100 days of deadlock and bloodshed in a war Putin cannot now win OR lose: PROFESSOR MARK GALEOTTI on why there ultimately has to be a peace deal between Ukraine and Russia
Just before dawn yesterday, the war in Ukraine entered its 100th day with the demented propagandists of Russian state television more belligerent than ever.
One threatened this week that the Red Army will not halt until it reaches Stonehenge. Another declared that World War III has begun and that Nato must be forced to disarm.
These war-mongering rants are echoed by Vladimir Putin’s most hawkish advisers in the corridors of the Kremlin.
But in reality it is the sound of whistling in the dark, a nervous attempt to keep spirits up as fears loom ever larger.
The truth is the Russian President is mired in a conflict he can neither win nor abandon. His greatest problem, worse even than the mounting death toll or crippling sanctions, is that he has no way to declare victory unilaterally.
It takes only one side to start a war, but both sides to end one.
‘When Russia invaded in late February, Putin expected the conflict to be over in a matter of days’
‘At the moment, much of Putin’s army is devoted to smashing through to Severodonetsk in the Luhansk region in the east’
Even if Putin’s troops attain the ascendancy in eastern Ukraine, allowing him to lay claim to the Donbas region where the majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians live, he cannot announce that he has achieved his objectives.
Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky and his army of diehard resistance fighters will not tolerate that. They will continue to wage war over any Russian-occupied territory until a real peace deal is struck — and, at the moment, negotiation is out of the question, let alone compromise.
When Russia invaded in late February, Putin expected the conflict to be over in a matter of days.
He genuinely believed Ukrainians were aching to live under Moscow’s rule again and that his troops would be welcomed with flowers and the sound of brass bands. Instead, this conflict is heading for an ugly deadlock in which neither side is strong enough to deal a knock-out blow, nor weak enough to be defeated.
Following Russia’s failure to take the capital Kyiv and its withdrawal from north-west Ukraine, some Western commentators, who’d assumed Putin’s military might would shatter Ukraine’s resistance like a walnut in a nutcracker, suggested his forces were falling apart.
We saw images of burned-out convoys and buccaneering Ukrainian troops destroying tanks with state-of-the-art, handheld anti-tank weapons as if they were City slickers on a clay-pigeon shoot.
But Putin’s land forces are not a Keystone Kops army. They outnumber the Ukrainians in many key battlefields, morale is holding up better than it was in the early days of the war and troops have most of the equipment they need. And now they are being led by generals who have adopted a radical change in strategy.
Today the focus is on small, successive victories, not grand, sweeping triumphs. They are advancing perhaps one or two miles a day, in a grinding war of attrition.
At the moment, much of Putin’s army is devoted to smashing through to Severodonetsk in the Luhansk region in the east. Ukraine’s forces are fighting a rearguard action, pulling back slowly while claiming that the city has more symbolic value than real strategic importance.
As the region’s governor, Serhiy Hayday, said this week, the neighbouring city of Lysychansk is on higher ground and makes a better military stronghold.
Such battles have grim echoes of European wars of the past, in particular the gruelling trench warfare of World War I, when skirmishes over a few hundred yards of ground lasted for weeks.
There is another hideous parallel with the Great War, a conflict that began in August 1914 and was meant to be ‘all over by Christmas’, yet dragged on for four years. Putin loves to measure himself against the greats of Russian history. But I am beginning to see him as the modern equivalent of the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, who made himself commander-in-chief of the Russian army at the outbreak of World War I.
Tsar Nicholas predicted a triumph and wanted all the glory to accrue to him. Instead, he was blamed for the ghastly meat-grinder that the war became.
Russian separatist troops mutiny against Putin on video: Commander complains his men have been thrown into bloody fighting without food, equipment or medicine and despite suffering ‘chronic illness’
‘But as long as Putin does not control eastern Ukraine, he cannot pretend to have achieved any objective at all, no matter how his propagandists spin it’
As the tide turned against him, Nicholas was never in a position to sue for peace. He kept hoping for a victory that would enable him to strike a better deal and emerge as a saviour. It never came.
Instead, he and his family paid with their lives — and Russia was plunged into a Soviet nightmare from which it did not begin to emerge for nearly 75 years.
Putin faces the same dilemma. He has gambled everything on success. But as long as he does not control eastern Ukraine, he cannot pretend to have achieved any objective at all, no matter how his propagandists spin it.
And he is running out of time. Last month, Russian inflation was a fraction under 20 per cent. Hardline economic strictures imposed by the West mean most families have seen a steep decline in household incomes and are burning through their savings.
The same is true for most Russian businesses which are using up not only their cash, but their stocks of spare parts and components. Unless sanctions are lifted, many will find it impossible to replenish their supplies.
That raises the spectre of unemployment and deepening misery.
Meanwhile, local elections to select the governors of regions that are far larger than Britain are scheduled for September. They are disruptive because they give people space to talk — and that is the last thing Putin wants. Some regional politicians are already coming out against the war. The men of the 113th Rifle Regiment of the Donetsk People’s Republic, criticised Putin for sending them into battle without material support, medical supplies or food.
Unrest on the streets would have to be controlled by the National Guard, but they are simmering with resentment at being used as cannon fodder in Ukraine.
Once the elections are over, the Russian winter will be looming, food prices will start to rise sharply and the economy is forecast to have shrunk by up to 25 per cent. With cold, wet weather comes the end of the best season for a successful campaign. ‘General Winter’ is the one predictable victor in every war on the steppes — think Napoleon and Hitler — but this time he is not on Moscow’s side.
So if Putin is to achieve any military success, even a short-lived and illusory one, he has to fling all his reserves at it right now. It is possible for him to mobilise another 150,000 troops if he calls up both untrained conscripts and the old guard.
‘Our hawkish position on Ukraine is not mere showmanship. It is a heartfelt commitment, based on a solid moral position. We will not abandon Ukraine’
But it will take at least three months to knock them into shape and push them to the frontline. Once there, they will struggle with clapped-out equipment and old kit, because that is all that is left.
Yes, it would be sufficient to launch another offensive, but inevitably the casualty rate will be steep. The Kremlin’s best hope is not that the war is winnable, but that the West will lose its stomach for the fight. Without Western backing, the Ukrainians can’t hold out. Gas shortages are hurting Germany and a wobble in support cannot be ruled out.
The vanity of Emmanuel Macron is another weakness. The French president imagines he is the man to broker a peace deal and no doubt win a Nobel Peace Prize, and Putin will use that as leverage.
Elsewhere in Europe, other crises might supersede war in Ukraine and the Spanish, the Italians and others could soften their backing for President Volodymyr Zelensky in their desperation to see the conflict ended.
And so Russia waits for the West to waver. But the greatest obstacle to that is British resolve.
Our hawkish position on Ukraine is not mere showmanship. Boris Johnson may well enjoy the opportunity to present himself as a wartime leader, playing up his Churchillian predilections, but this is not a political game. It is a heartfelt commitment, based on a solid moral position. We will not abandon Ukraine.
Nobody, at home or abroad, has seriously questioned that and, as a result, Britain’s standing in the world has been reinforced.
European leaders may vacillate but the government line here won’t change. In the end, there has to be some kind of peace deal. It may be one that Putin cannot survive, and will therefore resist to the end. Meantime, many more bodies will litter the battlefields of Ukraine.
MARK GALEOTTI is Honorary Professor at the University College London school of Slavonic and East European Studies.