DANIEL VAUGHAN: With an Ukraine victory, what happens to Putin?

In a stunning shift from where things started six months ago, Ukrainian forces have gone from a defensive crouch to a counter-offensive. Ukraine’s military leaders have “retaken more than 1,000 square miles in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days,” and recaptured “villages in the area around Kupyansk and Izyum … two cities had been central to a key war goal of Russian President Vladimir Putin: to seize Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, together known as Donbas.”

Russia is scrambling.

This shift signals not just that Ukraine is pushing back but that it is starting to retake territories Russia held before the invasion. Ukraine is relying on the US to supply this war effort. Russia, in contrast, is scrambling. The Russians have pivoted to buying artillery, ammo, and more from countries like North Korea. It’s a sign that Russia cannot produce enough physical goods to keep its military running and is seeking help from anyone else.

That shift in military reliance has coincided with Russia’s new efforts to clamp down on Europe by cutting off energy. The Europeans created the energy crisis they now experience and have granted Russia more power than it otherwise would have in this situation. Donald Trump warned the Europeans of this scenario four years ago, and European leadership laughed. 

People across Europe will now suffer under the weight of their green movements and leadership idiocy. That’s a story for another day, however.

Putin is on the verge of total ruin.

For Vladimir Putin, the situation is far direr. He chose to invade Ukraine. No one forced his hand, and no one made him do it. Putin and his defenders in the West claim recent provocations from NATO. But Putin’s ambitions to reestablish some semblance of empire, akin to his beloved USSR, have run into the rocks of American economic and military power.

Assuming, as seems increasingly likely, that Ukraine delivers a humiliating defeat of the Russian military, the question is this: What comes next?

Russia is a form of an authoritarian police state with roots in the USSR. No leader from the USSR would have ever survived a military humiliation, combined with Russian oligarchs getting kicked out of western society. It’s not just that Russia is poised to lose; it is on the verge of being in a weaker condition than at any point post-USSR. Russia’s military, economy, and populace are spent.

Will Russia lash out?

It seems unlikely that Russia will continue with Vladimir Putin as its head while experiencing a crushing and humiliating defeat. He either must respond or face replacement from within.

In the past, the threat was a humiliated Russia would resort to using nukes. While Vladimir Putin has used that kind of rhetoric (likely mimicking the fears of some western elites), little has come of it. Throwing caution to the wind on nuclear weapons would mark the end of Russia as a country. I’m not sure China would be on board with that, and the result of that move would allow both the West and China to dismantle Russia and divvy up the spoils.

If Russia lashing out is unlikely, then it seems more likely that we’re in the waning days of Vladimir Putin’s iron leadership in Russia. What replaces him?

A Putin replacement?

I know the hopes in the West are for a new Russian Republic that is no more a thorn in the side of the US and Europe. We should all hope for that but know that’s unlikely to occur. If Russian history is any guide, the next leader of Russia is likely to emerge like the last few: from the shadows, with a knife in the back of the current executive.

Vladimir Putin rose through the ranks, even advising Boris Yeltsin. Once Putin established himself through elections, he pulled the cords tight and ensured he never left office. Any successful challenger to Putin internally will likely come from a hardliner, not a person friendly with the West. Painting Putin as weak and ineffectual in the light of a massive loss will carry merit.

When the USSR collapsed, the United States had the leadership to help manage that decline. The collapse of an empire without a bullet getting fired is a rare occurrence. We must consider how to react and respond to a world without Vladimir Putin. There are no contingency plans, and in international politics, vacuums always get filled.

A victory in Ukraine is an unquestionable win for America. That’s not the end, though. We want to avoid another Putin taking power. Because a person with the capacity and cunning to take out Putin is likely far more lethal than him. A Ukrainian victory is an opportunity for a new relationship with Russia. We should not let that pass or commit the same blunders as in the past.