It was a striking image for a traditional season of joy and hope: Russian President Vladimir Putin attending the Orthodox Christmas service all alone in one of the Kremlin’s cathedrals. This loneliness stands in contrast with his persistent attempts to show himself actively engaging with subordinates, particularly servicemen—for example, during his visit to the Southern Military District’s headquarters on December 31, 2022 (Kremlin.ru, December 31). These staged performances cannot hide, however, the continuing pattern of Putin’s extreme self-isolation set from the start of the COVID-19 epidemic, when every person coming close to Putin has had to undergo numerous tests and quarantines. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s long-serving press secretary, explained that his boss’ health is a matter of state security; therefore, all extraordinary precautions will remain in place (RBC, December 30). The Russian president’s fears, nonetheless, compromise his ability to execute the affairs of the state, as nothing of importance can be decided without his word.
This aloof but pretentious leadership style manifests itself particularly in the incompetent and calamitous command of Russia’s war against Ukraine, which Putin has tried to turn into a stalemate of attrition, as all his previous strategic designs have failed (Carnegie Politika, December 15). His New Year’s address to the country was supposed to be uplifting and a rally cry, but it coincided with a Ukrainian missile strike that caused hundreds of casualties among the recently mobilized Russian troops crammed into a school building converted into barracks. Even war-mongering “patriotic” bloggers were outraged (Topwar.ru, January 5).
For Orthodox Christmas, Putin tried to announce a ceasefire, which was so blatantly fake that Kyiv’s rejection did not disappoint even those who have heavily advocated for peace, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Kommersant, January 4). The only real effect from Putin’s initiative was the highlighting of a deep crisis within the Russian Orthodox Church led by Patriarch Kirill, who has approved the invasion into Ukraine and duly destroyed his own authority among the Ukrainian Orthodox churches (Novayagazeta.eu, January 6).
Putin’s fraudulent ceasefire also confirmed that Russian troops desperately needed a break from the high-intensity trench warfare that has resulted not only in heavy casualties but also in deepening demoralization on the Russian side (Svaboda, January 6). A new surge in mobilization increasingly appears necessary for restoring the capacity for holding the unsteady defensive lines and sustaining the costly offensive effort in the battle for Bakhmut (Meduza, January 4; Republic.ru, January 6). The problem of training and arming the soon-to-be mobilized hundreds of thousands of reluctant men looms large, and the reaction of a profoundly discontented society cannot be reliably guided by the jingoist propaganda (Re:Russia, December 26). Putin’s pseudo-strategy ultimately aims at breaking the Ukrainian will to resist, but this calculus is underpinned by the complete inability to understand the societal strength that the Ukrainian state can still mobilize—not to mention the true state of Russian society at the start of another year of this senseless war (Grani.ru, January 6; Levada.ru, December 27).
Ukrainian defiance relies on and inspires sustained Western support, and the remarkable unity and motivation of the US-led coalition is another phenomenon that Putin has yet to fully comprehend. The Russian president counted on the accumulation of concerns in key European countries and on their reluctance to follow the US, but French President Emmanuel Macron opted instead for taking the lead in supplying Ukraine with the AMX-10 RC armored fighting vehicles, which will add significantly to Ukraine’s offensive capabilities (Novayagazeta.eu, January 5). In rapid succession, German Chancellor Olav Scholz hesitated only for a day before announcing the supply of Marder infantry fighting vehicles to the Ukrainian side, and President Joe Biden included in the new US aid package to Ukraine the M2 Bradley armored fighting vehicle. Now, it seems, the only postponed decision about Western aid is about providing main battle tanks, such as German Leopard-1 tanks (Rossiiskaya gazeta, January 7; Gazeta.ru, January 5). Germany has also committed to providing a battery of MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missiles in addition to the planned battery from the US. As such, the Ukrainian air defense system will be upgraded, and the next phase of decisions for Western policymakers is the supply of long-range strike weapon systems, starting with the MQ-9 Reaper drones (Svaboda, January 6).
Moscow used to take pride in the superior quality of its arms and is still trying to boost depressed public morale by asserting that the soon-to-be deployed electronic warfare systems will neutralize Ukrainian drones (Izvestiya, January 4). The plain fact, however, is that the much-advertised T-14 Armata main battle tank and the whole family of armored vehicles on this platform are currently not on the Donbas battlefields due to stalled production (Topwar.ru, December 30). As a result, the Ukrainian forces are gradually gaining advantage in the quality of all major weapon systems, and this trend is as incomprehensible for the Russian top brass as is the inability to ensure superior manpower on the battlefield.
Putin tried to disperse this glum outlook by making a big show of sending the Admiral Gorshkov–class frigate armed with the newly-developed 3M22 Tsirkon hypersonic anti-ship missile on a long ocean cruise (Moskovsky komsomolets, January 4). Even the Russian military-patriotic commentators, however, were skeptical about the strategic significance of this voyage of a small ship aimed at relieving the Admiral Kasatonov– and Admiral Grigorovich–class frigates, which have been stuck at the Tartus naval base in Syria for more than a year, without proper maintenance (Svobodnaya pressa, January 6).
Indeed, no wonder-weapon or tactical breakthrough alone will help Russia in regaining the initiative in this war, which it planned to win quickly and brutally. As such, Putin can only try to plug the holes in his defenses hoping that the rising tide will somehow turn. Yet, he has no trust in his generals, who know how to cover up failures but not how to learn from their blunders. The Russian president also has no confidence in his ministers, who excel at manipulating statistics but cannot effectively mobilize the corruption-ridden economy into a war machine. His cronies are useless in managing the war, and their loyalty is too demonstrative to be real. Putin is alone in his defeat, and the church, which he has turned into a pillar of his autocracy, cannot give him any solace.