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Vladimir Putin: the spice must flow

Russia has never won a war against a modern industrialised nation. She lost in the First World War—and her wars in Chechnya and Afghanistan (she lost the latter) were not against modern industrialised nations. Yet what about the Second World War—the Great Patriotic War, as Russians say? Answer: without vast support from the world’s two most industrialised nations, America and Britain, Russia would have lost in the Second World War. She lost a great many men in that war, yet that had nothing to do with her victory—indeed, the fact she lost so many men was a testimony to her disorganisation and backwardness. Hence Russia has never won a war against a modern industrialised nation with her own resources alone.

In the Ukraine conflict, Russia has effectively put herself in a war with the entire industrialised West—with Europe and America. Given her track record, this means she is unlikely to prevail—she cannot match the West’s technological, financial, and organisational capacity. How did this situation come about?

Two weeks into Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine it was clear that the original plan had failed and the Russians were in trouble. By the end of the first month, it was absolutely clear that the Russians were stuck. At the moment, among lies and “cope” on both sides, people are unclear as to what the Russians are actually doing in the Ukraine—or pretend to themselves they are unclear. This itself is a bad sign. In life, you need a clear idea as to your objective—and doubly so in war, if you are divided against yourself then you are vulnerable.

This is my view: the Russian objective is to conquer the Ukraine—why start such a huge conflict if your goal were more modest? It makes no sense. The original plan was a swift decapitation offensive aimed at Kiev followed by a rapid capitulation of the Ukrainian regime. People have forgotten now, but at the time there was a jet on standby to fly Zelensky from the country—the Ukrainians really did look very unsteady at the war’s opening.

However, this initial strategy failed. The Ukrainians demonstrated a greater will to resist than the Russians expected, they were better organised and better armed too. Putin had fallen victim to hybris: after relatively easy victories in Crimea, he assumed it would be a cakewalk to invade and take the Ukraine itself—he was proved wrong. However, Putin is a man like any other: he suffers from the “sunk-cost fallacy”—otherwise known as “throwing good money after bad”. Once the initial decapitation offensive failed, there was no change of strategy and no new plan—just more of the same, so leading to grinding conflict with small Russian gains for substantial casualties. Putin should have cut his losses and changed strategy, but he could not believe the original plan had failed and so continued to grind on as if nothing had happened. This is typically human and happens all the time in life and in war.

In the interim, the Ukraine mobilised total Western support for the war: the Ukrainians have a financial blank cheque from the West, a blank cheque so far as Western military technology goes, and a blank cheque as regards spy satellite information—additionally, Western soldiers have been permitted to informally enter the Ukraine as instructors and mercenaries. Putin, meanwhile, has not been cognisant as to the gravity of his situation: he has persisted in calling what is an existential war a “special military operation” when he is, in fact, in an existential conflict and not a “police operation”. Further, the fact he is not confident enough to order full mobilisation indicates that his government has problems around its legitimacy: he feels he cannot risk full mobilisation because it would be too politically unpopular, might even topple his rule—hence he is in a very precarious position.

What should Putin have done? The moment the offensive on Kiev failed, he should have addressed the nation and said that Russia was in an existential conflict and moved Russia to a “total war” footing. This would have made the political situation a fait accompli and taken advantage of the early pro-war patriotic pump. He should have moved Russia’s nuclear forces to the most aggressive stance possible towards the West and run constant air force feint movements towards (e.g. the UK) to force Western forces to deploy. He should have immediately cut Nordstream to Europe. In general, he should have also thrown maximum Russian military force at the Ukraine (at the moment the Russian army is still engaged in ceremonial exercises and drills with the Chinese—an utterly unserious approach to the war). He should also have commenced a Grozny-style saturation bombing against Kiev and similar targets.

You might think the latter sounds monstrous, but Putin would have nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing so. As soon as the Ukraine War began he was “a monster”—Russia was subject to a maximum sanctions regime. Ergo, Putin gained nothing by holding back and actually had much to gain by “terror bombing”. The above strategy would not have granted instant victory, but what it would have done is held up Western intervention. It would have seen faster Russian gains on the ground, and once the West saw Kiev flattened they would think “Christ, he’s serious—he could do anything”. Russia’s current problem is as follows: she is at war, de facto, with America. In war, your aim is to coerce your enemy into concession. Russia has almost nothing with which to coerce America, while America has many instruments with which she can coerce Russia—ergo, Russia is in a default losing position as stands.

The Russians can hurt Europe by cutting off gas and oil, but America doesn’t care about Europe. America can ride out higher gas prices; she still holds the world’s reserve currency—she can write unlimited financial support cheques for the Ukraine until doomsday, and she can send the Ukraine gadgets that make Russia’s military technologies look like clockwork mice. Additionally, she can give the Ukrainians the best satellite and electronic information available. In war, three factors are vital: cohesion, coordination, and information—America provides the Ukraine with the best information and the best means to coordinate possible, and the Ukrainians have excellent cohesion because they fight for their country.

So Putin’s priority, once an easy victory was clearly not possible, was to deter American intervention on the Ukraine’s side. The way to do this was total mobilisation, quick victories, and savage “no holds barred” attacks on the Ukraine from the air. This did not materialise and so politicians and planners in Washington thought, “Hey, the Ukrainians have sure got some fight in ‘em, let’s start backing these boys.” Everyone loves a winner, everyone loves a plucky underdog—and the longer the Russians failed to make swift advances and the less serious they looked, the more tempting it was to back the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians looked like a good investment—and they were, so “the spice must flow” and has done so; and so the Ukrainians have consolidated their position.

In fact, NATO commentators expected Putin to announce a full mobilisation about a month after the war started—and this indicates that this was what they considered the logical move and what they feared. It never came. Instead, Putin has let himself slowly sink into a situation where he faces an enemy—America—who can hurt him to an unlimited extent, whereas he cannot hurt them. He rattled the nuclear sabre at the beginning, but what good would that do? None at all. Even the Nordstream shutdown only hurts Europe; ironically, it mostly hurts Germany—the country most sympathetic to Putin’s position and the most tepid in her aid to the Ukraine.

Putin is in a very bad situation now. If he calls for full mobilisation, the benefit is too late—he will look weak and foolish and will have expended much of his political capital; the Russians, after several defeats, will resent it. Further, the benefits from “crazy Ivan” have been lost: the Western support pipeline to the Ukraine is well-established—the Ukrainians look like winners, the Russians look like losers. Ergo, the spice must flow. In a position where your opponent can cause you unlimited harm whereas you cannot harm him you are bound to lose.

As it happens, the “special military operation” recalls an error made by Hitler, whereby he refused on principle to mobilise German women and put the country on a full war-footing (still lots of consumer goods in the shops) when his opponents had done the same and he was in fact locked in an existential conflict. Similarly, Putin has failed to mobilise the appropriate forces for his objective—an objective that lamely remains unadmitted (“What are we doing in Vietnam?” “What are we doing in the Ukraine?”)—and he has also missed the window of opportunity for when such a total commitment would have made difference and deterred Western intervention.

Putin has committed my most hated error: he has been lukewarm. He has been tepid, he has failed to commit—he has tried to pass off an existential war as a “special military operation”. If someone cheeks you—shouts abuse on the street—you either walk on or go over and hit them with the intention they stay down; the worst thing you can do is engage in a running slanging match which eventually turns into brawl with the possibility of injury and/or arrest. Putin has opted for the “death by a thousand cuts” that comes when you underestimate how difficult a task will be from hybris. It is a big problem for him—and for Russia—because he clearly doesn’t feel politically secure enough to call for full mobilisation; ergo, he is really weak.

Be sure that people within his regime who want to be top dog will have opened confidential channels to the West—possibly through the CIA and similar—to discuss a “solution” to the Ukrainian difficulty. Putin is integral to what Russia has become, if he leaves office the alternative would be a Gorbachev or a Yeltsin—a “colour revolution” creature. If anti-Putin forces succeed, the Russians will be back to where they were in the 1990s—the whore of American power. Hence the issue is existential, yet it is Putin’s responsibility: the old story, hybris leads to overconfidence and inevitable catastrophe. As usual, total commitment or nothing is the key—all or nothing. At the moment, short of magical intervention, lukewarm Putin is up to his neck in the spice.

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