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Leader: The Kremlin’s theory of victory

Despite repeated military failures, Vladimir Putin is signalling that he is prepared to destroy Ukraine rather than back down.

By New Statesman

The new year in Ukraine started as the last one ended, with the continued Russian bombardment of the civilian population. On 14 January a Russian missile hit a block of flats in Dnipro, a city in central Ukraine, more than 200km from the front line. The city is a crucial hub for humanitarian aid. By the latest count, 44 people were killed, including five children. There were no military targets nearby. This must be investigated as a war crime.

Yet, as well as terrorising civilians and demonstrating contempt for human life, this Russian strike – like the many others before it – serves a tactical purpose for Vladimir Putin, consistent with the Kremlin’s evolving theory of victory in Ukraine. It is part of a systematic campaign to destroy the country’s civilian infrastructure and economy. The aim is to drive new waves of refugees into the rest of Europe and to ratchet up the cost to its Western partners of supporting, and eventually rebuilding, Ukraine. Vladimir Putin wants to signal that he is committed to this war for the long haul; that he will never abandon Russia’s claim to Ukraine, and he is prepared to destroy the country rather than back down.

This is a bluff. These attacks on civilians, which cheer the war’s supporters in the Russian nationalist blogosphere and are celebrated by state media outlets, obscure the weakness of the Russian military, whose performance has been characterised by failure and repeated reversals.

Russia claims to have captured the town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine on 13 January (although this is disputed by Kyiv), which if confirmed would improve its position in the ongoing battle for Bakhmut – one of the bloodiest struggles in the war – by bringing it within Russian artillery range. But a closer look at the fighting, and the divisions that have already emerged in Moscow as the mercenary group Wagner, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, tries to claim credit over the ministry of defence, reveal that any victory is likely to be pyrrhic.

The Russian advance on Soledar and Bakhmut has incurred heavy losses, with US estimates claiming that at least 4,000 Wagner mercenaries have been killed and 10,000 injured so far – that is more than a quarter of the group’s approximately 50,000 recruits. Russian artillery fire overall, as of 10 January, was also estimated to have decreased by as much as 75 per cent from its earlier peaks as Russia’s ammunition stocks have been depleted. While international sanctions have so far failed to devastate the Russian economy, as had been hoped in the West, the cumulative toll is building. The notion that Putin can wage war indefinitely is a fantasy.

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Yet the Russian tyrant will be cheered by the familiar spectre of domestic political dysfunction that has re-emerged in the United States, by far the most important source of military and economic support for Ukraine. The news that classified documents have been found at Joe Biden’s home and former office has weakened the president’s position, and with the Republican Party now in control of the House of Representatives, aid to Ukraine will be carefully scrutinised. Support is already falling among Republicans.

There are also predictable political divisions in Germany. As Jeremy Cliffe writes on page 31, Christine Lambrecht resigned as defence minister on 16 January after months of criticism over her faltering response to the war. Despite Olaf Scholz’s declaration in February 2022 that the Russian invasion represented a Zeitenwende – turning point – in German and world affairs, his government has been lacklustre. Ms Lambrecht’s departure will not resolve the underlying tensions in Berlin over how much support should be provided to Kyiv, and whether to send – or allow other countries such as Poland to send – its Leopard 2 tanks. All of this merely encourages Putin.

The best way to halt Russian aggression is for Ukraine’s Western supporters to demonstrate unity and resolve. European leaders must make clear to their own citizens that the future of the continent’s security architecture is being decided in Ukraine. The Russian military is not as strong as its continuing assault on civilians suggests, and the West showed in its initial response to the war that it was not as weak or as divided as Putin, and his fellow autocrats, had assumed. This is no time to give up on Ukraine. Vladimir Putin must understand that this is a war Russia cannot win.

[See also: The first signs of Ukraine war fatigue in the West are starting to appear]

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This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis