BERLIN – Russia’s war on Ukraine is senseless, brutal and, most of all, unjustified. This is primarily leveraged on the Ukrainian people, whose state faces an existential threat to its independence and sovereignty, and whose supposed allies in the West took far too long to finally offer it only part of the support it will need to defend itself against the Russian invader.
It is also leveraged on the Russian people, held hostage by a criminal regime they have no say in choosing, and which purports to act in their name. It is telling that the state-controlled media continues, absurdly, to call Vladimir Putin’s war on all of Ukraine a “special operation in the Donbas”, and has threatened media outlets that use the words “war” and “invasion”. State TV focuses on the supposed threat from Ukraine to refugees from the Donbas, and steers well clear of showing strikes on Kyiv. Access to Twitter and Facebook, where ordinary Russians might see clips of missile strikes on apartment buildings or burning ambulances, has been limited by the authorities.
No wonder: Moscow knows that this war is unsellable. Tens of millions of Russians were born or have relatives in Ukraine. They may well have travelled, studied or lived in cities such as Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odessa. Ordinary Russians will suffer, immensely, from the sanctions the West is imposing on Russia, including cutting it off from the Swift global banking network and freezing the assets of its central bank. They would not accept falling living standards and global isolation as retribution for a war against their relatives. So they must be lied to.
The Kremlin has learned the lessons of its previous invasion of Ukraine, in 2014. Now, wrote the journalist Lev Shlosberg, Russian soldiers who die in the field will be cremated on the spot and their ashes scattered by their comrades, to avoid the political fall-out of mothers in Russia burying their children. Some parents may never be told where their children lie.
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The Ukrainian military claims to have killed more than 4,000 Russian soldiers since the invasion began five days ago. Even half that likely inflated number would be virtually unprecedented in modern warfare, the equivalent to around a quarter of the Soviet army’s losses over a decade in Afghanistan or roughly the same number of US soldier deaths in the Iraq War.
Russia’s hopes of a quick victory seem to have been predicated on a blitzkrieg decapitation strategy of killing or capturing Volodymyr Zelensky’s government in Kyiv within days. Now that the Ukrainians have shown much stiffer resistance than the Russians seem to have expected, those hopes are fading. That could mean the Russians shifting to a strategy of more indiscriminate warfare, including in cities, inflicting heavier losses on Ukrainian civilians and incurring more themselves.
Analysts I speak to cannot quite bring themselves to believe that Putin could really be so mad as to flatten Kyiv as he flattened the Chechen capital, Grozny, after 1999. Yet just a week ago they could not bring themselves to believe that he would invade Ukraine.
But the harsher the tactics Russia uses, the more unachievable its political goals will become. Ukraine’s population is already hostile to Moscow. The Kremlin’s soldiers are discovering that Ukrainian civilians are not welcoming them with the traditional Slavic gift of bread and salt but with verbal and sometimes physical hostility. Videos of Ukrainians cursing Russian servicemen to their face in perfect Russian vividly illustrates the point. “Why are we fighting people who swear like us?” wonders an anti-war friend in Moscow.
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The Ukrainian people will only become more anti-Russian if Moscow switches to the indiscriminate tactics and weapons it has already tested in Chechnya and Syria. Military analysts have spotted the Russian army moving thermobaric weapons, which suck the oxygen out of the air to fuel a high-temperature explosion, to the front. These types of tactics are likely a last resort, but even so: how does Moscow hope to rule a population on which it has used such weapons?
Tensions are now escalating far outside the borders of Ukraine. This weekend, Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear deterrence forces on high alert – more indication that he is willing to resort to the most extreme form of brinkmanship in his quest for victory over Ukraine.
This war is the dying breath of a regime running on fumes. Its architect sits brooding, alone in the vast halls of his palace. The power of the forces he has unleashed is such that even he may find them slipping beyond his control.