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What happens if Putin decides to cut his losses in Ukraine?

Following a series of phony so-called elections, Russia claims it has annexed four Ukrainian provinces, despite international condemnation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a screen set at Red Square as he addresses a rally and a concert marking the annexation of four regions of Ukraine Russian troops occupy - Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, in central Moscow on September 30, 2022. (Photo by Alexander NEMENOV / AFP) (Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)

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, 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 this leave Putin? And what would happen if he decided to cut his losses and end the war?

Why Russians might welcome a withdrawal

Firstly, even though Russia appears to be on its heels, experts are not expecting Putin to back down from his aggressive stance.

"The conventional wisdom out there, including analysts in our country and around the world, is that Putin can't accept defeat," Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012-2014, told NPR. "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."

Yet according to McFaul, ending the war tomorrow might be the most strategically favorable move for the Russian leader.

"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 he invaded again in February,' I think there'll be a lot of leaders around the world that might support him," he said.

McFaul thinks that a decision to pull out of Ukraine would also be generally well received by Russians, saying that while there certainly is a significant portion of the Russian public that supports the war, the wider majority of Russians are ambivalent to Putin's goals.

"I think the vast majority of people in Russia are apolitical. They don't care about this war," McFaul said. "The argument for it is not compelling to them. So for him to say, 'Mission completed. We don't need your sons to go die in this war,' my prediction is a vast majority would support that."

There are rumblings among Putin's circle

Cracks in support from political elites have started to form, as some members of Putin's inner circle have started to voice their dismay with Russia's faltering performance in the war.

"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," McFaul said on Monday.

Last Saturday, Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of Chechen Republic and key Putin ally, lambasted a top Russian military general in a public post on the social media platform Telegram.

"Were it up to me, I would have demoted [General] Lapin to private, stripped him of his awards, given him an assault rifle and sent him to the front to wash away his shame with blood," Kadyrov wrote.

Another top ally to Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the private paramilitary organization the Wagner Group, voiced support for Kadyrov's sentiment.

"The expressive statement by Kadyrov is not entirely in my style. But I can say to it, Ramzan, you're a star, say it like it is!" Prigozhin said in a press release.

Though neither Kadyrov and Prigozhin have gone as far as to critique Putin directly, the fact that they are publicly criticizing Russia's military performance is a stark contrast in tone seen from Russian elites earlier in the war.

"They weren't talking that way in February," McFaul said. "If that's what's being said, in public, I can only imagine what's being said privately by elites in Moscow today."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.