Four weeks into Putin’s barbaric attack on his country’s peaceful neighbour, his generals appear to have shifted abruptly from his objective of ‘de-Nazifying’ and disarming Ukraine. Instead of the originally planned blitzkrieg and puppet regime, earlier predicted to be installed within a few days, they now say the idea was always only to ‘liberate’ all of the eastern ethnic-Russian Donbas region. The columns of tanks sent towards Kiev – and the brutal attacks on it and other cities west of the Donbas – were just diversionary tactics, the generals claim. As Winston Smith was told in 1984: Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.
The Kremlin will still eliminate President Zelensky and his government if it can. But the generals, at least, seem to have decided the way to achieve that isn’t by trying to send in columns of tanks, about 300 of which have been destroyed by the Ukrainians so far.
The failures of Putin’s war have been spectacular. Fierce and effective Ukrainian resistance has prevented significant Russian progress in conquering territory. After a month, Moscow’s forces have occupied a grand total of one Ukrainian urban centre, Kherson – and, even there, they face concerted counter-attack. The Pentagon confirms that the Ukrainians have also made progress pushing the Russians back in other areas, especially around Kiev. Nato estimates that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, and a pro-Putin newspaper has inadvertedly revealed a death toll of about 10,000, a figure edging towards the 15,000 troops Moscow lost over ten years in Afghanistan. Nato further estimates that up to 40,000 Russian troops have been killed, wounded, captured or are missing, around a quarter of the country’s professional army.
Moreover Russia, with its huge airforce advantage, still doesn’t control Ukraine’s skies. It’s failed to knock out enemy air defence systems and Kiev’s airforce still has a useful 55 or so fighter aircraft. Kiev claims to have downed 97 Russian fixed-wing planes. That figure may be optimistic, but not too wide of the mark – as many as 11 were confirmed lost on just one weekend. Western officials have backed Ukrainian claims that seven Russian generals and nine other senior commanders have been killed, in many cases because they’ve been on the frontline, leading unmotivated, demoralised troops. There have been multiple reports of failures of basic Russian logistics, including food supplies for troops, as well as cases of desertion, enthusiasm to surrender and, in one instance, mutiny. A favoured tactic among troops is reportedly stealing cars and then escaping into Belarus.
The Russian commanders have responded to the failures with savage, indiscriminate artillery and air attacks against urban areas, especially Mariupol, the port city in south-east Ukraine whose seizure is vital to linking the Russian-occupied Donbas and Crimea. Whereas Ukrainian defences have been effective against tanks, troops, and, more intermittently, aircraft and cruise missiles – and have also destroyed a Russian naval ship – they haven’t done much to stop the attacks on such urban centres. Still, even as the Russians flatten cities, their troops’ record raises doubts about whether they’d succeed in occupying them – even if they limit their efforts to just the Donbas, including Mariupol. Russia’s atrocities moreover have enflamed Ukrainian anger and have stiffened morale. 93 per cent of Ukrainians believe they will win the war.
The surreal offering by Russia of peace terms to Ukraine while it continues its savage attacks amounts to nothing more than a surrender ultimatum, probably mainly designed to undermine Western unity on sanctions. Zelensky has already gone out on a limb, accepting that Ukraine will never join Nato. Yet Moscow also demands that he accept the forced annexation of Crimea, the ‘independence’ of the two Russian-backed breakaway Donbas republics and that international sanctions end. Zelensky has said any border changes would be subject to referenda – i.e. no; he would likely make justified counter-demands of Russia, including for reparations and war crimes tribunals. No one in their right mind would trust Putin in any peace deal and none is likely as long as he remains in power.
So far Western unity has held remarkably well, a consequence of a rare near-consensus from Right to Left about the need to help the Ukrainians, short of starting World War III. Sanctions are hitting Russia hard and the key military help the Ukrainians need – a fast, steady flow of state-of-the-art anti-air and anti-tank weapons – is being delivered, even if the Ukrainians would ideally like a no-fly zone and heavier weapons – tanks, armoured vehicles and planes.
President Biden has commendably moved from weakly predicting that Putin would get away with anything less than a full invasion of Ukraine to channelling the global outrage, labelling him a war criminal and a butcher and calling for the end of his regime. He’s also abruptly shifted from dove to hawk with his threat that any Russian use of chemical weapons would meet a response ‘in kind’ – startlingly suggesting a US military response.
Other than managing that potential doomsday threat, the West’s challenges will be ensuring that Russia doesn’t cut off the supply of Nato weaponry to Ukraine and that Western unity holds under pressure for more sanctions if Putin persists and commits further outrages. That would probably mean a total trade embargo, likely to be resisted by Germany and other European countries that have foolishly become reliant on Russian gas – even though the slogan ‘Better a cold shower than Putin’s gas’ is so often seen at pro-Ukraine rallies.
The West should pile more pressure on Putin, by turning Russia more completely into an international pariah. The Council of Europe has rightly expelled Russia, yet in much of the diplomatic world it’s business as normal with Moscow. The UN General Assembly has condemned Russia, but there’s no sign of an effort to suspend its membership, as was done with South Africa from 1974 until the end of apartheid.
No matter what further horrors Putin unleashes in Ukraine, if he remains in power he’ll almost certainly be invited to the Indonesian-hosted G20 summit in November – where exclusions can only be agreed by consensus. Still, Putin will be so hated by then that the chances of him emerging from his bunker to travel anywhere except the likes of Minsk or Pyongyang are probably remote.
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Mark Higgie is on Twitter at @markhiggie1
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