A Bad Limbo
You don’t have to spend too much time in conflict zones to see that a small, out-gunned, local force fighting for its very existence versus a large, well-armed army that can’t articulate why it’s fighting is a recipe for a protracted conflict. The lessons learned in Vietnam, Afghanistan and a dozen other lopsided wars, is that desperation and momentum will often get you further that military kit.
Ukraine’s military momentum has been impressive, enough so that it is generating its own kit via support from the West, which in turn is feeding the momentum. Even the Russian command admits that the Kherson is on shaky ground, but momentum works both ways. Further to the west, the Russians are digging in, creating a sort of poor man’s Maginot line. The fact remains that even the most rousing élan is subject to the reality’s gravitational pull; the Ukrainian forces may have shot their wad. Still, for Ukraine, simply not losing is winning.
The opposite holds true of Vladimir Putin where not winning decisively is a disaster. He has risen to the top, and stayed there, with an ability to hedge his own bets: taking all the credit and deflecting all the blame. His badly planned Ukraine gamble failed, his doubling down on mobilization is causing blow-back in a once disengaged population that skin in the game for the first time in a generation. Then there are the practical realities that Russia appears to be running out of kit. Some estimates reckon the military has used up 70% of its precision weapons. Backing this guess if that the army has been using its s300 air defense system to attack ground targets – a sure sign of desperation – as well as getting “kamikaze” attack drones from Iran.
As a young KGB officer when the Soviets troops retreated from Afghanistan, Putin likely saw that retreat as the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. It’s inconceivable that he hasn’t drawn a line from one old humiliation to a new one. The danger now is that he believes that he only has one weapon remaining up his sleeve.
The good news, such as it is, is that Moscow does not appear to be preparing to use its nuclear weapons. It’s bombs and missile delivery systems are stored in different places. According to Jeremy Hunt, head of GCHQ, the British signals intelligence, there have been no moves to transport the tactical warheads. The odds of the war going nuclear have grown, if only slightly. To that end, admittedly wispy reports from inside the Kremlin say that Putin is still acting, if not rationally, at least lucidly. Putin finds himself in the strange position of being unable to win a war on the field while politically he is unable to end it without spelling the end of his regime.
Right now, his weapon of choice still appears to be the energy markets – suggesting that the Nord Stream could again start delivering energy to European markets. That could change, quickly however. In short, the man is the architect of his own nightmares and it couldn’t happen to a nicer fellow.