The Russians are losing their war on Ukraine. They just don’t know it yet.
Many armchair generals ignore that fact. Putin is stronger than ever, they say. Even if his invasion failed to conquer Ukraine, the crushing burden of war cannot be sustained indefinitely by its defenders, we are told. And even if they do hold out, the Western democracies are already tiring of their role in providing military and financial lifelines to Kyiv while sanctioning Russia.
Or so the “realists” say – though such arguments are often indistinguishable from appeasement or defeatism.
The Western media has been filled with stories quoting unnamed US or other Western officials about how the Ukrainian counter-offensive is stalling, criticising their strategy and tactics.
Last week at an EU summit in Spain, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told these critics to “shut up, come to Ukraine and try to liberate one square centimetre by themselves”. They were “spitting in the face of the Ukrainian soldier who sacrifices his life every day”, he said.
The framing of the argument about the progress of the war has been heavily influenced by the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, almost certainly on Putin’s orders. That incident has given a new lease of life to the “realist” case for compromise.
It is true that the liquidation of the Wagnerian warlord has removed a dangerous rival from the Russian stage. But it is a sign of weakness, not of strength, that Putin was left with no choice but to decapitate a mercenary force that had proved itself more effective than his regular military units.
Prigozhin’s coup failed, but not because the Kremlin’s vast apparatus of repression was able to prevent his march on Moscow. He was apparently bought off by a promise of safe conduct from Belarus’ Aleksandr Lukashenko, not before panic had been sparked in Moscow and Putin had been humiliated.
A video from Mali has now emerged in which Prigozhin dismisses rumours of his own impending demise: “For those who like to discuss wiping me out, everything’s OK.” And so it was — as long as he stayed in Africa.
In fact, not only Prigozhin’s putsch but also his presumed assassination only reinforces the impression of terminal decay, even chaos, at the heart of the Russian body politic. Putin’s peers, the siloviki, or “strong men”, will have noted that he is far more efficient at eliminating them than the Ukrainian enemy. The purge of generals that followed the insurrection has likewise done nothing to restore confidence in a war machine that has malfunctioned from the start.
The hawks versus the realists
Why then is the realist argument gaining traction once again? As Garry Kasparov, the former World Chess Champion and opposition leader, points out, “the worse Russia is doing on the battlefield, the more calls you’ll hear from Kremlin allies, sycophants and propagandists for fake ceasefires, concessions and negotiations to give Russia time to rearm and consolidate to prepare for a new offensive”.
Typical of this phenomenon is Nicolas Sarkozy. The former French President demands that Ukraine accept Russian sovereignty over Crimea and Donbas, renounce Nato or EU membership and become “neutral”. As for Nato, it must cease to arm “one of the belligerents” and “re-establish neighbourly, or at least calmer, relations” with Russia.
Sarkozy denies ulterior motives for his stance, though he appears to crave a return to the limelight at any price. He also has a book to sell. In it he boasts of standing up for France, but the reader encounters an apologist for Russia who is also suspicious of American influence and sceptical of Atlanticism.
Across the Atlantic, the first Republican TV debate saw the rising star Vivek Ramaswamy echoing a similar line on Ukraine, only this time it is supposedly Europe that is dragging America into an endless war. Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the UN, retorted: “You are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country.” He had no foreign policy experience “and it shows”.
In both America and Europe, public opinion is finely balanced on Ukraine between the hawks and the realists.
Within the Biden administration, the President leans towards the realists – led by his old friend John Kerry and his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who are conducting diplomacy with the Kremlin by back channels – rather than the more hawkish Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
In Western Europe, realists tend to predominate, led by the usual suspects Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz. But in Holland Mark Rutte is a hawk – the Dutch have not forgotten nearly 200 of their compatriots, killed in 2014 on a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine by a Russian missile. Giorgia Meloni, who had a pro-Russian past, has become hawkish in office.
Further east, the Poles, Balts and Scandinavians compete to be tough on Russia, though Viktor Orban in Hungary is almost more Putinist than Putin.
Putin’s trump card has always been his nuclear arsenal, which as he repeatedly reminds Nato, is still the largest in the world. And from the outset he has used nuclear sabre-rattling to intimidate the West.
In June he used the installation of such weapons in Belarus – itself another piece of psychological warfare, aimed primarily at Ukraine’s neighbours, Poland and the Baltic states – to tell Nato where it could shove its arms reduction proposals.
Putin leaves the melodramatic braggadocio to his puppet Dmitry Medvedev, who posted a literally apocalyptic warning last week on Telegram, quoting the Book of Revelation, Lenin and Khrushchev (“We will bury you”).
But the truth is that the fears inspired by nuclear blackmail in the West – including, it would seem, in the Biden administration – have been shown to be baseless.
Every time Ukraine destroys targets inside Crimea or Russia, it is crossing Putin’s red lines. Yet from the Kremlin there has only been conventional – never any sign of nuclear – retaliation.
According to Secretary of State Blinken, Western intelligence has so far found no indication that Russia is preparing to use tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield, let alone to fire missiles at Nato countries.
The Kremlin had warned that for the US to supply F16s to Ukraine would carry a “colossal risk” of nuclear escalation. Yet Biden has allowed Nato allies to do just that, with no sign of serious retaliation.
However, there are still signs of caution within the White House. The President is still insisting that Ukrainian pilots training in the US won’t be ready to fly these planes for another year. Veterans who have flown the F-16 dispute this claim, but the nuclear threat is still inhibiting the White House. As the 2024 election looms, Biden won’t be seen to take any risks.
American isolationists claim that too much money and kit is going to “Zelensky”, while disaster-hit Hawaii is neglected. It’s nonsense. In terms of blood and treasure, no GIs are getting killed and just 4 per cent of the US defence budget is being spent on Kyiv. Compared to Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, Ukraine’s a bargain.
Ukraine’s counter-offensive triumph
What is happening in the war itself? After a summer of bloodletting, an authoritative US estimate last month suggested that at least 500,000 combatants have been killed or wounded on both sides, on and off the battlefield. The Ukrainian forces have lost about 70,000 dead and 120,000 wounded, while civilian deaths were already put at 42,000 in May.
Almost all experts agree that Ukrainian losses in battle are greatly exceeded by those of the Russians, who have suffered well over 300,000 military casualties, including 120,000 dead.
To put these figures into context, the entire Russian invasion force in February 2022 numbered at most 190,000 men.
In fact, at least a third of the armed forces with which Putin began his war have now been sacrificed to his nightmarish ambition to restore the Soviet or imperial borders.
Such a rate of attrition is significantly more demoralising for the Russian invaders than for the Ukrainians, who are defending their homeland.
There are many reports of desertion – most spectacularly when a Russian pilot recently surrendered his helicopter, its cargo and himself. Meanwhile, the conditions in which Russians are expected to fight have deteriorated: equipment, food and even water are all in short supply.
This is the background to this week’s Ukrainian breakthrough in the crucial Zaporizhzhia region, breaching the so-called Surovikin Line of mines: “dragons’ teeth” anti-tank obstacles and trenches. Key villages have fallen, the latest being Verbove, a nodal point in the Surovikin Line.
The Russians have thrown in some of their best troops to plug the gaps in their defences, but to little avail. The Ukrainian assault has been spearheaded by the 82nd Air Assault Brigade, who have been trained in Britain and are armed with British-made Challenger 2 tanks.
Several factors have given the Ukrainians a crucial edge in battle: superior leadership, both military and civilian; better morale, in part due to more thorough training in modern combat; and a growing superiority in modern equipment from the West, now including offensive systems such as well-armoured tanks and precision artillery.
The HIMARS rocket artillery systems supplied to Ukraine last year have been a crucial factor in every victory since. Now the Americans are being urged to supply cluster warheads for these weapons and to provide Kyiv with M1A1 Abrams tanks, F16s and ATACMS long-range artillery too.
As for the reliability of Nato’s commitment: BAE Systems is establishing a permanent legal entity in Ukraine – a prelude to building artillery there. That is not a decision the UK’s biggest defence contractor will have taken lightly.
Commentators tend to focus on technology, partly because that is supplied by the West. Yet equally important are the courage, leadership and élan of Ukrainian troops.
A case in point is the amphibious raid on Crimea that came shortly after the death of Prigozhin. That daring operation by Ukrainian special forces showed that the Russian bear could be poked with impunity even in his Crimean den.
Meanwhile the Ukrainians, thwarted by Western reluctance to allow them to defend themselves against nightly bombardment, have become increasingly aggressive in their use of drones not just on the battlefield, but also behind enemy lines and even in the heartlands of Russia itself.
Moscow is now being struck regularly by drones, disrupting air travel and bringing the war home to the hitherto well-insulated Russian middle and upper classes.
The Ukrainians have gone one better than the Russians, who use Iranian-made Shahed “suicide” drones costing $20,000 apiece, by deploying disposable drones made of cardboard or foam costing just £2,750 each.
These Australian SYPAQ drones are as easy to assemble as an Ikea flatpack, but they are so small and coated with radar-absorbent materials that escape detection by Russian air defence. Swarms of SYPAQ drones are now destroying Russian aircraft worth many millions – at negligible cost.
Drone attacks on military bases are now inflicting serious damage on the Russian air force and other targets. In this week’s bombardment, six Russian regions were simultaneously hit, including an attack on Pskov Airport near Estonia, which is regularly used by Putin himself.
Putin’s flawed war of extermination
The losses are mounting up. Ukraine scored another victory last week when it destroyed an S-400 missile battery in Crimea, stripping the Russian-occupied peninsula of a key link in its air defences.
It is thought that the Ukrainians hit the battery with an adaptation of their own Neptune missile. Originally designed for naval warfare, Neptune was used to sink the Black Sea fleet’s flagship Moskva last year. Now that Crimea is within range of Odesa, the pride of Putin’s empire is becoming a liability where his forces have nowhere to hide.
Defeatists will reply: so what? Nazi Germany was pulverised from the air by thousand-bomber raids for three years, but did not surrender until the Allies occupied it. Imperial Japan held out until atom bombs annihilated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Putin’s Russia won’t be beaten by drones or rockets alone.
No – but Putin’s regime lacks either the lethal discipline of Hitler’s Germany or the ritualised fanaticism of Hirohito’s Japan. Nor does the Russian leader have a Goebbels to whip up the Russians into a frenzy of enthusiasm for total war.
Instead, the war has exposed the flaws in Putin’s system: the corruption and waste of the arms industries and supply chains, the drunkenness and depravity of the troops, the cruelty and cowardice of the elites. Russians notice that these elites protect their own, leaving the sons of workers and muzhiki (peasants) to be treated as cannon fodder. Whereas Zelensky has cracked down on draft-dodgers, Putin has conspicuously failed to do so.
Prigozhin’s popularity, such as it was, rested on the carefully cultivated impression that he was a tribune of the people, perhaps even a Spartacus who would one day speak up for the enslaved. At his funeral, he was compared to Nelson Mandela, a friend of the Africans.
In reality, Prigozhin was, of course, a gangster who enriched himself by the same murderous methods as the rest of Putin’s coterie. It may have been news to most Russians that he owned two private jets, but the only real surprise was that he was indeed on board the one that crashed.
Putin himself has sometimes posed as a latter-day Czar, the traditional paternalistic “little father” who remains aloof from responsibility for his officials’ excesses. But the war has revealed him as the ruthless dictator he always was, more pitiless than any of his subordinates.
It is he, and he alone, who has turned this war into a criminal, indeed genocidal, enterprise. The “special military operation” has metastasised into an existential conflict, not only for Ukraine – the legitimacy of which Putin openly denies – but for Russia too.
The executions, rape and torture are on a colossal and systematic scale, as are the abduction of children and the destruction of the ecology and infrastructure in occupied Ukraine.
The Russian “scorched earth” strategy – invented by Czar Alexander I’s general Barclay de Tolly to repel Napoleon’s invasion in 1812 – has been resurrected by Putin against what he calls the “Nazi” state of Ukraine.
There can be no return from this war of extermination. Either Putin succeeds in subjugating Europe’s largest country apart from Russia itself, or he and his regime will be sucked into a vortex of collective guilt and indelible shame.
‘The black day of the German Army’
If Putin plunges into the abyss, however, he intends to take Russia with him. By incriminating an entire nation in the eyes of the world, he seeks to bind his subjects to his own destiny.
Just as Hitler began by rewarding loyalty with loot seized from his Jewish victims, so Putin has been generous with property plundered from the Ukrainians. But Germany ended by losing not only all the lands that Hitler had annexed, but East Prussia, Silesia and other provinces too, plus some 14 million expellees to absorb. The rest of Germany remained divided for more than four decades.
Such is the havoc that the present war has wrought that reparations and regime change won’t be enough to end it. The price of defeat may now be nothing less than the dismantling and disarming of the Russian Federation.
How can the Ukrainians, not to mention other neighbours of a defeated Russia, be expected to feel secure in proximity to a nuclear-armed rogue state, consumed by a devil’s brew of revanchism and nihilism?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky was once the richest of Russian oligarchs, worth a reputed $15bn (£11.8bn), but paid for his open criticism of Putin with the loss of his fortune and 10 years in prison. Now living in exile in London, Khodorkovsky has a book out this month: How to Slay a Dragon (Polity, £20).
The oligarch-turned-dissident now advocates a new and peaceful Russian revolution, to create a parliamentary democracy in place of Putin’s dictatorship and a nation state in place of Putin’s empire.
Khodorkovsky has bright ideas about what this post-war Russia might look like – a decentralised federal system instead of the old autocratic Muscovy. But he accepts that “the threat of the collapse of Russia is the principal result of Putin’s war that the interim government will have to deal with”.
To Russian ears, that will sound like a reenactment of the Russian Civil War of 1918-21, in which ten million Russians died, many more than in the world war that preceded it. Folk memories of Russia’s many civil wars are mobilised by the Kremlin to bolster its grip on power.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was initially comparatively bloodless, but the subsequent wars in Chechnya, Georgia and now Ukraine show the Pavlovian response of a declining empire striking back at its periphery.
Now statues of Stalin are reappearing, sanctified by Russian Orthodox priests who seem oblivious of Uncle Joe’s predilection for murdering their predecessors and destroying their churches.
Russia seems to be in the grip of a mass psychosis – a regression to a mythical past that increasingly collides with the reality of violent death on an industrial scale. Few return from the killing fields of Ukraine to tell the tale, but defeat on the battlefield is an incontrovertible argument.
If the Russians cannot hold the line in Zaporizhzhia, they could well suffer a rout – as happened last year near Kharkiv. This time, however, the Ukrainians are far better prepared to exploit a localised collapse to drive a wedge between Russian occupiers in Donetsk to the east and the Black Sea coast, including Crimea, to the south.
The war seems to be approaching the point that the First World War reached on August 8, 1918. This has gone down in history in General Ludendorff’s phrase as “the black day of the German Army” – the day the Allied tanks broke through at Amiens and began a 100-day campaign that ended the war.
Ukraine has the tanks, it has the men and it has Zelensky too. This battle-hardened but by no means war-weary people, its national identity forged in adversity, is fighting to liberate all of its land – Crimea included.
With or without Western support and sanctions, Ukraine will fight on until Putin’s evil empire is defeated.