As Vladimir Putin’s original objectives in the war in Ukraine drift out of reach, another is taking over – that of “not losing”. For with losing comes the reckoning. Failure is measured not only in unmet objectives, but the casualties and costs accumulated during the course of the war, and the damage to Russia’s standing as a great power and Putin’s position as a competent leader.
The consequences of the Russian president’s determination to avoid defeat have been heavy for Ukraine as well as for Russia. War will only stop when Putin, or a successor, recognises the failure. Because he lacks a convincing victory, Putin has instead sought to coerce Ukraine into capitulation, first by attacking its critical infrastructure and, most recently, its grain exports. None of this has led to a more conciliatory attitude in Kyiv. If anything it has had the opposite effect. At best it may give Putin some malign comfort that Ukrainians are being harshly punished for refusing to join his dominion, and is an opportunity to remove a competitor in agricultural trade. He has spoken positively about how shortages allow Russian grain exporters to charge more.