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Is Putin cracking up?

His sabre-rattling is a sign that the invasion of Ukraine has misfired - but what happens next could be even worse

Photo: The New European

Vladimir Putin’s latest televised address is an admission that his armies have suffered a stunning reverse in Ukraine, a direct consequence of his original misjudgement in sending his armies to invade the place in February. Some 300,000 reservists will now be called up to fight in his ‘special military operation’, existing soldiers will have their contracts extended involuntarily and once again talk of nuclear strikes returns to haunt Europe and the world.

Western commentators have veered wildly from pessimism about Ukrainian prospects at the beginning of the war, through predictions that stalemate on the battlefield could last for months, years or even decades, to a belief that Ukraine has all but won. I myself have given up making predictions: they are too often wrong. But one can make a useful stab at charting what drives the main actors, and place limits on the number of plausible outcomes.

The story goes back 30 – or perhaps 1,000 – years. Under their increasingly sick, alcoholic and erratic president, Boris Yeltsin, the first decade after the Soviet collapse in 1991 was a time of misery for Russians. The Soviet Union had been the second superpower, able to compete with America as a military opponent if in nothing else. Now, almost overnight, the Russians had lost their empire, their international position, their political, military and economic system. People went unpaid for months at a time. Some faced real famine. Even those who had welcomed the end of Communism felt deeply humiliated, convinced that the West was out to keep Russia flat on its back As Nato, the most powerful alliance in history, expanded towards their borders, Russians fell into a resentful and unhealthy nationalism. 

Despite his flaws, Yeltsin was a cunning politician. He marked the new millennium by elevating Vladimir Putin, an undistinguished middle-ranking officer from the KGB, the Soviet secret police, into the presidency as his successor. At first many of us found him grey, undistinguished, boring, hard to read. In fact he was a highly competent administrator and politician, who combined great ruthlessness with a gift for saying what people wanted to hear. And hIs aims were always clear enough: to remain in power, to enrich himself and his colleagues, and to Make Russia Great Again. 

He started by saying all the right things. Russia had paid an outrageous price for its experiment with Communism, he told his people. “History proves all dictatorships, all authoritarian forms of government, are transient. Only democratic systems are lasting.” Russia risked becoming a third rate power. But under a strong government it would find its own way forward. 

Putin’s team managed the economy with competence, helped by the rising price of Russian oil exports. Foreign investment flowed into the country. Russia’s big cities began to look like boom towns. Real incomes rose rapidly. A comfortable middle class began to emerge. Terrible poverty remained, but even in the provinces people became more prosperous than ever before. Not surprisingly Putin’s popularity soared. 

But fundamental economic problems persisted. Unlike the Chinese, the Russians remained almost as unable as they had been under communism to manufacture goods that the rest of us wanted to buy. Corruption thrived as Putin’s cronies enriched themselves. And the politics of his regime soon coarsened. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was one of the newly rich billionaires who had profited hugely from the Soviet collapse. He presumed to engage in politics and denounced the corruption with which Putin was increasingly surrounded. In 2003 he was consigned for ten years to a labour camp on a trumped-up charge. Several of Putin’s other opponents suffered mysterious deaths.

At first Putin continued Yeltsin’s policy of cooperating with the West. He was the first to offer his condolences to president Bush when Islamic terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers in New York. He permitted the Americans to fly military supplies through Russian air space to support their campaign to root out terrorism in Afghanistan. For his pains he was attacked by extreme Russian nationalists for getting almost nothing from the Americans in return. Sentimental old Communists were incensed that he allowed American aircraft to stage through Ulyanovsk, hallowed for them as Lenin’s birthplace. But unlike Putin’s liberal opponents, these people got away with it.

The honeymoon with the West soon fell apart. Putin began to accuse the Americans of arrogance worldwide. He blamed them for Russia’s loss of territory and status. He was determined to restore both. Ukraine was at the centre of his obsession.

A thousand years ago the ramshackle state of Kievan Rus stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Russia and Ukraine both now occupy those lands. They were brought into the Russian empire by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century. Putin and most of his countrymen believe that modern Russia is the sole legitimate heir of ancient Kiev. 

Ukrainians bitterly dispute that, of course. For 70 years Ukraine was a subordinate part of the Soviet Union. Even before the Berlin Wall came down it began to look as if Ukraine might break away and trigger the disintegration of the Soviet empire. The ruthlessly orthodox Communist ideologues who ran Ukraine on behalf of Moscow turned into enthusiastic Ukrainian nationalists right before our eyes. 

When the Ukrainians declared independence in August 1991, even perfectly sensible Russians were appalled. Russia had a great naval base in Sevastopol in Crimea, which Russian soldiers had defended with legendary heroism against the British, the French and the Germans in two great wars. If the Ukrainians did anything silly there, people muttered, the Russian government would have no choice but to use force. For the first time, war between Russia and Ukraine seemed a possibility.

For the next decade Ukraine and Russia managed their relationship with good sense, though sometimes with ill temper. That changed when Vladimir Putin came to power. Obsessed by his belief that Ukraine had no good reason to exist, he started interfering directly in Ukraine’s political affairs. He deployed an arsenal of dirty tricks in 2004 in a failed attempt to promote his own candidate for the Ukrainian presidency. After Nato offered membership to Ukraine and the EU came close to negotiating a trade agreement with Kiev, he finally lost his temper. 

In 2014 he sent covert troops to take over Crimea, and then annexed it. He encouraged pro-Russian separatists to rebel in East Ukraine, and despatched Russian military “volunteers” to help them. The fighting there cost many thousands of lives in the eight years that followed.

By 2022 Putin had been in power for more than two decades. His sense of judgement had long begun to fail. He decided to solve the Ukrainian problem once and for all. In February 2022 he launched what he called a “special military operation” to impose his will on Kiev. He unleashed his army against Ukraine from all sides and sent special forces to capture or kill the Ukrainian President Zelensky. Blinded by contempt for the Ukrainians and a strong dash of wishful thinking, he expected that the campaign would be over in days or weeks. So did his generals and his spies. They were quite wrong.

The Americans did no better. They picked up the signs that the Russians were about to invade and made them public. But they had been taken in by Putin’s claims to have streamlined and re-equipped his army after it bungled a brief invasion of Georgia in 2008. Like him, they expected that the Ukrainians would soon be rolled over.

But the Ukrainians were fighting for their very existence as a separate people. They surprised everyone with their military prowess. The overconfident Russian generals had no coherent fallback when their initial assault failed. Their soldiers turned out to be ill-trained, ill-equipped and ill-motivated, and performed abysmally. The Ukrainians soon threw them back from Kiev. After six months of slog, in early September the Ukrainians seized the initiative and drove the Russians into ignominious retreat.

It is too soon to trumpet a Ukrainian victory. But Putin’s options have severely narrowed. He can convince no one that his gamble in Ukraine was anything other than a colossal misjudgement. He may have silenced his liberal critics. But the right-wing nationalists who so disliked his early attempts to get on with the Americans have now become very vocal. They were angry enough at his reluctance to follow up the annexation of Crimea by taking over the whole of Southern Ukraine as far as the Black Sea port of Odesa – what Catherine the Great called “Novorossia”, New Russia. Now they publicly scorn the high command and the intelligence agencies for their abject performance in the fighting. They criticise Putin himself in increasingly wounding language. He has not yet risked slapping them down.

The fortunes of war are always unpredictable. Putin has surprised us in the past. He still has options. He could change his narrative once again and declare that the conflict is not, after all, a limited operation but a real war, in which victory requires total mobilisation and even greater ruthlessness. The massive and indiscriminate bombing of cities worked in Chechnya and Syria. He could try it much more systematically in Ukraine. 

He may believe too that he retains a strategic advantage. China, India, much of Asia, Africa and Latin America, do not share our outrage at his behaviour. They see little difference between his bombardment of Ukraine and the West’s bombardment of Serbia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. For them the best option is to remain on reasonable terms with all sides, and steer clear of the secondary effects of American sanctions. 

Putin is doubtless also waiting for the winter to break his opponents’ resolve. There are plenty of voices in Europe to argue that people should not have to suffer from the inflation and rising energy costs brought about by someone else’s war. The Ukrainians should, in this narrative, negotiate a “sensible” compromise with Russia, and abandon any hope of recovering Crimea or joining Nato. For many Americans, Ukraine is a far distant country of which they know little; and China is a more pressing worry than Russia. 

Underlying the talk of concessions is a drumbeat of fear – amplified in his televised address – that Putin might use nuclear weapons to avert the ultimate humiliation of defeat. That fear is probably exaggerated. 

Some of Putin’s people have boasted that Russia could reduce New York to radioactive rubble in minutes. So indeed it could. But they know that the Americans could destroy most of their country in retaliation. Both Russians and Americans claim the right to use nuclear weapons first if they think their vital interests are at stake. But their military and their more responsible politicians also know that even a local nuclear war could escalate into a terrible general catastrophe. No one has any idea what would happen once the first rocket is fired. The likelihood is that Putin is bluffing. But since there is no limit to human folly, one can never be entirely sure.

Putin will eventually go, claimed by death or ousted by his own people. Many of his cronies must already be thinking of alternative ways to keep themselves prosperous and safe when he departs. The army commanders and intelligence officials he has brutally humiliated have no great reason to be loyal. He no longer enjoys his previous popularity among ordinary people. News circulates even among the inhabitants of an authoritarian state. 

In the old days it was the rumour mill: Soviet mothers rebelled when their sons came home from Afghanistan in zinc coffins. Now any Russian who wants to know what is going on can find out from the internet, which the government has still failed to block. Many rallied round the flag when Putin launched his war. Many may still feel it’s their patriotic duty to support the boys in the field. But as the casualties mount in a war which is going nowhere, the mood is bound to change. 

When he finally departs, Putin will leave behind him a country deeply traumatised by his misrule, poorer than it need have been, alienated from the Western world of which most Russians would prefer to be part. Such a broken country is unlikely to be any easier to deal with than Russia is today. 

Rodric Braithwaite was Britain’s ambassador in Moscow from 1988-92

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