Putin has Grossly Overplayed His Hand, But NATO Could be Making the Same Mistake as It Senses It’s Winning

Photograph Source: President.gov.ua – CC BY 4.0

By invading Ukraine two weeks ago, President Vladmir Putin grossly overplayed his hand and inflicted a political disaster on Russia from which it will struggle to recover for decades.

But are the US and Nato powers – over-confident because they sense that they are on the winning side – now making the same mistake by raising the stakes so high that the crisis is becoming less about Ukrainian independence and more about the survival of Putin and the future of the Russian state?

The extent of the Russian failure in Ukraine since 24 February cannot be overstated. Putin has presided so far over one of the great fiascos in military history, and it is getting late in the day for him and his generals to reverse this. They have not defeated the Ukrainian army, surrounded and captured the bigger cities of Ukraine, decapitated its government or found any local allies willing to work with the occupiers. A show of Russian strength has become a humiliating demonstration of weakness.

The one force that could come unintentionally to the rescue of Putin and his regime is Nato itself. Reasonable it may be to impose stringent sanctions on Russia in order to pressure the Kremlin to withdraw from Ukraine. But if sanctions become a weapon to enforce regime change in Moscow, or remain in place after the original objective is achieved, then the targeted population will view them as a cruel and undeserved form of collective punishment, strengthening the government that they were intended to undermine. US sanctions on Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Venezuela and North Korea produced plenty of misery, but not any changes in regimes that have, if anything, been strengthened by these economic sieges. It should be clear that as soon as Russian troops are out of Ukraine, sanctions will end.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).