square, in an attack Ukraine said caused dozens of casualties. Russia’s Ministry of Defense warned Tuesday that it plans to strike Ukrainian intelligence and defense facilities located in Kyiv, and warned local residents to leave.
“He’s only doubling down; he’s not retreating,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, an expert on Russian military and foreign affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He may no longer have an off-ramp.”
Putin appears to have dramatically overestimated Russia’s ability to quickly smash Ukrainian resistance, analysts said.
None of Ukraine’s major cities have fallen, defying even Western expectations. Unprecedented sanctions have torpedoed Russia’s national currency and its stock market, and sent Russian citizens scrambling to join long lines at ATMs. Ukrainian resistance has proven much stiffer than seemingly anyone expected.
Now, Putin seems to have few good options to resolve the conflict without losing face, analysts said. Simply backing down now could be perilous for him.
The Kremlin strongman has spent two decades building a reputation as Russia’s all-powerful, irreplaceable leader, and racking up a string of swift military victories along the way. Russian forces have engaged in protracted, brutal military campaigns in Syria and in the Russian region of Chechnya, that killed thousands of civilians.
Russian soldiers and leaders may balk at deploying similar tactics against Ukrainians, who have strong historic and linguistic ties to Russians. But at the same time, a humiliating climb-down in Ukraine could have implications for Putin’s future grip on power, Kremlin-watchers said. Russia would be left saddled with devastating sanctions and cornered in political isolation, with nothing to show for it.
“If he throws in the towel and says, ‘My bad, we messed up,’ that takes the veneer off his image as Putin-the-mastermind,” said Joshua Tucker, director of New York University’s Jordan Center for Advanced Study of Russia.
The crisis in Ukraine is already creating fissures in Russian society. Over the weekend, two of Russia’s richest and most loyal oligarchs openly called for peace in Ukraine, a rare sign of defiance among the country’s ultra-wealthy elite. Over 6,400 people have been arrested in anti-war protests in dozens of cities around Russia, according to OVD-Info, an independent group that tracks the arrests.
Putin seems, for now, to have placed himself in a strategic position with few good options to resolve the conflict.
Russia has publicly demanded concessions including ceding the region of Crimea to Russia, and the demilitarization of Ukraine. Yet as the assault has bogged down, the possibility that Ukraine would concede such demands appears increasingly remote, analysts said.
Continuing with the assault will likewise carry steep costs for Russia. Western powers still have room to ratchet up the sanctions regime even further. And more casualties will only increase Russian domestic unrest over the conflict, analysts said.
Even a conventional military victory by Russia using overwhelming force, which many experts believe Russia can still achieve, would create the possibility of a grinding guerrilla war for the foreseeable future.
Putin has also raised long-dormant anxieties about Russia’s nuclear capabilities by putting the country’s nuclear forces on “high alert,” prompting nerve-wracking conversations about the possibility of nuclear war that not long ago would have been considered outlandish.
Such talk is prompting Western officials to look for ways to provide Putin with some kind of acceptable offramp. President Joe Biden’s White House says it doesn’t want to overreact to Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling. But it remains unclear whether Putin would find any Western proposals for deescalation acceptable.
Like the big rat he once chased down a corridor in Leningrad, Putin may decide the best way out of a terrible situation is to ratchet up tensions even further.
“The question becomes, which is the bigger fear: The fear that he’ll look weak if he walks it back, or the fear that the situation for Russia will get much worse if he steps it up? That’s what makes this a dangerous moment,” Tucker said.