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Putin’s gamble has failed, but the fight for Ukraine drags on


VLADIMIR Putin’s gamble that he could blitz Ukraine and present Nato with a fait accompli has failed. Ukraine remains in danger of being overwhelmed by superior Russians forces but the effort could require a long war which the hitherto invincible Putin may not survive politically.

Nato’s strong response has strengthened the international credibility of the alliance. Tackling the crisis with a show of unity, it has isolated Russia with tough sanctions, supplied the Ukrainians with the weapons they need and prudently refused to be drawn into the fight on the ground.

A moment of supreme danger for both sides when Putin put his nuclear forces on alert has passed without consequences. Amidst signs that Putin’s own senior advisers oppose a war that damages Russia whatever the outcome, the chances are that he would be neutralised before a nuclear threat became real.

It is now clear some of the most senior Russian officials were shocked by the decision to invade for which they were not prepared. Farida Rustamova, a BBC Russian service journalist writing at Substack, spoke to two high level Kremlin sources. One said: ‘The mood in the corridors of power is not altogether rosy, many are in a state of stupor.’ Another told her: ‘Many understand that this is a mistake but out of duty they come up with rationalisations for themselves in order to make it work in their heads.’

Putin launched his invasion to try to force the West to renegotiate Nato’s presence on Russia’s western border. He badly misjudged the reaction of the West and of his own people. Evidence is growing that the war is unpopular with the Russian public.

Putin’s play at Ukraine’s expense has astounded by its cynicism and disregard for human life. What began in his mind as the prospect of a big geopolitical win for Russia, if Nato could be forced to negotiate the removal of its forces, has backfired spectacularly.

He has confirmed the fears of the front-line Nato countries – Poland and the Baltic states – that Russia cannot be trusted. Putin’s miscalculation has succeeded only in demonstrating the need for the alliance to stay in eastern and central Europe to protect its vulnerable allies.

What happens in Ukraine next? Continued war. Any hopes of a ceasefire were quashed when Putin told French President Macron, his main contact with the West, that he intended to take control of all of Ukraine. Macron warned as a result that ‘the worst is to come’.

However brave the Ukrainian army, its chances of defeating the much bigger Russian forces – battle-hardened in Chechnya and Georgia – are slim unless China steps in to save Putin’s face by brokering a halt to the fighting, or Putin’s own people remove him from power.

Courageous Ukrainian resistance has so far stemmed the advance of Russians troops who, to all appearances, have been incompetently led despite three months of very visible preparations for an attack launched at what Putin thought was the optimal moment.

How does a superpower army equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry do something as basic as run out of fuel when it has had so long to get its logistics in place and perfect its map work?

Putin’s unprovoked assault has united Nato’s divided members more strongly than at any time since the Cold War ended and made Ukraine’s inspirational president Volodimir Zelensky a folk hero across the West.

Far from feeling obliged to discuss Russia’s grievances about the future of the alliance’s presence on its borders, Nato is re-arming, unblocking money for defence and repudiating not just Putin but the way Russia conducts itself. Even Germany, the most pacifist of the European countries, is reviving its dormant ability to project military force.

The European parliament wants to fast-track Ukraine’s admission to the EU and there are even calls for it to be allowed to join Nato quickly, both eventualities which Putin set out to forestall. The emotional reaction in the heat of conflict does not mean that either initiative will come to fruition. But they demonstrate a sea change in how the West sees Russia under Putin, no longer as a difficult partner but as an enemy to be contained.

Putin, like bullies before him, has been shown he is not what he was feared to be. His blundering assault has destroyed his carefully constructed aura as a ruthless chess grandmaster who has intimidated the West for more than a decade.

If his aim was to dictate a new post-Soviet security settlement in central Europe from a position of strength, that moment has passed. A negotiation remains necessary for future co-existence but it will not take place on Putin’s terms or even with Putin and may well be imposed on Moscow.

Because the West cannot intervene in either the air or on the ground without the risk of getting into a generalised conflict with Russia, the prospect for Ukraine now is one of bloody fighting until the entire country is subdued.

Putin can drag Ukraine violently back into Russia’s orbit. But in doing so Russia loses whatever Western trust it has gained since the Soviet empire in east and central Europe dissolved. He will have achieved the worst of worlds for Russia and be stuck with a conquered, hostile neighbouring people who look westward for their future.

How long the war will last is anyone’s guess. Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe after Russia. Its sheer size is a key factor in determining whether it can be occupied viably even by a country with Russia’s resources.

Putin has so far not hit Ukraine with the full weight of Soviet military might. If he carries out his threat to conquer the entire country, the conflict could become permanent as it did for both Russia and the West in Afghanistan, should the Ukrainians resort to guerilla tactics. The question for Nato would then be for how long it could look on without intervening?

In any case, the sanctions will stay for as long as the fighting lasts and Russia does not recognise Ukraine’s independence and withdraw its army, which Putin will not do. 

Now that he has humiliated the sacred homeland as well as himself, will his subordinates have different ideas and be prepared to pay the price for the restoration of normalised relations with the West in order to end unprecedented sanctions, only part of which is Putin’s removal? 

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Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes is a retired Anglo-Scottish journalist now living in France who during a 40-year career worked in eastern Europe before and after communism.

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