The decision by President Vladimir Putin to put Russia’s strategic nuclear forces on high alert is even more dangerous than it looks because it is an act of desperation. The nuclear threat is a reminder that Russia is still a great power to be feared, despite its multiple failures since it invaded Ukraine last week.
The invasion may only have happened last Thursday, but Russia is already weaker in the eyes of the world because it has not achieved its objectives. Its army has failed to take the larger Ukrainian cities and Ukrainian resisting has blocked the Russian advance on almost all fronts. Pictures of the smouldering wreckage of Russian armoured vehicles fill television screens nightly.
The Russian campaign plan apparently assumed a Blitzkrieg advance against negligible opposition, swiftly eliminating the Ukrainian political and military leadership. Mindless wishful thinking is the only reason why Putin could have imagined that an army of only 190,000 soldiers, many of them non-combatant cooks, drivers and the like, would be able to seize and occupy a country three times the size of Britain.
One Russian foreign policy expert, Andrei Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council, says that the Kremlin’s original plan was to get the whole operation wrapped up in two weeks. He adds that members of the Russian foreign ministry were “very surprised, shocked, even dismayed” by the decision, which they probably saw as the start of an unwinnable war.
The war is no longer solely about the future of Ukraine, but about the future of Putin, who is unlikely to survive a complete Russian fiasco. He not only gave the order to invade and occupy Ukraine but evidently expected a walk-over.
Everything he achieved or hoped to achieve in his 22 years in the Kremlin is unravelling at extraordinary speed. He said he wanted to prevent the spread of Nato eastwards, but he has ensured that Ukraine will in future be welded politically and militarily into Nato and the EU as they supply weapons and money. He had sought to take advantage of Western disunity in their relationship with Moscow, but now he has compelled Germany and France to take the same tough line towards Russia as the US and Britain.
The same is true on the home front. When Putin took over the Russian leadership in 1999, he was seen as a guarantee of stability who would put an end to the chaos of the Boris Yeltsin era. But on Monday, the Russian rouble dropped 25 percent in value and the Central Bank raised interest rates to 20 percent. Economic sanctions will hobble the economy for decades to come, and it may even have to pay reparations. As regards long-term impact, it is only this month that Iraq made the final compensation payment to Kuwait for the invasion 30 years ago, bringing total payment to $52.4bn (£40bn). How much might Russia have to pay for war damage in Ukraine?
The list of calamities that have already hit Russia, or may do so soon, leave Putin with only one policy option – which is to try to win a military victory in Ukraine so his invasion will not be seen as a complete disaster. There seems little chance of a ceasefire being negotiated at a meeting on the Ukraine-Belarus border today since Putin has been demanding a total capitulation by the Ukraine government and the surrender of its army.
Can Putin’s generals turn the military situation around at this stage? They have lost the advantage of surprise and Ukrainian military morale is high. President Volodymyr Zelensky is proving a vocal and inspirational leader. On the other hand, only 60 percent of the Russian forces surrounding Ukraine have been deployed and they have not used their heavy artillery or bombers to any significant extent.
They may be deployed in the next phase of the war, which could well be the siege of cities – notably the capital Kyiv with a population of 2.8 million and the second largest city, Kharkiv, in north-east Ukraine, with a population of 1.4 million. Perhaps the Russians could capture them using tanks and infantry alone, though this has not happened so far.
I reported on the siege of Mosul in northern Iraq over nine months in 2016/17, which inflicted horrific casualties on the civilian population and destroyed most of the Old City. This was because the advancing Iraqi army could only eliminate Islamic State fighters by calling in US air strikes or obliterating whole neighbourhoods with shells and rockets. The level of destruction in Raqqa, the Isis de facto capital in Syria, was even worse and for the same reason. Determined infantry dug into a city cannot easily be defeated without using massive fire power that inflicts heavy loss of civilian life.
The grim outcome of siege warfare in Iraq and Syria will not necessarily be re-enacted in Ukraine, but sieges like that of Beirut by Israel in 1982 and Grozny by Russia in 1999 likewise produced heavy destruction and many civilian casualties.
But the Ukrainians will be fighting for their cities before the eyes of a sympathetic world with the death or wounding of every civilian killed by a Russian shell recorded on a phone camera.
Putin has committed himself to an unwinnable war, but it is not clear if he knows this. At the start of the war he showed extreme overconfidence by asking the Ukrainian army to lay down its arms and for the overthrow of a “neo-Nazi” Ukrainian government. This showed almost total detachment from reality on the ground. Focus on Putin’s mental state diverts attention from the ominous fact that his going to war in Ukraine was always a mad venture – and he may use equally poor judgement when it comes to nuclear weapons