C: www.kremlin.ru

What did yesterday’s bombings gain Russia?

While I was away last week, a portion of the Russian front line in the Kherson province of Ukraine appeared to collapse, quite suddenly. The Ukrainians, over the space of about 36 hours, took back more than 40 settlements, resulting in widespread panic and “doomerism” in Russia-friendly social media channels. This doomerism was perhaps exacerbated by the recent Russian collapse in Kharkov, on the other end of the front, which appears to have gained Ukraine thousands of square miles of territory, and thousands of piece of Russian military kit. Then, on Sunday, the Kerch bridge in Crimea was attacked – by Ukraine’s own admission, by its forces – on the day after President Putin’s birthday. Depending on how serviceable that bridge now is, this may, or may not, hurt supply lines to the aforementioned, and struggling, Kherson front.

The response by Russia to these setbacks – and setbacks they clearly are – was to launch a barrage of missiles at Ukraine yesterday, hitting civilian areas and infrastructure across the country. The death toll, at present, is unknown, but it is certain to include a great many non-combatants, as well as those who may die later if power and water cannot be restored in some settlements quickly.

I will not write here about the morality, or immorality, of these events. Experience in this job has taught me that most people, when they adopt a fixed position on a matter, will hold to it regardless of events. If you thought the Russian case broadly just on Sunday, I suspect your reaction to yesterday’s missile strikes will be something along the lines of “sure didn’t the US do the same in Baghdad”, or just “it’s war”, or something to that effect. That’s how our brains work – we adopt the position first, and justify it later. I am not always innocent of it myself. Equally, those of us who tend towards the Ukrainian side in the war have studiously ignored last week’s report from the New York Times that Ukraine may have had a hand in the assassination of a Russian civilian last month, due to her being the daughter of a Putin advisor. In war, there’s immorality and dirty dealing to go around, if you look for it.

What’s objectively more interesting, as an amateur student of history and warfare, is the question of what the Russians hope to achieve by their actions. History is littered with examples of civilian bombings or other attacks not working as the attacker might hope: Amongst our own little island Kingdoms, I’ll give you two examples – the Bloody Sunday massacre in Croke Park, and the German Blitz on London in 1940. Both were designed to a greater or lesser degree as acts of vengeance, and acts of forced submission. Those who carried them out probably thought that they would weaken the resolve and resistance of their enemies. In both cases, they were entirely wrong. Indeed, harking back to the “Baghdad” comparison above, it cannot be lost on those who make it that the US was, in the end, effectively driven from Iraq by a local insurgency. Yesterday’s attacks will not, you’d expect, make the average Ukrainian under Russian occupation more friendly towards the occupying troops.

There’s also the international issue: To the extent that Russia had an observable and comprehensible strategy to weaken western support for Ukraine it was this: To cut off the gas to Europe, and hope that its people suffered greatly this winter from fuel shortages and energy inflation. To hope that the large number of Ukrainian migrants into Europe would undermine social cohesion. To expect that as the hardship bit, clamour for a negotiated settlement which would force Ukraine to cede territory would increase, if not openly, then behind the scenes.

As strategies go, it is not a bad one. Starving the enemy into submission has worked, in history, more often than it has failed. War exhaustion is a documented, real, phenomenon – and it’s undermined almost every American war since Vietnam.

That is why yesterday’s attacks make no rational sense: They do not appear to have undermined, to any real degree, Ukrainian fighting capacity. Ukraine’s troops and supply lines were not targeted. If the Russian situation on the front was “difficult” – in the language of Russian telegram groups – on Sunday, it remains so today. Meanwhile, the attacks make fools of Russia’s few western friends.

Many, in recent weeks, and not just in Ireland, have suggested in good faith that some Ukrainian refugees should be sent back to Kiev and other cities miles from the conflict zone, which was then relatively safe. When they suggested that, they had no reason to suspect it untrue, nor did the thousands of people who agreed with them. But yesterday, Putin made their arguments redundant: Because no part of Ukraine, clearly, is “safe”. Sending anyone back there, while Russia targets civilian cities miles from the front line, is to risk their lives. And in terms of public opinion, the next few months may prove me wrong, but my guess is that Russia did more to stiffen western resolve yesterday than anything the Ukrainians have done on the battlefield in recent months.

That leaves, really, only one explanation: That the strikes yesterday were a form of “cope” – targeted at a domestic audience, to show that Mother Russia’s recent humiliations will not stand. The problem there is that the humiliation is almost entire and complete and impossible now to wash away: The dreams of a restored Russian Empire, or of Russia as a global peer to the United States, have been shattered in this war. Indeed, the bombing of civilians in Ukraine yesterday was an admission of defeat in one respect, because Russia now clearly no longer sees any prospect of absorbing Ukraine, whole and entire, back into the Empire. The rhetoric and actions have shifted from “Ukrainians are our lost brothers, under the unjust oppression of the west” to “Ukrainians themselves are our enemy, and collectively responsible for our woes”. However this war ends, now, there will still be a Ukraine, independent, when it does. That was not the dream of Russians when it began.

The other problem for Russia, in terms of western sentiment, is that much of the peace caucus relied, from early on in the war, on the idea that Russia could not be beaten. Since Russia’s victory in Ukraine was inevitable, the reasoning went, what profit it anyone to prolong the inevitable? Only a warmonger would want to sacrifice Ukrainian soldiers to an unstoppable and reformed Russian Army. That, too, has been fatally undermined by Russia’s recent battlefield reverses. The best case scenario now for the Russians is probably that the war degenerates into stalemate along something approximating the current front lines and that eventually, some of their recent “annexations” are grudgingly accepted. In return for the possible achievement of small territorial gains, Russia will get the certainty of years of international isolation, and the very real possibility that the vast majority of a still-independent Ukraine will seek EU and NATO membership, and be granted them. Dreams of a swift and triumphant entry into Kiev seem remote.

Perhaps the best argument for peace left is that Russia is behaving like a cornered, angry, Bear. One that still has nuclear claws left, and has threatened to use them. And the answer to it is this: If Russia can achieve its goals with nuclear blackmail, then so can anyone with Nuclear weapons. Whither, then, South Korea, or Taiwan, or anyone in the line of sight of a country with a willingness to push the button? Why not surrender the Baltic States and half of Poland, while we are at it?

The Russian position does not appear to me, at least, to have been materially improved yesterday. Strategically, it seems weakened. But on Russian social media, news of dead Ukrainians has improved the mood. Perhaps that is what the point was – because it’s hard to see another.

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