Just before dawn yesterday, the war in Ukraine entered its 100th day with the demented propagandists of Russian state television, more combative than ever.
One threatened this week that the Red Army will not stop until it reaches Stonehenge. Another stated that World War III has begun and NATO should be forced to disarm.
These bellicose tirades are repeated by Vladimir Putin’s most aggressive advisers in the Kremlin corridors.
But in reality it is the sound of whistling in the dark, a nervous attempt to keep up the nerve as the fears mount.
The truth is that the Russian president is stuck in a conflict that he cannot win or give up. His biggest problem, worse than the rising death toll or the crippling sanctions, is that there is no way he can unilaterally declare victory.
It only takes one side to start a war, but both sides to end one.
“When Russia invaded in late February, Putin expected the conflict to be over within days”
“Right now, much of Putin’s army is committed to breaking through to Severodonetsk in the Luhansk region to the east”
Even if Putin’s forces gain ascendancy in eastern Ukraine, giving him a claim to the Donbas region where the majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians live, he cannot announce that he has achieved his goals.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his army of seasoned resistance fighters will not tolerate that. They will continue to wage war over any Russian-occupied territory until a real peace deal is made — and at this point there is no negotiating, let alone compromise.
When Russia invaded in late February, Putin expected the conflict to be over within days.
He sincerely believed that the Ukrainians longed to live under Moscow’s rule again and that his troops would be welcomed with flowers and the sound of brass bands. Instead, this conflict is heading for an ugly standoff in which neither side is strong enough to deliver a knockout blow, nor weak enough to be defeated.
Following Russia’s failure to take the capital Kiev and its withdrawal from northwestern Ukraine, some Western commentators who had assumed Putin’s military might destroy Ukraine’s resistance like a walnut in a nutcracker suggested that his troops fell apart.
We saw images of burnt-out convoys and corsair Ukrainian troops destroying tanks with state-of-the-art, portable anti-tank weapons as if they were City slickers on a skeet shooting.
But Putin’s land forces are not a Keystone Kops army. They outnumber the Ukrainians on many key battlefields, morale holds up better than in the early days of the war, and the troops have most of the equipment they need. And now they are led by generals who have made a radical change of strategy.
Today, the focus is on small successive victories, not big, sweeping triumphs. They may be progressing a mile or two a day, in a lingering battle of attrition.
Right now, much of Putin’s army is committed to breaking through to Severodonetsk in the Luhansk region to the east. Ukraine’s armed forces engage in rearguard action, slowly retreating, claiming that the city has more symbolic value than real strategic importance.
As the region’s governor Serhiy Hayday said this week, the neighboring city of Lysychansk is higher up and makes a better military stronghold.
Such battles have stark echoes of past European wars, particularly the grueling trench warfare of World War I, when skirmishes over a few hundred yards of ground lasted for weeks.
There is another horrific parallel to the Great War, a conflict that began in August 1914 and was meant to be “over by Christmas” but dragged on for four years. Putin likes to measure himself against the greats of Russian history. But I’m beginning to see him as the modern equivalent of Russia’s last Tsar, Nicholas II, who made himself Supreme Commander of the Russian Army at the outbreak of World War I.
Tsar Nicholas foretold a triumph and wished all the credit to be his. Instead, he was blamed for the horrible meat grinder that became the war.
Russian separatist forces mutiny against Putin on video: Commander complains his men were thrown into bloody fighting without food, equipment or medicine and despite ‘chronic illness’
“But as long as Putin doesn’t control eastern Ukraine, he can’t pretend to have achieved any goal, however his propagandists twist it.”
As the tide turned against him, Nicholas was never in a position to demand peace. He kept hoping for a win that would allow him to make a better deal and emerge as a savior. It never came.
Instead, he and his family paid with their lives – and Russia was plunged into a Soviet nightmare from which it began to fail for nearly 75 years.
Putin faces the same dilemma. He bet everything on success. But as long as he doesn’t control Eastern Ukraine, he can’t pretend to have achieved any goal, however his propagandists twist it.
And he’s running out of time. Last month, Russian inflation was a fraction below 20 percent. Due to the harsh economic constraints imposed by the West, most families have seen a sharp drop in household income and have run out of savings.
The same is true for most Russian companies, which use up not only their money, but also their stocks of spare parts and components. Unless sanctions are lifted, many will find it impossible to replenish their stocks.
This raises the specter of unemployment and increasing misery.
Meanwhile, local elections are scheduled for September to select the governors of regions much larger than Britain. They are disruptive because they give people space to talk – which is the last thing Putin wants. Some regional politicians are already opposing the war. The men of the 113th Rifle Regiment of the Donetsk People’s Republic criticized Putin for sending them into battle without material support, medical supplies or food.
Unrest in the streets should be controlled by the National Guard, but they are simmering with resentment at being used as cannon fodder in Ukraine.
When the elections are over, the Russian winter is imminent, food prices will rise sharply and the economy is expected to contract by 25 percent. With cold, wet weather comes the end of the best season for a successful campaign. ‘General Winter’ is the only predictable victor in any war on the steppes – think Napoleon and Hitler – but this time he is not on the side of Moscow.
So if Putin wants to achieve any military success, even a short-lived and illusory one, he must throw all his reserves at it now. He can mobilize another 150,000 if he calls in both untrained conscripts and the old guard.
“Our aggressive attitude towards Ukraine is not just showmanship. It is a genuine commitment, based on a solid moral position. We will not abandon Ukraine’
But it will take at least three months to get them in shape and push them to the front lines. Once there, they will struggle with unfolded equipment and old gear, because that’s all that’s left.
Yes, it would be enough to launch another offensive, but the casualties will inevitably be high. The Kremlin’s best hope is not that the war can be won, but that the West will lose courage for the fight. The Ukrainians cannot survive without Western support. Gas shortages hurt Germany and a wobble in aid cannot be ruled out.
Emmanuel Macron’s vanity is another weakness. The French president thinks he is the man to make a peace deal and undoubtedly win a Nobel Peace Prize, and Putin will use that as leverage.
Elsewhere in Europe, other crises could replace the war in Ukraine and the Spaniards, the Italians and others could soften their support for President Volodymyr Zelensky in their desperation to end the conflict.
And so Russia waits for the West to falter. But the biggest obstacle to that is Britain’s determination.
Our aggressive attitude towards Ukraine is not mere showmanship. Boris Johnson may enjoy the opportunity to present himself as a wartime leader, playing out his Churchillian leanings, but this is not a political game. It is a genuine commitment, based on a solid moral position. We will not abandon Ukraine.
No one, at home or abroad, has seriously questioned that and as a result Britain’s position in the world has been strengthened.
European leaders may waver, but the line of government will not change here. Ultimately, there must be some kind of peace agreement. It could be one that Putin cannot survive and will therefore resist to the end. Meanwhile, many more bodies will lie on the battlefields of Ukraine.
MARK GALEOTTI is an honorary professor at University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies.