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Russia is losing the edge in Ukraine, but Putin still seems ready to double down


If you are following events in Russia and Ukraine closely, you could be forgiven for wondering if Vladimir Putin has backed himself into a corner. Many thousands of Russians are fleeing the country, trying to avoid being drafted to fight in the war. Phony so-called elections in four Ukrainian provinces, provinces which Russia now says it has annexed, are being mocked in capitals around the world. And on the battlefield, Ukraine keeps winning. So where does all this leave Putin? What cards does he still hold? - questions I want to put now to Michael McFaul. He served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 and now is the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. Ambassador, great to speak with you.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Over the weekend, you tweeted this. Quote, "Putin needs to cut his losses before it's too late." Explain.

MCFAUL: Well, the conventional wisdom out there, including analysts in our country and around the world, is that Putin can't accept defeat. He will double down. He'll fight to the end. He might even use nuclear weapons. I've known Putin for a long time, written about him for decades. That would be my prediction, too. And most certainly, he is doubling down now, right? He's not retreating. He's trying to mobilize 300,000 soldiers. And he's upped the ante by annexing territory the size of Portugal. And just - let's be clear. This is really unprecedented.

KELLY: This is a more aggressive Vladimir Putin than we were watching even six months ago.

MCFAUL: Exactly. But that doesn't mean he'll be successful. And what I was trying to say in that tweet - if he was rational, he might think about cutting his losses. But tragically - and I say this. I want to emphasize that word tragically. If he did say, OK, I'm done; let me have Donbas and Crimea, the places I was basically controlling before, I think there would be a lot of leaders around the world that might support him. That would be a face-saving way out. It's not my prediction, but it would be a different way out than just fighting forever.

KELLY: Do we know if Putin understands how badly things are going for Russia in Ukraine?

MCFAUL: That's a great question, and I don't have a great answer. I know from past experience, and most certainly in the run-up to the initial invasion decision, that he had bad information. By the way, he's had bad information for a long time. Even when I was ambassador, we used to write cables back to Washington talking about how small his inner circle is and he doesn't listen to anybody. That was a long time ago - gotten worse, especially during COVID. What I don't know - has he corrected for that right now? I would not say there's any evidence to suggest that he has.

KELLY: In terms of what other things might influence how things play out, what signs are you watching for as to whether there may be any cracks, any fissures emerging among Putin's inner circle? I mean, it's one thing to have pressure from below, to have people protesting or hopping on planes to flee the country. What about at the top?

MCFAUL: You're seeing signs. They're small signs. We shouldn't exaggerate them. But I'm struck by how much just in the last 48 hours has happened. So this guy Kadyrov - he's the leader of Chechnya. He's a very nasty, horrible person, you know, but a strong man who brought law and order to Chechnya. He is now criticizing - they've lost the war. They have to fight harder. Mr. Prigozhin - he runs a group called the Wagner Group, a private paramilitary operation with forces fighting in Ukraine. He said something even worse. Like, the general should be thrown to the frontlines and be killed. You see it on the television shows. You know, I watch these shows from time to time to get a feel for the mood. And they're lamenting what's happening. And if that's what's being said in public, I can only imagine what's being said privately by elites in Moscow today.

KELLY: Interesting. So let's end on a note of hope. I want to ask about one other thing that you tweeted over the weekend, which was that, yes, there's a whole lot of bad news in the world today but that people in two countries, in Iran and in Ukraine, are giving you hope. I want you to describe what you see that caused you to write that.

MCFAUL: Well, you know, we've been in a 15- or 16-year global recession with respect to democracy. And you look around the world, and you don't see, you know, when will this end. I feel like it's ending in Ukraine because, you know, let's be clear. President Zelenskyy and the incredible warriors of Ukraine and the society there - they are fighting to defend their democracy against an invading dictatorship. And they're winning. It's not to say they'll win in the long run, but it feels hopeful. When I talk to Ukrainians, it feels hopeful, and same in Iran, another country I've been following for many decades. We've had episodic explosions of nonviolent civic resistance, usually led by women, by the way, and in this case most certainly led by women. I don't know how it ends, but when brave people stand up for what they believe in, you have to be inspired.

KELLY: Michael McFaul. He is former U.S. ambassador to Russia, now a professor at Stanford. Ambassador, thank you.

MCFAUL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.