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Putin's catastrophic war has exposed Russia as a third-rate power

·18-min read
Putin Russia Ukraine
Putin Russia Ukraine

Vladimir Putin is now the loneliest man on earth. Three months ago, he invaded Ukraine to prove that Russia was still a first-rate power. Rather, it has been exposed as a third-rate one.

Putin’s pretentions to be a political “genius” (as Donald Trump unwisely dubbed him) are belied by his almost complete isolation. The autocrat of the conference table has been unmasked as a prisoner of his own megalomania.

He counted on the success of his tried and tested tactic of divide and rule. But he has united the West against him, while the Ukrainians refuse to be ruled by him.

Instead, the grandmaster of realpolitik fell into a trap — the strategic equivalent of Fool’s Mate. A third of his invaders are dead, wounded or missing, with little to show for their sacrifice.

Even state television’s in-house military expert, Colonel Mikhail Khodarenok, told millions of Russian viewers that official propaganda claiming that Ukraine’s army was demoralised was “to put it mildly, false”.

Russia, he warned, would soon face a million Ukrainian troops, armed with cutting-edge Western weapons, and ready to “fight to the last man”. Khodarenok added that “virtually the whole world is against us. And it’s that situation that we need to get out of”.

Was this a moment of truth from a brave soldier, or a subtle attempt by the Kremlin to lower expectations? As Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion and dissident pointed out, to speak out on state media “you need permission”. The tone of propaganda has shifted from triumphalism to an attempt to cast Russia as the victim, engaged in an existential struggle.

Victory Day without a victory

At the Victory Day parade in Moscow on May 9, Putin had no victories to announce. The visibly ailing dictator stood before his people and the world empty-handed.

The contrast with the Great Patriotic War he was ostensibly there to celebrate was unspoken but obvious and painful — especially for veterans.

Russian President Vladimir Putin seen on the screen speacking during the Victory Day Parade at Red Square on May 9, 2022 in Moscow, Russia - Getty Images Europe
Russian President Vladimir Putin seen on the screen speacking during the Victory Day Parade at Red Square on May 9, 2022 in Moscow, Russia - Getty Images Europe

Increasingly, Putin blames the West for forcing him into a war that is already consuming yet another generation of young Russians — more than the Afghanistan, Chechen and Georgian wars combined. Unwilling to risk an official general mobilisation, Putin has ordered conscription to be extended by stealth, including the use of press gangs in a sign of desperation.

Dismayed by the spectacle of Russia’s bungled campaign, China’s Xi Jinping, the ally on whom Putin was counting for support, turned out to be otherwise engaged. The vaunted Sino-Russian axis is already broken.

No less catastrophic has been the way in which Finland and Sweden, two hitherto neutral countries on Russia’s northern flank, have renounced their non-aligned status. At a stroke, Putin has extended his border with Nato by 800 miles. It is a setback, too, for the Russian navy in both the Baltic Sea and Arctic Ocean.

In the Middle East, Russia’s influence has also waned. Of the Arab states, only Syria remains loyal. Israel has distanced itself, despite its large Russian-speaking population.

 Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi (R) welcomes Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin, at Chigi Palace, on May 18, 2022 in Rome, Italy - Alessandra Benedetti - Corbis
Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi (R) welcomes Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin, at Chigi Palace, on May 18, 2022 in Rome, Italy - Alessandra Benedetti - Corbis

Across the Middle East and East Africa, Moscow is also blamed for famines exacerbated by the Russian blockade on Ukrainian grain exports. Ukraine is no longer the breadbasket of Europe, but of some of the poorest nations on earth. Putin’s callous and cynical bid decision to cut their lifeline may cause millions to die in a global food crisis.

Economic isolation

Defeated on the battlefields of Kyiv and Kharkiv, outmanoeuvred in diplomacy, Putin has also been boxed in on the economic front. Western sanctions have proved to be much tougher than he expected, causing the Russian economy to slump into ever deepening recession.

A country that depends so heavily on energy and arms exports cannot afford to alienate most of its best customers. Yet this is exactly what Putin has done.

Despite its tortuous politics and byzantine procedures, the European Union has already cut off coal imports from Russia and is on the verge of agreeing an oil embargo. Gas imports are harder to replace, but one after another, the Kremlin’s client states are finding alternative suppliers. China, the only large replacement market for Russian energy, is driving a hard bargain.

As for arms, even non-aligned India, a loyal customer since the 1950s, has suspended a helicopter deal with Moscow. The lamentable performance of its forces in Ukraine has undone Putin’s two decades of rebuilding Russia’s reputation as a manufacturer of cutting-edge military equipment.

Similarly, a generation spent persuading foreign firms to invest in Russia has been squandered in a few weeks. Hundreds of companies have rushed for the exit, in most cases at a considerable loss, to avoid reputational damage.

For many, the most symbolic example of the exodus has been McDonald’s decision to close more than 800 outlets from St Petersburg to Vladivostok. Back in 1990, the chain opened its first restaurant in Moscow to wild enthusiasm, with queues around the block to taste the hitherto forbidden fruit of American fast food. Just as the arrival of the Big Mac heralded the end of the Soviet Union, its departure marks a return to the days of hunger and shortages.

No less significant was the closure of the huge car factory in Moscow belonging to Renault, one of the last European corporations to leave. It has now been nationalised, and the Mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, announced that production of the Soviet-era Moskvitch brand would resume there. A more striking case of the clock being turned back is hard to imagine.

Despite its vast geographical size, the Russian economy is by most measures only equivalent to that of South Korea, or a medium-sized West European country. The impact of sanctions will probably cause it to shrink further, from roughly the size of Spain to that of Portugal.

Catalogue of errors

Russia’s abysmal demographics (low fertility, low life expectancy, mass emigration), environmental mayhem and rampant corruption mean that the long-term socio-economic outlook is grim. The war has accelerated the decline of this vast, resource-rich land into a third-world basket case.

Indeed, the catastrophic mistakes by the state organs responsible for prosecuting war have shone an unforgiving light onto the arachnid-like activities of the Russian securocrats.

Putin has been lashing out at generals, admirals and intelligence chiefs — all hand-picked by him.

Many have been sacked or are under arrest; several oligarchs have died in suspicious circumstances. There have been no show trials yet; this is a purge by stealth. Nobody has yet dared to point a finger at the man at the centre of the web.

After the chaotic advance on and even more chaotic retreat from Kyiv, Putin despatched his army Chief of Staff, General Gerasimov, to take charge of the Donbas offensive in the south-east of Ukraine. 

But the President, having already usurped the role of commander-in-chief, has now taken to micromanaging small army units at a tactical level — the role of a colonel. Such exercises in remote control by a former intelligence officer with no experience in the field is not only undignified but utterly inefficient.

Putin has long been in the habit of treating his veteran Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, in this fashion. An American diplomat told me that when he sat opposite Lavrov in long and complex negotiations, the minister would frequently pick up his phone and whisper “Putin” to his team. Nothing could be agreed until the boss was satisfied.

Putin’s ubiquitous role in the Russian regime, dominating both military and civilian life, helps to explain how the Russian armed forces came to suffer their worst defeats since 1945 in Ukraine — where many of the biggest and bloodiest battles of the Second World War were once fought.

The initial three-pronged assault aimed to use airborne special forces to decapitate the Ukrainian Government, while two army groups swiftly captured the capital, Kyiv, in the north and the second largest city, Kharkiv, in the east.

Meanwhile a third army group would seize Mariupol on the Sea of Azov and Kherson in Donbas, then roll up the Black Sea coast towards Odessa, Ukraine’s major port, supported by naval forces and amphibious landings. The entire “special operation” would be over in a few days - or at most, a couple of weeks.

Every single part of Putin’s battle plan proved to be based on false assumptions. He believed that his own army was overwhelmingly superior, both in training and equipment, and that his air force would immediately secure control of the skies.

In reality, his troops were brutalised boys, badly led by incompetent, complacent and corrupt officers, reminiscent of their British counterparts in the Crimean War. And just as at Balaclava, “someone had blundered”.

Entourage of sycophants

That someone was Putin. His fatal blunder was to underestimate the Ukrainians. In part thanks to the British soldiers who trained them, but mainly due to their own professionalism, skill and courage, they have proved more than a match for the Russians.

This mistake was blamed on bad intelligence, but the truth is that all the President’s men told him what they thought he wanted to hear — and nothing else. To contradict, to challenge, to stand up to him is, sometimes literally, toxic. Putin has only himself to blame for surrounding himself with an entourage of sycophants.

A despot who has journalists and opposition leaders shot in cold blood, who sends assassins to poison his enemies in hotels and cathedral cities, cannot be surprised if the world he inhabits — a world of paranoia, fear and revenge — becomes increasingly divorced from reality. The tyrant who cannot tolerate those who live in truth is doomed to live in lies.

The present Russian military doctrine was devised by Putin’s favourite general, Valery Gerasimov. Notorious for its application in the annexation of Crimea, the Gerasimov Doctrine advocates “asymmetric warfare” — terrorism, subversion, propaganda, mercenary armies and more — to gain a military advantage.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, and Head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia and First Deputy Defense Minister Valery Gerasimov watch a military exercises on training ground "Telemba", about 80 kilometers (50 miles ) north of the city of Chita during the military exercises Vostok 2018 in Eastern Siberia, Russia, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 - Alexei Nikolsky/ Pool Sputnik Kremlin
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, and Head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia and First Deputy Defense Minister Valery Gerasimov watch a military exercises on training ground "Telemba", about 80 kilometers (50 miles ) north of the city of Chita during the military exercises Vostok 2018 in Eastern Siberia, Russia, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 - Alexei Nikolsky/ Pool Sputnik Kremlin

As Lt General Sir Robert Fry, the former commander of the Royal Marines and now a professor at KCL, points out, “the Ukrainians have been far better practitioners of the Gerasimov Doctrine than the Russians”. Their partisans played a major role in disrupting Russian supply lines and Kyiv has run rings around Moscow in the media war.

Of all Putin’s unforced errors, perhaps the most egregious has been his refusal to take his chief adversary seriously. In public, at least, he refuses even to name Volodymyr Zelensky, just as he will never name the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. It is as though the Russian autocrat believed that for him, the heir to Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Stalin, to utter the name would somehow empower the Ukrainian President.

Yet the story of the past three months has been the apotheosis of Zelensky and the downfall of Putin. The Russian has been in power for longer than anyone since Stalin, while the Ukrainian came from nowhere: a Jewish comedian who mocked the high and mighty — exactly the kind of person who in Russia ends up in a penal colony. Yet it is Zelensky who will be remembered as a hero, while Putin will be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Strategic failure

On Putin’s orders, at least three and possibly as many as a dozen attempts  to assassinate Zelensky, carried out by Wagner Group mercenaries and Chechen units, were thwarted in the early days of the invasion. A concerted attempt by Spetznatz paratroopers and other elite forces to seize and hold Hostomel Airport near the capital was repelled, with heavy casualties.

This Maxar satellite image taken and released on March 11, 2022 shows an overview of damaged buildings and burning fuel storage tanks at Antonov Airport in Hostomel, northwest of Kyiv - AFP
This Maxar satellite image taken and released on March 11, 2022 shows an overview of damaged buildings and burning fuel storage tanks at Antonov Airport in Hostomel, northwest of Kyiv - AFP

Once this decapitation strategy had failed, the Russian offensive rapidly became bogged down in Kyiv’s wooded hinterland. After a month of increasingly heavy casualties, the invaders withdrew to the border to lick their wounds.

What they left behind, however, were corpses, mass graves and other evidence of crimes against humanity. The evidence of atrocities first found in Bucha and then in almost every town or village liberated since has opened the eyes of the world to horrors that will dominate the memory of this war.

Perhaps the most brutal fighting of all has taken place in the Siege of Mariupol: an epic struggle lasting more than 80 days that culminated in a last stand in the Azovstal steelworks.

Conspicuous in this siege was the Azov Battalion or Regiment, a unit in the Ukrainian National Guard with neo-Nazi origins and insignia. The Azov plays an outsize role in Russian propaganda, in order to justify Putin’s claim that his aim is the “denazification” of Ukraine.

Yet the undeniable courage of the defenders of Mariupol, by contrast with the ruthlessness of the besieging Russians — who refused to allow civilians to leave or to treat soldiers as prisoners of war — has turned this into yet another propaganda victory for Ukraine.

The fate of Mariupol’s pre-war population of more than 400,000 is still unclear — hundreds have been deported to an area near North Korea — but at least 20,000 civilians died in this once-prosperous port, now reduced to rubble. Its name, however, will be cherished by Ukrainians because by holding out for so long, it tied up Russian forces that might otherwise have tipped the balance in the battle of Donbas which began six weeks ago.

Having damaged but failed to take the high-tech hub of Kharkiv, once the “Silicon Valley” of Ukraine, the depleted Russian hordes are now concentrating their efforts on capturing the remaining Donbas region.

The aim is to hold a rigged referendum in Kherson to add a third puppet “republic” to the separatist enclaves of Luhansk and Donetsk. However, the catastrophe that has now befallen the occupied areas of Donbas is indescribable.

A Ukrainian genocide

Speaking on Thursday, Zelensky declared that Donbas had been “completely destroyed…it’s hell there, and that is no exaggeration”. The occupied territories appear to have been largely depopulated. How?

What has happened in Donbas and elsewhere are mass deportations via “filtration camps” to the remotest regions of Russia, some as much as 5,500 miles away from home. The Pentagon has confirmed the existence of these camps, where mothers are separated from their children. Ukrainians designated as “Nazis” are sent to concentration camps to be tortured, killed, or used as slave labourers.

Earlier this month Ukraine’s human rights chief Lyudmyla Denisova put the number deported at 1.19 million, including 200,000 children, many of whom are being adopted by force. According to leaked Kremlin documents, plans were made before the invasion to deport 2 million Ukrainians and the process is still under way. Meanwhile ethnic Russians are being moved into the areas vacated by Ukrainians.

The existence of more than 1,300 Russian camps and of the forced removal of more than a million civilians is so shocking that the world has hardly begun to digest the news. It means that the nightmare of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago has returned, this time directed against a democratic European country. There is only one word for this crime: genocide.

All this is happening under the auspices of Vladimir Putin. He alone is responsible for unleashing untold misery upon Ukrainians, whom he claims are really fellow Russians. Yet such a colossal act of iniquity could not have happened without thousands, maybe millions, of willing accomplices.

What has made the war and all that has flowed from it possible is the systematic destruction of civil society in Russia. Since he took office 22 years ago, Putin has crushed dissent, silenced the independent press and lobotomised the population — while the free world largely turned a blind eye.

Europe's soft underbelly

Putin had a smorgasbord of temptations with which to woo the West: oligarchs with cash to launder in London and New York; lucrative investment opportunities in Russia; and cultural exchanges galore, including exhibitions, ballet companies and musicians — prominent among them Putin’s favourites Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko. In 2014 the British Museum loaned some of the Elgin Marbles to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Despite the annexation of Crimea, it was business as usual, from athletes to architects.

Above all, Putin offered Europe cheap energy: gas, oil and coal. The steep post-pandemic rise in global prices for hydrocarbons rendered many countries even more dependent on Russia. No wonder many beneficiaries on both sides did not want to believe that the era of Londongrad and Ostpolitik, of cosy summits with vodka and caviar, was over.

Even now, after three months of carnage on the Continent, the three biggest nations in the European Union are still struggling to adjust to the reality of their predicament. None of the leaders of France, Germany or Italy has made a gesture of solidarity by visiting Kyiv. All three have dragged their feet on arms and sanctions. All three call for a ceasefire, not a Russian withdrawal.

Emmanuel Macron persists in his belief that direct talks with Putin will yield a compromise acceptable to both sides. He insists that Russia must not be “humiliated”, but stands accused by Zelensky of offering to hand over Ukrainian land to Putin — an accusation he denies.

Olaf Scholz clings to his policy of avoiding “escalation” at all costs, despite defeats in regional elections which suggest that German public opinion would like him to pursue the tougher line forged by his Green Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock. Germany is still paying billions for Russian gas.

Italy’s technocrat Prime Minister Mario Draghi would prefer a harder line, but his coalition partners and opponents — from old Putin cronies, such as Silvio Berlusconi, to populists, such as Matteo Salvini — are all soft on Russia.

A handout photo released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Service shows British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) walking in central Kyiv, on April 9, 2022. - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson paid an unannounced visit to Kyiv on April 9, 2022 - AFP
A handout photo released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Service shows British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) walking in central Kyiv, on April 9, 2022. - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson paid an unannounced visit to Kyiv on April 9, 2022 - AFP

Boris Johnson, by contrast, has shown true leadership and is clear that he wants Ukraine to win the war. Most Nato partners have followed suit, including (after a few wobbles) Joe Biden. The US Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, is clear that Russia must be “weakened”.

Putin's Downfall

Yet despite these differences, the West has remained united in its determination that Russia should not get away with this assault on a sovereign nation. This is a war between barbarism and civilisation.

Putin remains dangerous, mainly thanks to Russia’s nuclear arsenal — a considerable part of which was handed over by Ukraine under the terms of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, supposedly guaranteed by the US and Britain. The deterrent is the only remaining asset that entitles him to great power status, but as Col Khodarenok told his viewers, nuclear sabre-rattling actually “looks quite amusing” when the world is against Russia.

Now the control freak in the Kremlin is trying to second-guess his officers on the ground, many of whom are paying with their lives for strategic mistakes made in Moscow. It is all too reminiscent of the last days of Adolf Hitler, memorably depicted by the actor Bruno Ganz in the 2004 film Downfall.

Like Hitler, Putin has become obsessed with the operational detail of war. Like Hitler, Putin is rumoured to be a sick man, pumped full of drugs to treat probable cancer and possible Parkinson’s. Like Hitler, with his V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets, Putin revels in miracle weapons to exact retribution on the West, such as his hypersonic missiles and Poseidon submarine drones. The latter, a TV anchor gloated, could cause a tsunami big enough to submerge the British Isles.

None of these revenge fantasies will save Putin. He has no choice but to double down on his disastrous decision. As long as he is in the Kremlin, the sanctions will never be lifted. But Russia does have a choice: it can follow the dictator into the abyss, or depose him before it is too late. Putin’s downfall does not have to be Russia’s.

Daniel Johnson is the editor of TheArticle.

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