29 September 2022
The Wounded Bear
By Robert Kilconner
“Confusion now hath made his masterpiece”: we may all feel that MacDuff’s words express our feelings exactly but just at the moment there are a fair number of masterpieces to choose from. The British economy, its current course condemned by the IMF; violence on the streets of Iran as the young rebel against the rule of the priests; hurricanes caused by global warming; repeated escalation of the war in Ukraine. It’s a real pick and mix but of all of them the last probably has the greatest potential for instant Armageddon so that is the one I will write about.
Nobody will really believe that the voting in the Russian occupied parts of Ukraine demonstrates the will of the population there, but as an indicator of what may follow the actual holding of referenda is very significant indeed.
Mr Putin’s idea seems to be that the inevitable pro-Russian majorities will provide him with an excuse to annexe some 15% of Ukraine’s landmass and then to claim that any invasion of that territory is an invasion of Russia itself, justifying the use of weapons, and possibly nuclear weapons, which have not been used so far. He presumably hopes this will change the dynamic of the war which at present seems to be moving in favour of Ukraine and allow Russia to hold onto the areas which it currently occupies. The whole pantomime, however, begs three questions, the answers to which are not readily apparent.
The first is “why bother?” Mr Putin wishes to use or at least threaten to use nuclear weapons in order to force Ukraine to submit. Why doesn’t he just make his threats without pretending that there is an attack on Russia? The West is not fooled by his play-acting, nor is the Ukrainian president, nor for that matter are his friends in the international community. The charade must be for the benefit of his supporters at home but even there the gains will surely be short-term. The war is known to be backed by much of Russian public opinion but it is hard to see how the elections are going to strengthen that support for long. Opposition to the war is already forming among the young, and the military (including soldiers going on leave or returning home) must be well aware of what is going on on the ground. Over time that knowledge can only spread. Why, you wonder, did Putin not simply justify his escalation by saying that Russia could not afford a hostile regime so close to its own territory – rather as Kennedy said in the face of the Cuban crisis of 1962? (True, Russia already has borders with NATO countries but the border with Ukraine is an exceptionally long one). It might not be as emotive as talking about attacks on the homeland but at least it could be retained as a position rather than unwinding as the electoral sham is gradually exposed.
The second and third questions go to the nature of the threat. As those readers who are professional blackmailers will know, a successful threat has two elements: “if” and “then”. “If you do or don’t do X, we will do Y”. That is the essence of it. What then are Putin’s algebraic variables going to be?
Let’s start with Y and suppose the threat to be nuclear. At whom would it be directed? Well it clearly isn’t going to be a threat to the US. That’s for sure. Putin is trying to grow a greater Russia and not to turn the one he has into a smoking wreck. What about Europe, suppliers of arms like the UK? That would certainly be less suicidal than launching missiles at the US, but rather a lot of countries are supplying help to the Ukrainians now and the UK, perhaps in Russian eyes the worst of them, does have its own deterrent. Goodness knows how effective those submarines are but would Russia really be confident of stopping the missiles? Their technology has not been exactly really hot so far. Probably not the UK then and if one or two of those who went on the CND marches feel just a tad embarrassed, well so they should. That leaves Ukraine itself and here there is much less prospect of a nuclear counter-attack. Yet even that is not easy. A nuclear attack on Ukraine, a country with which Russia is closely culturally linked, would hardly be consistent with the “special operations” story. Also, unless the attack was very focused, plenty of Russians or Russian sympathisers would die too. The prevailing wind blows from west to east in that part of the world.
So the strategy is presumably to frighten the Ukrainians into backing down or at least into doing something represented by the X in Putin’s algebra. The obvious thing would be to keep their military out of the newly annexed areas but, even if Putin forced agreement from Zelensky, how far would instructions from the centre control a citizen army? Suppose that you lived in Donbas and were told that you and your comrades had to accept Russian domination in the area. Would you accept that or would it just be the beginning of a new terrorist war? What is Putin’s idea of an endgame?
The fact that the military analysts at the Shaw Sheet have been unable to come up with convincing answers to these questions does not mean that the Kremlin has not thought long and hard about them. Of course it has but then thinking is rarely at its straightest when carried out by those who are nervous about having got things wrong so far. And dictators, like tigers, become more and more irrational as they are backed into a corner.