Article published in The Daily Express, 28 February 2022. © Richard Kemp
Putin’s threat of nuclear strikes again ratchets up his verbal aggression against the West. It’s in line with his warning at the start of the conflict that any country trying to ‘hinder’ Russia’s operation in Ukraine would face ‘such consequences that you have never encountered in your history’. Though many fear he has become increasingly unhinged, this is part of his war of words rather than genuine intent. Although Putin controls the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world, he can’t directly press the button and his generals would need to be complicit in such an inconceivable atrocity.
Back at ground level, many are surprised that Putin’s forces have not defeated Ukraine in just four days. Let’s not forget it took the 309,000 strong US-led coalition more than a month to defeat Saddam’s army in 2003, including six days’ heavy fighting to capture Baghdad. That was in a smaller country with terrain better suited to offensive fighting. We can only admire the hard and courageous resistance of the Ukrainian forces, civilians and political leaders. But this is not a shock and awe campaign by Russia. So far they have committed only half the forces ranged against Ukraine.
Some argue that Putin underestimated the Ukrainian army and air force and calculated on a lightening victory. I doubt that. Russian military intelligence is not blind and knows that Ukraine has a well trained and equipped army, supported by the west including the UK since the invasion of Crimea in 2014. The US alone provided $2.5 billion in military aid. The Russian high command also recognise that soldiers fighting for their homes are not likely to be a pushover and will not break easily.
Reports of Russian forces faltering as tanks break down and run low on fuel may be true. But logistics are always problematic in offensive warfare, and this should not be read as an ill-prepared and failing offensive.
The reality is that Putin does not want heavier fighting than necessary to overcome his enemy. Of course that is not from any humanitarian instinct. In a war that is already causing dissent in Russia, he does not need too many body bags streaming back home. He also does not want to unleash the kind of brutality that would trigger an Iraq-style insurgency in a ‘neutral’ and demilitarised Ukraine under his dominion if it can be avoided.
That is why Putin’s opening barrage of cruise and ballistic missiles — a show of force — was quickly paused and negotiations offered, which were later rejected by President Zelenskiy.
Despite the increasing bite of sanctions against Russia, Putin is in no great hurry. China will help defray economic damage including buying up all Russian energy that cannot be sold to the EU. Putin meanwhile is weaponising Ukrainian civilians, and the longer the war continues the more that will pour across the border and on to Western Europe, adding to the EU’s already overloaded refugee system. Some estimate that the conflict could see up to five million people fleeing from the Russian assault.
If Putin cannot achieve his objectives with this low intensity approach he will resort to unrestrained violence the like of which Russia demonstrated in Chechnya and more recently Syria. This would likely be preceded by bloody demonstrations of what might befall the country, including the destruction of Ukrainian forces encircled and isolated by Russian troops — perhaps using heavy artillery and highly destructive thermobaric weapons.