“I will do such things – What they are yet, I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth!” – King Lear, Act 2, Scene 4
Vladimir Putin seeks to convey an indomitable will. Here is a man who has set his course and will stick to it, whatever the obstacles in his way and the costs of overcoming them. It is an image that serves him well. It is now widely assumed in the West that he will not back down in the war with Ukraine and, if things go badly, he will lash out. Such a man must not be provoked. Yet the image is starting to fray at the edges. Behind all the braggadocio his power is slowly eroding. The symptoms of this are to be found not in a readiness to compromise on the war, which remains absent, but instead in a policy paralysis; he is pressing on with his established strategy because he can think of nothing better to do.
Putin’s St Petersburg speech
A good place to start is with the speech he delivered last week, coming in at over 70 minutes, at the annual St Petersburg International Economic Forum. This is intended as an alternative to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Putin’s audience was not as substantial as in previous years, with representatives of the Taliban helping to make up the numbers. The theme of his address was that, despite facing an American-led “economic blitzkrieg”, Russia would emerge even stronger as the rest of the world suffers from inflation and recession. He described in great detail the measures being taken to protect the economy against this onslaught which would ensure self-sufficiency. “We are strong people,” he insisted, “and can cope with any challenge. Like our ancestors, we will solve any problem. The entire thousand-year history of our country speaks of this.” He presented the current conflict as being essentially about Russia standing up to American arrogance; they “think of themselves as exceptional. And if they think they’re exceptional, that means everyone else is second-class.” This is a theme which provides common ground with China. President Xi Jinping sent his own video message along similar lines.
Putin’s assertions of invincible Russian strength were undermined by his speech being delayed for an hour by a cyberattack, demonstrating that this supposedly favoured Russian instrument of modern conflict can be used against it in an embarrassing way. Although he boasted about how well the Russian economy will weather the storm, even official forecasts predict a contraction this year by some 8 per cent, and unofficial estimates go as high as 15 per cent. One reason why Russia’s economic position is not worse is the boost to revenues resulting from the huge rise in oil and gas prices, yet Putin is currently seeking to add to the pressure on the West by cutting gas supplies to EU countries. He will fight the economic war by demonstrating to Europeans that siding with the US will mean that they are committing “economic suicide”. At the moment, if there is a punitive option available, he is anxious to take it.
With regards to the huge issue of the effects on world food supplies of the blockade of the Black Sea, and the real prospect of famine in many countries, Putin again deflected the blame to US and EU sanctions against Russian fertiliser and grain exports, and the obstacles put in the way of Russian efforts to send exports to those in direst need. Another perspective was provided in one of the more telling interventions in the forum. Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the state-controlled RT media organisation, who specialises in blood-curdling threats and in making Russians feel cheerful about their prospects by warning how bad it is going to be for everybody else, presented famine as a Russian weapon in the economic war: “The famine will start now and they will lift the sanctions and be friends with us, because they will realise that it’s impossible not to be friends with us.”
On the war itself, Putin promised that Russia would fully meet its goal of consolidating the territory of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine: “Freedom for the Donbas.” As if ignorant of the cruel realities of the war, and the devastation being inflicted on Ukrainian towns and cities, he urged: “We must not turn those cities and towns that we liberate into a semblance of Stalingrad. This is a natural thing that our military thinks about when organising hostilities.” Those who urge a peace deal got little comfort from Putin. The Kremlin line is now firmly that Ukraine will have to live with new borders: those areas under Russian occupation are being prepared for annexation.
The only possible concession came when Putin stated that he had no objection to Ukraine joining the EU, because the EU “isn’t a military organisation”. This admission is one of those moments equivalent to an alternative ending to Hamlet, when the old King returns from an overseas trip to reveal that the tragedy that has just unfolded was based on an unfortunate misunderstanding. This whole sorry business began in the summer of 2013 when Putin put the Russophile president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, under intense economic pressure, including cuts in energy supplies, to prevent him signing an association agreement with the EU. This pressure succeeded and the agreement was not signed, but the effect was to trigger the Euromaidan movement which eventually led to Yanukovych fleeing the country, Putin annexing Crimea and encouraging the separatist movement in the Donbas.
The admission shows that Putin realises that he must pick his fights carefully. He can’t do much for now about the EU opening negotiations with Ukraine, so best not to try. For a similar reason, the Kremlin dismissed the moves by Finland and Sweden to join Nato as being irrelevant, despite previous lurid warnings of the terrible fate awaiting those countries should they take such a step (and the assumption by some Western geopoliticians that Nato enlargement is all Putin really cares about). This is another development he can’t do much about and so is inclined to let pass.
Which may be just as well because the challenges keep on coming. One of the most intriguing moments at the forum came when Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the only head of state to join Putin on stage, made it clear that his country would not recognise the “quasi-governments” in the Donbas, as well as those in South Ossetia or Abkhazia (in Georgia) or, for that matter, Taiwan. “If the right to self-determination is to be realised everywhere on the planet, then instead of 193 governments on Earth, there will be 500 or 600… Of course, it will be chaos.” This was not what the audience – or Putin – expected to hear.
This led to the normal warnings that because Kazakhstan has a large Russian-speaking population Russia was bound to take an interest, and if it started to be unfriendly, Russia could get very interested indeed. Simonyan’s husband and fellow propagandist, Tigran Keosayan, had, even before the forum, complained about Kazakhstan’s “ingratitude” after it cancelled a Victory Day parade on 9 May, and suggested that Tokayev “look carefully at what is happening in Ukraine”. (The reference to ingratitude was to the brief Russian-led intervention last January to help put down civil unrest.) Elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, Moldova and Georgia are exploring their own links with the EU (with Georgia’s population apparently more enthusiastic than its government), while Belarus, which is now stuck in an unequal alliance with Russia, has avoided committing forces to the war.
As Tom McTague noted in an essay reflecting on his recent travels in Kyrgyzstan, it is only in Russia that there is any nostalgia for the old Soviet Union, and Putin has not found a way to develop a positive appeal. ”The question for Russia,” he asked, “is, right now, what does it have to attract its former colonies beyond history? It is not rich enough, advanced enough, or ideologically compelling enough. Nor does it show the kind of love that suggests it would preside over a happy family.” Who looks at Belarus or Crimea, let alone the Donbas, and thinks there is something there to emulate? Hence the Kremlin’s dependence upon coercion and control. Putin only knows the way of the bully. When an individual, or a state, or any other entity, starts on a path that he doesn’t like, all he can do is threaten. If his threats lack credibility, then he has to let it pass.
Lithuania and Kaliningrad
This can be seen with the latest flashpoint in Russia’s conflict with the West. The Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, home to 430,000 people, is sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. This was formerly the German city of Königsberg, captured by Soviet forces right at the end of the Second World War and valued by Moscow for its Baltic port. Because it is home to Russia’s Baltic Fleet, it is territory of strategic importance. Its position became exposed when Poland and Lithuania joined Nato. This vulnerability has now been underlined as the Lithuanian government has blocked deliveries of coal, metals, construction materials and advanced technology through its territory by means of both rail and road. This move is in line with, and does not go beyond, EU sanctions, does not stop the movement of passengers and unsanctioned goods, and does not preclude Russia supplying Kaliningrad by sea.
Dmitry Peskov – the Kremlin spokesman who has spent a lot of his recent career warning other states about one thing or another – has reported that Russia is preparing “retaliatory measures”. Putin’s close buddy and security council secretary Nikolai Patrushev has vowed that these measures, yet to be determined, “will have a serious negative impact on the Lithuanian population”. It’s not clear what options are available. Not a lot of Lithuanian goods travel through Russia these days, while the option to cut off gas supplies is negated by the fact that Lithuania stopped taking Russian gas in April, having had the foresight after 2015, when nearly all of its gas supplies were imported from Russia, to have built an off-shore liquefied natural gas import terminal in the port city of Klaipeda. So Moscow is short of available economic forms of coercion. The move has been described on Russian TV as tantamount to a declaration of war, but retaliatory military action against a Nato country would be a bold and dangerous step to take simply because of the implementation of sanctions which Moscow insists in general are really no big deal.
Paralysis in Moscow
All this fits in with the gradual erosion of Putin’s authority in Russia along the lines recently outlined by Tatiana Stanovaya, analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Russian elites are struggling to come to terms with a war that Putin began without consultation and which he does not know how to end on favourable terms. He is unwilling to take the even greater risks required to secure a military victory (assuming that these could succeed), yet unable to accept anything that would look like a defeat. Because no one among the elite has a clue how to escape this conundrum or, even if they did, has the political courage and opportunity to move against Putin, the odds of him being overthrown in a coup are low. Instead, there is paralysis as internal divisions grow along with the consequential problems caused by the war. Putin, Stanovaya notes, “has created a situation for which he was not prepared and which he doesn’t know how to deal with, while the Russian power system that he himself built is constructed in such a way as to prevent effective decisions from being made collectively and in a balanced way”.
This paralysis is reflected in the conduct of the war. Russian tactics and strategy remain inflexible and predictable. Having identified Severodonetsk as a vital objective, just as Mariupol was before, failure cannot be contemplated, and so all available firepower and manpower has been hurled at it to break the Ukrainian resistance and then prevent the defenders retreating. This has come at a heavy cost for Ukraine and questions have been asked in Kyiv about the wisdom of committing so much of its own military capability to the defence of a city that has acquired strategic relevance only because it seems to matter so much to Moscow. Yet, the Ukrainian military insists, the effort has been worthwhile: Russian forces have suffered the greater attrition; this defence has delayed advances elsewhere, as Ukraine waits for – and now starts to receive – much-needed Western weaponry; and it has diverted Russian capabilities from places where Ukraine is now able to start moving on to the offensive. Evidence of this offensive is seen in Ukrainian advances in the Kherson area.
[See also: Is Vladimir Putin dead?]
A test of endurance
From the start of this crisis Russia has acted to demonstrate its strength and show why it deserves to be treated at all times like a great power, but its power is limited and it is now facing the possibility that it really has bitten off more than it can chew. None of this means an early end to the war. Nor does it mean that things will get easier for Ukraine. Putin’s default strategy is always to inflict pain even if he can achieve little else. The risk of more reckless action cannot be precluded. Nonetheless, we should not assume that Russia is inexhaustible or, just because we cannot pick a winner in the battle at the moment, that the war is destined for a prolonged stalemate.
The political paralysis affects Russia’s military strategy. Putin is unwilling to accept defeat and see what he can extract by way of concessions for an offer to withdraw. Nor does he want to mobilise all of Russian society for the war effort, so the limits on troop numbers will remain, and will affect operations more as those that are lost cannot be replaced and Russian advantages in firepower begin to be eroded. He can propose a ceasefire to allow him to hold the territory already taken but he knows that will be rejected by the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, unless it is accompanied by a promise of withdrawal.
Putin’s best hope, in pressing on with his current strategy, is that at some point, preferably quite soon, Ukraine’s Western supporters will tire of the war and its economic costs and urge Kyiv to accept some territorial compromise. Here his problem is that there is also paralysis of a different sort on the Western side. The economic costs are high, but they have already been incurred. The commitment to Ukraine, and to ensuring that Russia does not win its war of conquest, has been made. So long as Ukraine continues to fight, and suffer the costs, then even leaders who think a compromise might at some point be necessary are holding their tongues. The West is settling in for the long haul, looking for ways to keep Ukraine supplied with the weapons and ammunition it needs, while adjusting foreign policies to be able to concentrate on the war. The fight can be presented as a conflict between democracy and autocracy, but at its core it is also now about the future of the European security order, and if that means improving relations with autocracies, whether in urging the Saudis to pump more oil or keeping relations with China calm, then so be it.
Which means that the most salient test of endurance is still on the field of battle. When Russia began to suffer setbacks, after the initial offensive in February, the Ministry of Defence moved smartly to recast the operation as being solely about the Donbas. The problems the Russian military has faced over the last couple of months have not so much resulted from Ukrainian counter-offensives as the meagre territorial gains it has achieved for such an enormous effort. If it is the case that the Ukrainian armed forces are beginning to increase the tempo of their offensive operations, then Russian commanders will face a new set of challenges. It may be that their troops will be as tenacious in defence as their Ukrainian counterparts, even as they take heavy blows, but it is as likely that they will not do so with the same conviction. Problems of morale and disaffection may begin to tell. From the start of this war, its most important feature has been the asymmetry of motivation. In the end the Ukrainians are fighting because they have no other choice. Russians have the option of going home.
[See also: Nato must keep faith with Ukraine]