Saturday, May 28, 2022

Reading the mind of Putin

Image credit: EPA

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On May 9 Victory Day celebration at Red Square, Moscow, everyone was expecting President Vladimir Putin to say something about his special military operation in Ukraine that he ordered on 24 February. Leaders all over the world were expecting or rather speculating about his speech to be delivered in front of 11,000 troops. People were expecting him either to declare “victory in Ukraine” or to mobilize or de-escalate the war. People were also expecting him to give a long and a rousing speech on his gains in Ukraine.

However, Putin surprised everybody. He did not even mention Ukraine in his speech. Neither had he spelt the word “victory”. He gave a short speech lasting 11 minutes. The planned aerial parades in most major cities across the country were cancelled giving the reason of cloudy weather.

In his speech, he “offered no assessment of progress in the war on Ukraine and gave no indication of how long it might continue”. This surprised everybody. People are reading his speech between the lines and seeking to read his mind. What he did not say in his speech is getting more attention than what he actually said.

However, he did spend few minutes on the ongoing war where he blamed the West for planning an attack on Crimea and that Moscow had no other option other than to defend its position, and justified its action as “forced, timely and correct decision”.

In a roundabout fashion, he did acknowledge heavy losses incurred by Russian army. This can be inferred from the statement: “the death of each of our soldiers and officers is a grief for all of us and an irreparable loss for relatives and friends,” adding the state “will provide special support to the children of the dead and wounded comrades.” The actual number of soldiers killed will never be known. Russian sources have put it to be around 1,300. However, NATO estimated it to be 40,000 soldiers, wounded, captured or “missing in action” including 25,000 killed. This is a significant humanitarian loss given the fact that war in Ukraine has just lasted over two months.

The other significant message that could be deduced from his short speech is that Putin refrained from using the rhetoric of using nuclear weapons. This comes as a big relief to the West. The implied meaning here could be that Putin is not interested in escalating and intensifying the war beyond the borders of Ukraine. However, NATO has upped supplying weapons to Ukraine. There is now a greater chance of the war spreading into neighbouring countries. Writing for Aljazeera, Judith Matloff quoted Mathieu Boulege, senior research fellow at the Chatham House, London saying, “Putin is destructive but not suicidal,” therefore, he will never use nuclear weapons. Probably, he might be looking for a way out from the war. The longer the war goes, the more Russia weakens. Already speculation is rife over Putin's deteriorating health. Survival instinct must be working hard in him.

Not mentioning of the word “victory” in his speech could also imply protracted war. The war is already over two months and the end is nowhere near the sight. Instead, it is being waged more ferociously and viciously. People are already speculating the war to be “another Afghanistan” or “Kashmir” in making. The war could go on till Putin is there in the power. The chances of him getting out of power are minimal. In fact, he is in full control; in spite of petrified population his rating is good. A large swath of Russian population, especially of older age, supports him.

Originally, the aim of the war was to de-nazify and demilitarize Ukraine. But with stiff resistance from Ukraine and gross logistic failures together with demoralized army, Russia seems to have shifted its military operation to the East and South. Putin might seek to end the war by proclaiming victory in the Donbas. His objective now looks like by turning Ukraine a landlocked country and to gradually bleed it to death.

Originally, the aim of the war was to de-nazify and demilitarize Ukraine. But with stiff resistance from Ukraine and gross logistic failures together with demoralized army, Russia seems to have shifted its military operation to the East and South.

Ukraine has lost 10-15 percent of its land. It is near impossible to seek diplomatic solution with Putin in this scenario. This implies victimization of Ukraine. Had the West not supplied arms and ammunitions to the Ukraine, it would have been overwhelmed by the Russian army. Recently, Neal Ascherson writes in the Guardian that surrendering land is not the same thing as defeat – if a stronger Ukraine emerges from the ruins. Citing the cases of Poland, Hungary, and Georgia, he goes on to say that country’s independence and territorial integrity is not the same thing and cannot be equated one with the other. A country’s frontier may expand or contract keeping its independence or sovereignty intact. However, abandoning Ukrainian territory to Russia impacts political future of Zelensky. Ukraine is not going to cede an inch of its territories before 24 February.  

Definitely, Kremlin will and can win the war militarily but it has lost the war politically. With dis- and misinformation campaigns, the Russian population can be put in dark but the war has brought disrepute to Russia as a pariah state. Unlike Afghanistan or Kashmir where the impacts of the war are limited; war in Ukraine is having a global impact in terms of rising food and fuel prices. The war is resetting a kind of global order. How this war may come to an end could be a matter of speculation but one thing is sure – it is going to be a long and protracted war. It is waged as a proxy war between the West and Russia.    

Published on 11 May 2022              

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