World

Putin's next move

23 February 2022

6:30 PM

23 February 2022

6:30 PM

Budapest

Russian troops, many apparently without insignia, began advancing into the disputed Donbas region yesterday. The question now is how much further they will go.

The Donbas rebels claim an area three times the size of the territory they currently hold, which is roughly equivalent to the area of Devon. If Moscow were to try to take control of the larger territory, it would mean overrunning the Ukrainian frontlines. It is unlikely that Kiev’s military can mount a serious defence if the Kremlin orders a full-scale attack.

The call to advance came in the form of a belligerent speech by Putin to the Russian people. In it, he strongly suggested that his aim was to reintegrate the country of 45 million into the motherland. Does that mean a full-scale annexation up to the Polish border?

The Kremlin has plenty of options to escalate further. The current occupation of the Donbas will appeal to nationalists, but it won’t achieve much in the way of grand strategic victories. The balance of power in eastern Europe remains the same and a Russia sphere of influence in the former eastern bloc is still only a dream. For that reason, and given the vehemence with which he questioned Ukraine’s right to exist, it seems likely that Putin will slowly strangle Ukraine with blockades, cyber-attacks and military advances. The final objective? A pro-Kremlin Kiev.

The real question is over timing. If Putin opts for speed, Russia could engage in a major battle on the eastern front — probably flagged by a massive artillery and missile barrage. This could be combined with a flanking manoeuvre from the north to encircle Kiev and possibly an amphibious landing in the south around Odessa. Blitzkrieg would give the Kremlin the advantage of momentum. But, even if initially successful, it would mean garrisoning a large country with a restive and increasingly anti-Russian population. It would also leave Moscow open to the full force of western economic retaliation.


Putin’s other option is to nibble away at Ukraine, pausing after each advance to assess. Back in the early years of his rule, even when he was visibly furious with some of the oligarchs who challenged his power, he often waited months or even years before moving against them. But without a fast victory, doubts may grow at home. Putin has always believed that a weak Russian leader is a vulnerable leader.

Either way, something has irrevocably changed. While western admirers have styled Putin a master tactician who consistently outfoxes the clumsy west, his television address suggested he is now obsessed with the loss of Ukraine and empire, almost to the point of myopia. Some believe that years of isolation have left him paranoid, even slightly mad.

French diplomats who recently met Putin have spoken of how he has changed in the last decade. He has, they said, become harder, more paranoid and less compromising. During Covid he isolated assiduously, possibly more than any other world leader.

His inner circle too has tightened considerably. Only a few cronies remain: Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Security Council, Alexander Bortnikov, head of the FSB, and Sergei Naryshkin, head of the foreign intelligence service. After 22 years in power and moving into the twilight of his rule, the former KGB man is thinking of legacy. He would like nothing more than to go down in history as the man who rolled back the loss of empire in 1991.

Shortly before his speech to the nation on Monday, Putin gave the Russian people and the West another window into his style of rule. One by one, in a clearly choreographed performance, he summoned his lieutenants to hear their opinions on Russia’s options in Ukraine. The entire spectacle seems to have been set up to ram home the message that while a wise tsar listens to his advisers, there is still only one tsar.

Unencumbered by the need to pander to democratic structures, Putin has often appeared one step ahead of the West. But Russia’s Ukrainian options are considerably reduced compared to 2014 when they occupied Crimea and invaded the east. A decade ago most Ukrainians were generally pro-Russian and wanted good relations with Moscow. But that has changed as the war has dragged on, claiming 14,000 lives. Today around two-thirds of Ukrainians want to join both the EU and Nato.

Meanwhile, President Biden, who so grossly mishandled the fall of Kabul, has shown deftness in his handling of this crisis. Far from being caught flat-footed, Washington has embraced the information war with enthusiasm, attempting to pre-empt each Russian move. Their predictions — from false flag operations to mysteriously exploding vehicles in the Donbas and cries of genocide against the Russian population — have been remarkably accurate.

On his weekly television show, Putin’s chief domestic propagandist, Dmitry Kiselyov, uncovered a series of alleged Ukrainian crimes, replete with mass graves. But for once there was a sense that the Russians were behind the curve in the fight for the narrative, at least abroad.

Insiders say that the Anglo-American tactic of publicly announcing Russian plans ahead of time, (even though some of them are never enacted) has had two aims: to try and dissuade Putin from following a playbook that the West has already outlined, and, if that fails, to take away any legitimacy his actions might have.

It has left Biden and Johnson open to accusations that they have been playing up the chance of war to help their own sagging political careers, leading to widespread mockery when invasion dates came and went without an attack. Now that date has come and Putin, ever the opportunist, will be looking for more ways to destabilise the West.

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