Published at 09:37 on 26 February 2022
Rather worse for Russia than Putin was hoping, it seems.
Now, before I continue, the standard word of caution about news reports from an active war zone applies: trust no source, even what are normally regarded as trustworthy sources. Russia’s invasion is very unpopular in the West, therefore even normally reliable outlets like the BBC are not to be simply taken at face value. The BBC is staffed by people, most of those people are upset by what Russia is doing, and therefore they have a motive to believe any bad news for Russia (and correspondingly any good news for Ukraine). This is the case even though they may be consciously struggling against bias; it can be very difficult to detach ourselves from our emotions.
However, what sticks out this morning is what Russia Today is saying about the conflict, or rather what Russia Today is not saying. There are no boasts of great territorial gains by Russian forces there. Instead, we see a story professing that this was never about territorial gains for Russia. If Russia was doing well on the ground, you had damn well better believe that the Russian state media would be loudly trumpeting as much evidence for this as they could.
Therefore, the stories from Western and Ukranian stories about fierce resistance making this go worse than expected for Putin are totally believable and consistent with the overall emerging picture. Fierce resistance is also totally compatible with the official line coming from top officials in Kyiv.
At this early stage, it is hard to make any speculations about where this ugly thing is going to end up, but the picture so far is compatible with this turning into an Afghanistan 2.0 for Russia. This is crucially important for the rest of Europe, because the worse this goes for Russia, the less likely Putin is to think about encore performances, and the more likely the Putin regime is to fall. (Note that the latter may well take years to transpire.)
In the shorter term, the lack of progress is likely to make Putin press his commanders to be even more thuggish in their orders than they already have been. Expect tales of atrocious war crimes. Some of these will be poorly-documented. Some of them will be false. But some will be both true and well-documented, and serve to motivate the West to impose drastic sanctions like evicting Russia from the SWIFT network and expropriating property and assets within their borders whose ownership has connections to the Putin regime. Such sanctions will cause genuine hardship in the West as well as Russia, but their effects will of course be more severe in Russia.
Now, sanctions are not the tool that many imagine them to be; their track record has not exactly been the best. But the harshest sanctions possible, plus a bloody quagmire in Ukraine, could indeed prompt the end of the Putin regime. The Afghanistan misadventure, plus a declining economy, sank the USSR, after all.
The final bit of good news is the more widespread than expected outbreak of antiwar protests inside Russia itself. Protest in Russia is rare; it is an authoritarian fascist state where protest of any sort is an extremely risky thing to do (as witness to this fact, thousands of protesters have already been arrested). Yet there are well-documented reports of protests in many dozens of Russian cities (not just the few biggest ones). In order for this to happen, the war must be very unpopular amongst the Russian people. This, more than anything else, could cause an unexpectedly sudden end to the conflict (as well as to the Putin regime itself).