C: www.kremlin.ru

Putin’s enormous, historic, defining blunder

It has almost been forgotten, now, but Vladimir Putin began the war in Ukraine with a severe warning to the western world: Anybody who tries to stop us, or interfere, he said, would face “consequences greater than any you have faced in history”. Some people read that as a warning of nuclear war. Other, calmer voices, read it as a threat of a major cyber attack on the west’s infrastructure. In either case, it is a warning that has gone unheeded, and that is just one of the Russian President’s miscalculations.

As I write, German arms and missiles are on their way to Ukraine. British materials have already arrived. The French foreign legion is sending fully armed and equipped Ukrainians to defend their homeland. Ukrainian forces are transparently being supported, if not with direct western action, then with western intelligence about Russian troop movements. In many parts of Ukraine, the Russians are meeting stern resistance.

The Ukrainian people, and their President, should of course take almost all the credit. Their bravery, after all, has awoken a slumbering continent and spurred it to their aid. The Ukrainian President’s impressive communication skills, and his obvious courage, creates a picture-perfect contrast with his Russian counterpart: Putin, giving angry orders from a secure location, hundreds of miles from the front lines, and President Zelensky, drinking coffee with his soldiers, and recording messages for his people on a smartphone, just a few blocks from the front lines in Kviv.

Putin’s calculations about the war in Ukraine are not hard to divine. There were several pieces published in the days prior to the war which set out the Russian view of the conflict. This, for example, was one of the better ones. At the time it was published, on the eve of the conflict, it struck me as very persuasive:

There will be no meaningful insurgency. The Russians cannot afford to lose Ukraine, unlike Afghanistan. The Ukrainian population cannot handle the level of deprivations normal to an Afghan. And Russia knows Ukraine intimately, unlike Afghanistan, and has exceptional intelligence on it. This means that Russia can snuff out any insurgency. It certainly has the right level of ruthlessness and intelligence penetration to do so. There will certainly be some sabotage and hit and run attacks, but it will not be comparable to Iraq or Afghanistan.

This will be a brief war. Russia’s military has already destroyed Ukraine’s air defences and air force. It will eliminate any artillery or armour in short order. Foreign aid, such as it is, has not been useful in dealing with Russian air superiority, and that will not change any time soon, especially with Ukrainian ports blockaded and airports destroyed. This means that naval and aerial activity will return to normal in less than a few weeks.

Both of those statements (along with much of the rest of that piece of writing) now look hopelessly naïve. Ukraine’s air defences are very much alive, and the Russian advantage in armour is running into Ukrainians well armed with western-made anti-tank missiles, and western drones attacking armoured columns from the air.

In addition, nobody who has watched ordinary Ukrainians engaged in the mass production of Molotov cocktails in recent days, or seen footage of Ukrainian men and women volunteering to fight, could remain under the misapprehension that this will be a short and easy fight for the Kremlin. They are not fighting just the Ukrainian army, but increasingly, the Ukrainian people. The very best case scenario for Putin now looks something like this: A bloody victory in Ukraine, and regime change, with the installation of an unpopular puppet Government, provoking a long insurgency. All the while, with western sanctions tightening around Russia.

And this latter point highlights that the consequences for Russia are greater than just a tougher than expected war. In the weeks leading up to the conflict, there was almost open dismissal in some quarters of the prospect of sanctions on Russia, on the basis that the west was too divided and too reliant on Russian energy, and too tired in any case for any kind of fight. These were my own assumptions – and I must own up to having been wrong. My own expectation (and in my defence, it was a widely shared one) was that the west would do the minimum: some economic sanctions against Russia, words of protest, a few motions at the UN, and then, in a few years, quietly return to a normal default setting. Just as it did when Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014.

That has been entirely wrong: This week, Germany announced a massive investment in its army and air force, and a plan to spend an extra €100bn on weapons this year alone. European airspace has been closed to Russian planes. The Russian Central Bank has had its assets outside of Russia frozen. The west is not just imposing sanctions: It is waging a full scale hot economic war on Russia. All while Russia’s advance into Ukraine is stumbling along.

The big problem for Putin – and the world as a whole, now – is that he has no way out of this war. It is victory, or utter and complete humiliation, of the kind likely to topple even him. A defeat in Ukraine will end Russian pretensions at being a great power. It will almost certainly mean, in the medium term,  Ukraine in the EU, and in NATO. And it will infuriate Putin’s last remaining friends, in Beijing.

For, after all, this little war has another consequence: Beijing has been eyeing Taiwan up for the same treatment now, for years. They will have been watching carefully to see if the west would roll over in the case of Ukraine. They will not be enjoying what they are seeing.

It is abundantly clear, now, that President Putin has erred, and erred badly, in Ukraine. For all the talk in recent weeks about NATO “poking the Russian bear”, it is in fact the opposite which has happened. Putin has prodded the western alliance into waking up, and found, after all, that it still has very sharp teeth. The strongman myth has been shattered.

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