Photo credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Putin’s admission of failure should be echoed by Ukraine’s doubters

There are two things which we can say with some confidence about Vladimir Putin’s decision to mobilise Russian reservists, and to rush through “referenda” in two Ukrainian regions with a view to annexing them to the Russian federation:

The first is that none of this would be happening if the Russian war was going to plan. Russia is mobilising more soldiers and equipment because the war has thus far not gone to plan at all, and Russia is on course for a humiliating military defeat without action to draft more soldiers. This is not good news for young Russians: Wars fought by conscripts and reservists tend to be much bloodier than those fought by professional soldiers. Look at the lessons the Americans learned in Vietnam if you don’t believe me there.

The second is that those who have demanded peace, and an end to “NATO escalation” of the conflict are remarkably quiet about Russia’s escalation of the conflict, which is interesting. Those calls for peace have always been based, ultimately, on the notion that Russia is an unstoppable military juggernaut which cannot be stopped, and that, therefore, negotiation is pragmatic and sensible. But in fact, the Russian military juggernaut has not only been stopped, but put into reverse. And yet, the majority of the western peacenik caucus – both on the right and left – still considers peace a responsibility of the invaded, not the invader. As a great believer in stating one’s position plainly, and letting the chips fall where they may, I might suggest that some of these people should just be open about their preference for a Russian victory on the basis that they think the west deserves a bloody nose. As it happens, I agree that the west deserves a bloody nose – I just think it’s immoral to sacrifice Ukraine in order to teach NATO a lesson, or whatever the thinking is.

The easiest prediction in the world is that in the coming days and weeks the calls for peace will escalate, once more based on the idea that Ukraine cannot withstand this new Russian onslaught. We’ve had them before: On these pages, in the spring, shortly after the Kiev fiasco, one of my colleagues wrote – and was not alone in writing – that the Russians would shortly crush the Ukrainians in a giant pincer move in the east of the country. In fact, it is worth recalling what my colleague Thade Andy, who takes a different view on these matters than I do, wrote on these pages in March about Ukraine’s move to conscription, and the state of the war:

The response of Ukraine’s President Zelensky has sometimes been ill-advised. Handing out guns to anyone who will stand and defend the country is not a good idea. One outcome from action may be an opportunistic reign of terror by local criminal gangs.

Conscripting every man between the age of 18 and 60 also seems a reckless and futile gamble. At times it feels as if he is following some Hollywood script.

In the Ukraine, reports are coming that Russian forces are surrounding the cities. That advance has been extraordinarily rapid. More rapid for instance, than the American advance on Bagdad in 2003. There are small engagements on the city outskirts, but the Russians seem more intent on surrounding the cities and just holding up. The same tactic seems to be applied across the country.

Twitter seems delusional about what is happening, with contrary stories and propaganda abounding.

Why have the Russians stopped at the outskirts of the cities? Many have observed that the equipment being used by the Russians is old and that the soldiers are green regiments. These are not the same standard of soldier or equipment that were deployed in Syria or Georgia. Some reports suggest that the regiments include separatists from the eastern breakaway regions.

Are these green units and old equipment cannon fodder? Once the cities are encircled will the Russians bring in elite units, trained in urban fighting, to take the cities? That would be one way to achieve a quick and decisive victory with minimal civilian casualties. Who has judged the geopolitical and local circumstances better, the leaders of the West or Putin? Only time will tell.

Thade writes much on these pages that is right and correct, and he is one of our most valued contributors here at Gript. So I quote him here not to spike the football or score points, but to point out that much of what he wrote then about the Ukrainians seemed relatively logical. Many of our readers agreed with him. Some of what he wrote had merit: After all, Ukrainian losses in this war have, as he predicted, been high. Partly because many conscripts have been fighting, and beating, the regular Russian army. Thade’s analysis – and again this is not a criticism – was not unique. You would have found similar sentiments in March from a range of columnists and commentators insisting that Russia’s victory was inevitable. We publish those views here because they did not seem inherently unreasonable concerns at the time.

But the fact is that the very criticisms Thade made back then about Zelenskyy and Ukraine now apply to Putin. Because Thade was wrong that the Russians could “achieve a quick and decisive victory with minimal civilian casualties”. And it is Putin, now, who is calling up “green units” and “old equipment”. Who judges the geopolitical and local circumstances better, he asked? Time will tell. 

Time, has, indeed, told. Conscripting men between 18 and 60 was, wrote Thade, a “reckless and futile gamble“. Was he right?

In fact, almost every analysis of the war that has taken the approach that Russian victory is inevitable or likely has been shown by events to be entirely wrong. The very people now insisting, as they will, that Russia’s mobilisation shows that Putin has stepped up a gear and is now likely to “do what it takes” to achieve victory have been wrong about almost everything else in this war, from the beginning.

That is why Putin is now mobilising. Because he called it wrong in the Spring: He underestimated the Ukrainian armed forces, as did many of his supporters in Russia and elsewhere. He underestimated Western resolve – as he and his supporters and sympathisers continue to do, in the matter of gas supplies and energy. He overstated the professionalism and fighting qualities of his own army.

All of this amounts to an enormous Russian humiliation. That, and that alone, is why he is now again bluffing about his willingness to use nuclear weapons.

Neither the west nor Ukraine have any duty to help Russia out of this mess. Putin created it himself. And he can bring it to an end at any moment he wishes, by withdrawing his troops behind Russia’s existing borders. That is the only way to guarantee peace. Which is why it’s so fascinating that so many of those people who say that they want peace seem to consider that settlement the only one they’re unwilling to call for.

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