3 March 2022
It’s Looking Bad For Vlad
A regime ready to implode?
By Neil Tidmarsh
How many battles has Vladimir Putin lost this week? Let’s count them:
(1) The political battle. A resort to violence is often a sign of defeat elsewhere. By launching open war, Putin has acknowledged that his attempt to politically dominate Ukraine has failed. “Don’t look West, look East” he argued. “Come home to Mother Russia. See what we offer you – oppression, corruption and poverty. And even death; we killed millions of you by starvation in the 1930’s but we can offer you something more modern these days – a spot of novichok, perhaps, or that mysterious poison which disfigured and almost killed your President Viktor Yushchenko in 2004.” And Ukraine replied: “No thank you. We’d rather have freedom, democracy, prosperity and the rule of law. And we can see them over there in the West.” So Putin, unable to control his anger and humiliation, has lashed out, like an inadequate man punching and kicking a woman who has rejected his proposal of marriage.
(2) The information battle. The decision by Western intelligence agencies to make public what they knew about Russia’s military build-up, plans and intentions was pure genius. At a stroke it pulled the rug out from under the feet of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. Moscow’s campaign of Vranieu (brazen lies) and Maskirovka (deception and confusion) was still-born. No one fell for those half-hearted attempts at false-flag operations, because they had been predicted. Putin proved himself to be a liar by insisting that he wasn’t going to invade, while Western intelligence was telling us all along exactly when, how and where he was going to strike. Even the Kremlin’s own spokesmen are no longer bothering to sound convinced by the rubbish they’re spouting, as if they know that the rest of the world is laughing at them. Lavrov’s claim that Russia isn’t invading Ukraine but merely de-militarising it was particularly hilarious (like a Russian Jimmy Carr, only funnier and even more distasteful – perhaps they could do a double-act). Isn’t it curious how the Ukrainian comedian Zelensky has grown into the truly giant stature of an international statesman while Russia’s would-be statesmen like Lavrov have shrunk to the diminutive size of mere comedians and clowns?
The citizens of Ukraine are making highly effective use of social media to ensure that the rest of the world knows what’s happening in their country. Their admirable site ‘Find Your Own’ helps Russian families to find out whether their missing fathers, sons or brothers have been captured or killed, and proves that the truth is always the best propaganda. The authorities have recruited an IT army of citizen cyber-warriors to take on the Kremlin’s hackers and to disrupt Russia’s propaganda machine and military and political infrastructures. Aided by international volunteers like the group Anonymous, they’ve won some impressive victories: the home page of Tass, the Russian state news agency’s web-site, was replaced with an anti-war message and the site was then shut down; Kremlin.ru, the official website of the Kremlin and the president’s office, was taken off-line; the Kommersant newspaper, Forbes Russia and the St Petersburg-based news site Fontanka were also apparently hit; and Anonymous claim to have hacked the Russian ministry of defence.
(3) The diplomatic battle. Russia now finds itself diplomatically isolated. Most of the world has turned its back in disgust on what is now widely regarded as a pariah state. Even China didn’t support Russia in the UN’s Security Council; it didn’t use its veto, and its abstention implies a tacit disapproval.
Putin’s strategic aim to weaken and fracture western institutions such as Nato and the EU has failed miserably. His tactics have been entirely self-defeating and counter-productive. The West has pulled together and closed ranks now that Putin has openly declared himself its enemy and threatened its security, values and way of life. Those divisions which he tried to exploit and widen have been repaired and it’s stronger and more united today than it has been for decades.
Russia has also been cut adrift from international sport and culture. Even UEFA and FIFA have succumbed to international pressure and kicked Russia out of world football. (It comes as little surprise, however, that the International Olympic Committee continues to indulge Russia; plagued by accusations of corruption and condemned for its lack of transparency, the IOC has been shamelessly shrugging off the world’s disgust for decades.)
(4) The economic battle. Sanctions, disinvestment and moves to become independent from Russian energy supplies will cause western economies some pain but they will cripple Russia. The value of the rouble is collapsing, the price of Russian stocks and shares is plummeting, and queues at ATMs across the country are threatening a disastrous run on the banks. And waging war is a ruinously expensive business; if Putin’s army gets well and truly bogged down in Ukraine he might find his much-vaunted war chest emptying itself faster than anticipated and impossible to refill.
(5) The home front. Queues outside every bank in Russia and soon no doubt outside every supermarket and petrol station. Anti-war protests in cities across the country (up to 10,000 people detained). Shocked parents and wives discovering that their husbands or sons have been sent to kill fellow Slavs in an invasion of a country in which they have friends and relatives; some even discovering that their husbands or sons have been killed or captured. A population kept in the dark for decades by the propaganda and fake news dumped on them by a regime which monopolises the country’s media is about to become enlightened and disillusioned.
(6) The battle for Ukraine. Russia hasn’t lost the war yet but it certainly isn’t winning it. The initial targets clearly haven’t been achieved, even after a week of conflict, and that for Putin is a battle lost. And it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see how the invasion can succeed. His armed forces appear to be in some disarray. Badly supplied and poorly co-ordinated, they’re making very slow progress and suffering heavy casualties. The long months of their build-up on the border have given Ukraine time to organise its defence and it looks like it has made excellent use of the opportunity. The invaders have found themselves up against a nation in arms determined to stand and fight as hard as it can for its freedom and independence.
The Russian forces still outnumber and outgun the Ukrainian forces, of course. But even if Russia bombs the country to ruins with its brutal science-fiction artillery, its conquest will never be completed because occupation will trigger a grinding, draining, never-ending guerrilla war. While waiting for invasion following the Dunkirk evacuation in World War II, Britain prepared itself not only by building stop-lines for its conventional forces to defend but also by establishing a guerrilla force to go underground and operate behind enemy lines in occupied territory. These Auxiliaries were no ineffectual Dad’s Army but a highly-trained, well-organised, well-resourced and extensive network of small independent cells of skilled saboteurs and ruthless assassins. It’s inconceivable that Ukraine hasn’t prepared such a force to fight on if its conventional forces are overwhelmed.
So that’s six battles lost in a single week. Can the isolated and bunkered Putin survive defeat on so many fronts? His inner circle must know by now that he has made a disastrous mistake, even if it might take a little longer for the realisation to reach the inert mass which makes up the majority of the Russian population. Putin himself is looking and sounding weird and deranged. A psychiatrist might diagnose his paranoid and obsessional accusations about neo-Nazis, drug-addicts and nuclear attack as a classic case of self-projection: after all, there are rumours that he is addicted to steroids; he is the only one making nuclear threats; and he must realise somewhere in the depths of his subconscious that he is the one behaving like a Nazi. (The imminent siege of Kyiv could come to mirror the 1942/43 siege of Stalingrad, but with Putin’s Russia acting like Nazi Germany, and Ukrainians acting like heroic Soviet Russians; if Putin’s references to Nazi enemies is his attempt to co-opt the memory of Russia’s heroic efforts in World War II then he is insulting his own country’s people and history). The faces of the generals seated at the other end of that bizarre and ridiculous long table, and of the politicians standing on the far side of that cavernous assembly hall, said it all. Fear and confusion and dismay.
Marc Bennetts, The Times’ correspondent in Moscow, wrote this week that “there is little prospect of Putin being deposed”. The regime might not be ready to implode just yet, but give it time and a little more stress. Putin’s supporters will stick with him only for as long as it’s in their interests to do so. They support him because of the power and the wealth which he has given them; but what if his actions are now imperilling their wealth and power? And what about the non-protesting, inert majority of his population – will they remain inert and unprotesting once economic collapse threatens them with starvation, and their husbands and sons come back to Russia in body bags, and the lies and fake news of the regime are revealed for what they are? And those ordinary Russian soldiers suffering in the Ukraine – will they remember that the Russian Revolution of 1919 was triggered by mutinies among demoralised Russian troops in World War I’s trenches and among other soldiers who were ordered to suppress food riots by shooting civilians?