Putin is in a panic over the expected Ukrainian counteroffensive, which may already be in its preliminary “battlefield-shaping” stage. He doesn’t know, any more than the rest of us do, when the offensive will be launched, where it will strike or whether it will succeed. What he does know is that if it achieves significant success, his own days might be numbered, with fissures already opening inside the Kremlin and between its most important henchmen.
The Russian army’s thinly stretched troops have been preparing strong defensive positions all along the front line to repel an attack or series of attacks, and planning their own spoiling operations. But, aside from the balance of forces, critically important to Ukraine’s success or failure is morale.
Putin knows it is fragile among his own troops, many of whom don’t know why they are expected to fight a war they don’t even begin to understand. He knows he has to break the morale of Ukrainian soldiers on the battle line and civilians on the home front. That is why he has recently intensified air attacks on cities and towns. They are intended to kill civilians, destroy infrastructure, disrupt the war economy and make life a misery – both for those in the cities and their relatives at the front.
On Saturday night, Russia launched the largest wave of explosive drone strikes since the full-scale invasion began. Fifty-two of the 54 Iranian-supplied Shahed drones were knocked out of the sky. Forty were aimed at Kyiv, the most intensive barrage targeting the city so far, killing one.
The next day, Kyiv, celebrating the 1,541st anniversary of its founding, was straight back to normal. No mass panic, no serious disruption to life. Putin’s attempts to intimidate the Ukrainian people and their leaders simply don’t work. He tried it first in February last year, expecting Kyiv to fall in a matter of days simply with rocket fire and Russian forces heading towards the capital. Like London in the Blitz and later under Hitler’s rain of V1 and V2 rockets, these Russian war crimes have the opposite effect to what is intended, serving only to harden the people’s will to resist.
Ukrainian soldiers at the front know all about the Russian army’s atrocities against local civilians in areas they have occupied, as well as the industrial-scale kidnapping of thousands of children. Determination to keep the Russians from their doors and thrust them back behind their own border makes these troops fight even harder. One of the most common requests of the West that I have heard in Ukraine, from commanders and soldiers, is that our countries don’t put pressure on their government to make an accommodation with Russia. And no Macron-style off-ramp for Putin.
The Russian president doesn’t want peace talks, either – but for very different reasons. How can he agree to stop a war that has achieved so little at such enormous cost in blood and roubles to his own people? But he does want to hold out the false hope of a ceasefire. It is part of a good cop/bad cop strategy that has just been clumsily articulated by Andrei Kelin, the Russian ambassador to London, who threatened escalation in a “new dimension which we do not need and we do not want”, adding, “we can make peace tomorrow”.
These remarks follow Putin’s characteristically duplicitous words a couple of days ago to the Brazilian president, expressing “the openness of the Russian side to dialogue on the political and diplomatic track, which is still blocked by Kyiv and its Western sponsors”.
The objective is to lure Western governments into appeasing Moscow by pulling back on military support in the hope of peace and the fear of an expanded conflict. Chinese officials may have been put to work, as well, with reports that Li Hui, Beijing’s special representative for Eurasian affairs, has urged European diplomats to end the conflict before it escalates further.
As well as recent promises of modern jets for the longer term, Putin is rattled by the continued flow of munitions into Ukraine as it prepares the counteroffensive. That is another reason for the increased frequency of drone attacks against Ukrainian cities – to exhaust air defences and deplete scarce ammo stocks that will be so critical in major offensive operations.
Despite Russia’s diplomatic offensive, Western leaders, now acclimatised to Putin’s standard threats, seem to be holding up strongly, for the moment at least. But as well as providing military and economic support, and resisting fake talk of peace negotiations, they need to be more aggressive in helping Ukraine counter the entirety of Putin’s war effort. One way of doing that is to bear down hard on Russia’s Iranian quartermasters, who have played an important role in Putin’s aggression, supplying drones, deploying troops, promising ballistic missiles and helping Moscow evade sanctions.
Greater resources should now be applied to interdict drone shipments, as well as harsher economic sanctions against Tehran and setting up a tribunal to deal with aiding and abetting Russian war crimes.
Colonel Richard Kemp is a former British Army officer. He was an infantry battalion commander and saw active duty in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan