I’m touching wood as I write, but can you think of anything that is going well for Vladimir Putin? Under his command, the Russian army has just lost not only a conquered territory the size of Wales, but also its aura of invincibility. If it suffers a comparable defeat in the south, the end is nigh.
The legendary Russian “meat grinder” still grinds but the sense of its slow, inevitable victory has vanished. The military situation is now so poor that, on Wednesday, Putin was forced to announce “partial mobilization” to conjure up another 300,000 soldiers.
Even worse for him was the domestic reaction. He told his audience that Nato was threatening “the Motherland” and so her sons must defend her. On hearing this rallying cry, tens of thousands of potential conscripts took to cars or planes to leave Mother Russia fast.
When I talk to Ukrainians, they love saying that the Russian regime “always lies”. Dissident Poles, Czechs etc used to say the same during the Cold War. Perhaps such talk is natural from oppressed peoples, but in the Cold War the Russian people said it, privately, too. They were often passionately devoted to a romantic idea of their country, but their jokes, their anger, their methods of survival all rested on the firm belief that the Soviet system was a lie.
For quite a long period, most Russians believed in Putin. After the chaos of the 1990s, he seemed to be restoring order and national pride. In a culture much more chauvinistic than our own, he gained kudos through reconquest, especially when successfully defying the Western powers in 2014 to wrest Crimea and some eastern areas from Kyiv’s control.
So when, in February, he announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine, he attracted little domestic criticism. He was lying – this was an invasion not a special operation – but people back home felt pleased at the prospect of success for this colonial adventure. Life, particularly in Moscow, could go on merrily enough.
The ensuing months were not so good. Economic sanctions hurt. Travel was restricted, as was the flow of money. Thousands of Russian soldiers died. In his May Day parade speech, Putin was unable to declare the lightning victory he had expected. Faith in him became strained.
But it is only really this week that Putin’s domestic credibility began to founder. The men now fleeing the country clearly do not believe their president when he tells them that the mobilization is biased and only those with military training will be called up. They dread being sent to fight in the coming winter without adequate boots, barracks, vehicles, flak jackets, coats, food or arms, and with bad generals.
The phrase “special military operation” sounds professional. There is nothing professional about hundreds of thousands of ill-trained or untrained men being forced to fight well-trained opponents who have already killed so many of their predecessors. So the new Russian conscripts vote with their feet.
How can an army win once it senses its own nation is deserting it? A soldier becomes a mug, not a patriot. The Ukrainian army is 100 per cent committed to victory. What are Russian soldiers now committed to?
When Putin invaded in February, and even as recently as last month, there were retired Western generals and distinguished military commentators and academics who urged “realism”. Russia had legitimate interests, they said. The Red Army was legendaryly undefeatable. “Grown-ups” (always a sign of complacency when people use that word about themselves) understood, they added, that the way out was a deal: Putin would settle for the Donbas and the Crimea, more or less. The West would force Ukraine to accept this. Normal life would then return.
Many politicians on the Continent – especially in Italy, France and gas-addicted Germany – sided with such views. Emmanuel Macron, craving potential glory and a Nobel Peace Prize, kept telephoning Vlad, and received, he boasted, his “personal assurances”. The West should accept the Russian concept of “indivisible security”, said the French president.
Such voices are almost silent now. Ursula von der Leyen, who had pursued a timid policy as Germany’s defense minister is becoming, as head of the European Commission, a hawk. Macron tries to lead the call for resupplying Ukraine with weapons. The combination of Russia’s atrocious war crimes and military ineptitude with Ukraine’s utter determination and good discipline has exposed the false premises of “realism”.
Russia is not really a great power – though it has a terrifying nuclear arsenal – let alone a defender of European civilisation. It has spent six months bombarding the citizens who, it asserts, long to be part of it, and who, it will soon announce to universal derision, have “voted” to be so. Its regime is incompetent, brutal, kleptocratic and mendacious. Although Putin loves to attack the decadence of the West, his own regime is decadent. It scorns all institutional restraint, grotesquely enriches its own elite and pushes disaffected cronies out of high windows.
Even countries which want to weaken the West – above all, China, but also, to some extent, India – have become uneasy. After his recent visit to Samarkand, Putin can count only outcasts like Belorussia, Syria and North Korea (or rather, their respective dictators) as supporters.
Although the danger is still high, the consequences of Putin’s mistakes are benign.
Pope Pius XI once warned of “satanic optimism” about human progress. Since the Clinton/Blair era of Things Can Only Get Better, the West, in love with its own modernity, has been guilty of this sin. It was blind to threats, although the 21st century has so far been full of them – Islamism, banking and financial disaster, China’s imperialism, Iran’s terrorism, Russia’s machismo, and now inflation and energy insecurity.
Living high on credit and welfare, we forgot. Now we are being forced to remember. That is cause for non-satanic optimism.
Putin is helping us realize that our defense alliances mean something, as do our democratic and law-based systems, as do our international organisations. Normally, one does not look forward to a session of the United Nations General Assembly, but this week, there in New York were world leaders, led by the not normally tough President Biden, upholding the principles of the UN Charter against “Putin’s war” . By delivering his inflammatory speech shortly beforehand, the Russian president accidentally strengthened the unity of his opponents.
As for Liz Truss, she used the UN platform to give an immediate response to Putin’s latest threat. Pledging new money for weapons, she said: “We will not rest until Ukraine prevails.”
Victory for Ukraine has moved fast from being a beautiful dream to becoming the chief immediate global aim of the democratic allies. That is a big thing, and Britain, under Boris Johnson, with Ms Truss as his foreign secretary, was the first Security Council member to seek this end.
The democracies have passed from initial inattention, through fear, to confidence. At each challenge so far, we have found that Putin’s threats are empty or ineffective. His most serious practical one – cutting off Europe’s gas and oil – already seems less catastrophic as people come to see that, after a tough short term, sufficient supply will come from other sources, prices will fall back and Putin will have lost his main lever forever.
Yes, he has the Bomb, and loves saying he will use it. The thought is chilling. But no member of the world’s nuclear club, however anti-Western, has any interest in letting any member break its taboo against nuclear use. The best bet must be that if we keep our nerves, Putin will lose his.