Ukrainians have shown they are willing to die to keep their country free. But few Russian soldiers see any glory in throwing away their lives for Putin’s arrogant misadventures.
During the ‘Great Patriotic War’ — Russia’s term for its heroic repulse of Hitler during the Second World War — millions of Russian conscripts were mown down on the steppes by German machine-gunners, tanks and artillery. In contrast, Putin has been able to mobilise only about 750,000 troops. Of these, thanks to leaks from the Russian finance ministry, we know that ‘death grants’ have been paid to the families of 48,000 soldiers. …
Corruption, badly maintained equipment and widespread drunkenness among troops are also bedevilling any chance of serious progress.
Even Russia’s slavishly Putinite media is increasingly asking questions about the sanity of the invasion. …
Putin owes his continued position to a perception of absolute power and invincibility. Ukraine, however, is showing that resistance to the dictator is possible. Russian dissidents and the regime’s most powerful internal enemies will be watching closely, biding their time to strike. …
Unless Moscow now sees a dramatic change of fortune, it is not hard to imagine Putin’s generals and spy chiefs deciding to make him the scapegoat for the war — and withdraw the bedraggled remaining troops.
He will never retire — or be retired. An ousted Putin would more likely suffer a nasty ‘fall’ or sudden fatal ‘illness’ — like so many of his own critics during the ugly years of his presidency.
And that, conversely, is why we may be approaching the most dangerous moment in the war. Schooled in Russia’s history and the ignominious end of so many of its leaders, Putin might be willing to do anything to prevent his assassination — even going nuclear to save his own skin.
‘Tactical’ nuclear weapons could be fired at Ukrainian troops to block advances — with devastating results. Even a ‘battlefield’ use of WMD — not that the fallout would discriminate between soldier and civilian — would hurtle the world past a threshold not crossed since 1945.
And if the nuclear taboo is broken in Ukraine, then what next?
Putin owns this war. If it goes badly for his country, then he will likely be replaced, one way or another. And if he is replaced, he will likely fall out of a window, be poisoned, etc.
Meanwhile, most unusually for an armed conflict, Russia has the means to win if it really wants to:
- Declare all out war and mobilize. But it would be very unpopular, and probably cause Putin to be replaced even sooner.
- Tactical nukes. They would quickly stop and destroy Ukrainian forces, but they might lead to a more general nuclear exchange, nuclear winter, and the downfall of human civilization.
A desperate leader might just do it.
Or Putin might be replaced sooner rather than later, a peace deal quickly worked out with Ukraine (e.g. return Ukraine’s territory, no NATO membership for Ukraine, sanctions lifted), Russian gas sales to Europe might resume, Ukrainian wheat would again feed the Middle East, and so on.
Much hangs in the balance, and it might be decided by surprises on the battlefield, right now.