Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be growing increasingly bold amid U.S. inaction over the war in Ukraine, crushing dissent at home, advancing in Ukraine and acting more brazen with his nuclear ambitions.
In the past week, Russia made its first significant gain in Ukraine in months, as Republicans continue to block Ukraine aid in Congress, opposition leader Alexei Navalny died in prison, and the U.S. warned that Moscow is preparing to launch a nuclear weapon into space.
Putin has also waded into American politics and public life, sitting down with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson earlier this month for a rare interview with a western journalist, while saying he’d prefer to see President Biden win in November.
Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, said Putin and Russia are “returning to a position of confidence” previously held at the start of the war — mostly because of the holdup on U.S. aid to Ukraine.
“Because of the political hostage taking in the United States, Russia can be confident at this point that its prospects are going to improve,” he said, though he cautioned that Moscow has been overconfident in the past, including before invading Ukraine.
“Of course, most of those are based on what’s playing out in U.S. domestic politics, which are Russia’s greatest opportunity to make gains in its war on the West and of course, ultimately, to challenge the United States,” he added.
Russia gained a notable victory last week when forces took the city of Avdiivka in the eastern Donetsk region, giving Russia a foothold on the frontlines. Moscow is pushing to take the rest of the Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk to solidify control of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
Ukraine’s military says it inflicted more than 47,000 casualties on Russian soldiers since its offensive on Avdiivka began in October.
Still, the city is a strategic loss for Ukraine’s forces in the region, said Col. Serhiy Grabskyi, a reservist in the Ukrainian military and a military expert.
“We were able to attack the Russian positions, command and control posts, transportation facilities” from Avdiivka, he said. The city “is a big advantage for Russians to use in a full capability.”
The city is also symbolic, a prominent Russian objective since Kremlin-backed separatists began fighting against Ukrainian soldiers in 2014.
Grabskyi said he feared that Russia could also use Avdiivka as “Russian propaganda” and to boost the “energy of Russian society to support Kremlin policy.”
And taking Avdiivka delivers Putin a victory ahead of the Russian president’s elections, said Oleksandr Musiienko, the head of Ukrainian think tank Center for Military and Strategic Studies.
“He needed some success in some sectors before his election in March,” he said.
More worrying for Ukraine has been the delay in U.S. aid to Kyiv, with another package increasingly uncertain due to obstruction from House Republicans.
Part of Moscow’s strategy is to wait out the war, entrenching Russian forces in the roughly 18 percent of territory they hold and waiting for western allies to crack in supporting Ukraine to make more advances.
President Biden said on Monday he was not confident that another city would not fall because of the aid holdup.
“The Ukrainian people have fought so bravely and heroically. They’ve put so much on the line,” Biden said. “And the idea that now when they’re running out of ammunition, we walk away — I find it absurd. I find it unethical. I find it just contrary to everything we are as a country.”
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said Russia’s taking of Avdiivka will not translate into any immediate wider progress, with Ukrainian soldiers taking up defensive positions not far from the fallen city.
But Russia is taking advantage of the delays in Ukraine support, ISW warned. “Delays in Western security assistance to Ukraine are likely helping Russia launch opportunistic offensive operations along several sectors of the frontline in order to place pressure on Ukrainian forces along multiple axes.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend that skeptical politicians must stop asking how long the war will take but “why is Putin still able to continue it?”
“If we don’t defeat Putin now, it won’t eventually matter who is the president of Russia,” Zelensky said. “Because every new Russian dictator will remember how to maintain power by annexing the lands of other peoples, killing opponents, and destroying the world order.”
From the Kremlin’s point of view, it may appear like the cracks in U.S. support are finally starting to widen, said Luke Coffey, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute. But he cautioned that Moscow is also aware Ukraine support generally remains strong, despite it being caught up in domestic fights over border policies.
“Putin must be smart enough to know that the lack of U.S. aid to Ukraine isn’t a result of a change in mindset in Washington,” he said. ”It’s a result of politics being played in Washington. On Capitol Hill, a vast majority of Republican [and] Democrat members support arming Ukraine.”
Putin also further asserted his power at home last week with the death of Navalny, who died in an Arctic prison in Siberia on Friday after three years of imprisonment.
Biden quickly blamed Navalny’s death on Putin, as did the late opposition leader’s wife and supporters.
Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote that Navalny, known for his exposés of Kremlin corruption, posed not an electoral threat to Putin but an existential one.
His death, Kolesnikov added, puts Putin “beyond competition,” especially after the Russian leader tweaked the constitution to allow him to effectively rule for life.
“Power has not only been preserved, it is absolute,” Kolesnikov wrote. “Those who remain silent will keep their mouths firmly closed, and those who support the regime will only do so even more loudly and aggressively.”
Amid the growing tensions with the West, Putin has ramped up nuclear weapons testing and shattered arms control treaties.
Washington said last week that Moscow is developing a new type of space capability, which reports indicate is a nuclear weapon. Putin has denied plans to launch a nuclear anti-satellite weapon into space.
Such a weapon would pose a major threat to satellites used by countries across the entire world, including in Russia, for communications and GPS.
If deployed, the weapon would allow Putin to threaten NATO on another front, part of his campaign of nuclear saber rattling, or to take out Ukrainian and U.S. satellites supporting the war effort.
Giles, from Chatham House, said the new space weapon seems bold but was likely “brewing for a long time.”
“Russia has not suddenly magicked a space weapon out of nowhere,” he said. “These are long-standing programs, about which I think we can assume Western intelligence services were well informed.”
Still, the political and tactical successes seem to have affected Putin’s mood for the better. Putin once again appeared for an annual media roundtable discussion at the end of 2023, after canceling the event in 2022 amid Ukrainian battlefield successes.
In remarks on Sunday carried by state media, Putin claimed his interview with Carlson indicates the Russian perspective is gaining traction across the globe, despite Russia remaining largely isolated across the globe.
Putin said the interview was “linked with the desire of very many people in our country and around the world to get an alternative perspective and know the truth.”