He’s not basing this on intelligence, he says. He’s just following the hyper-nationalist rhetoric in Russian state media to its logical conclusion.
There’s a distinct “careening towards the cliff” feel to developments in Ukraine lately, isn’t there?
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace says he thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin will officially declare war on Ukraine during the May 9th parade – a move that would bring in more reservists or "cannon fodder." pic.twitter.com/h8lrF0OYOQ
— Moshe Schwartz (@YWNReporter) April 29, 2022
The reason the war seems set to expand boils down to a single fact now recognized by both sides: Ukraine could win. At the start of the conflict, a Russian victory seemed a foregone conclusion; the suspense lay simply in how long Ukraine would hold out before the country was conquered and the insurgency phase of the battle began.
There was little risk of escalation with the west in that scenario. Putin would have his grand imperial triumph, Russian pride would be sated, and the west would resign itself to a new cold war with Moscow conducted chiefly through sanctions policy.
But something went wrong. To the great surprise of Russia and NATO alike, the Ukrainians were game. They hit the Russian army so hard in the north that Putin was left with no choice but to pivot to a face-saving smaller campaign in the east. Which, if you believe western observers, isn’t going great either:
Moscow announced the start of the renewed offensive in Donbas nearly two weeks ago but has yet to score any major territorial advances. Despite a three-pronged attack from the north, south and east, Russian forces have made only incremental progress at best, the Pentagon official said…
In light of these troubles, one British military expert said that the Russian assault on the Donbas had “sort of fizzled,” and that Russia risks running out of new troops to deploy there.
“They pulled all of these mauled units out of Kyiv, and then tried to reconstitute them for combat in the east,” said the analyst, Mike Martin, a visiting fellow in war studies at King’s College London.
“We believe that they meant to be much further along in terms of a total encirclement of Ukrainian troops in the east and they have not been able to link north with south,” a senior U.S. defense official told the Financial Times. “In fact they’re nowhere close to linking north with south as the Ukrainians continue to fight back.”
Zelensky’s western allies are watching all of this and gazing at each other, mouths agape, as it dawns on them: Ukraine could win. Instead of trying to manage a Ukrainian defeat, the west now has a chance to inflict an unthinkable defeat on Putin that will curtail Moscow’s regional ambitions for years to come. “Instead of aiming to bog the Russians down in guerrilla warfare, Western capitals started to believe the Russians could be pushed back further, and perhaps even out of the country altogether,” the WSJ observes of the “vibe shift” among the U.S. and its allies. “If that happened, they calculated that Russian landgrab attempts would likely be delayed, perhaps indefinitely.”
Putin’s dream of a grand imperial triumph looks dashed, with realistic outcomes now ranging from a limited and hugely costly “victory” in the Donbas to outright defeat. Russian pride has been wounded to a degree unmatched since the fall of the USSR. “The military are outraged that the blitz on Kyiv has failed,” one Russian source told the Daily Telegraph. “People in the army are seeking payback for failures of the past and they want to go further in Ukraine. It seems their calls are being heard.”
With his own troops beginning to doubt his mettle, what’s left for the strongman to do except go all-in, ordering a full mobilization of the Russian population to expand the war? “Mobilisation would mean Russia will need to call up reservists and keep conscripts beyond their one-year term, a politically fraught decision,” according to the Daily Mirror. “Martial law would close the country’s borders and nationalise swathes of the economy which is already hanging by a thread.”
if Wallace is right about Putin’s intentions on May 9, i.e. “Victory Day” in Russia in honor of World War II, Putin is about to go full fascist in the name of winning his war on Ukraine.
And maybe not just Ukraine.
Two days ago, Russian missiles struck Kiev shortly after the secretary-general of the UN finished speaking after a visit with Zelensky. That was interpreted as a message to the west that Russia no longer considers its enemy in this conflict to be Ukraine alone. “This says a lot about Russia’s true attitude to global institutions, about the efforts of the Russian leadership to humiliate the UN and everything that the organization represents,” Zelensky said of the missile strike afterward. If Wallace is right that Russia is about to enlist its entire population in the name of defeating “the world’s Nazis,” does that mean he’s about to extend the war to NATO?
Fred Kaplan notes this quote from Russia’s foreign minister a few days ago: “NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy. War means war.” With Russia headed towards full mobilization and the U.S. preparing a $33 billion aid package to arm Ukraine, replete with heavy weapons, Kaplan’s worried:
There it is, then, in Biden’s own proclamation: The defense of the Ukraine is “vital to the defense of the United States.”
Perhaps in response to this surge in U.S. and NATO assistance, though also no doubt to step up his own army’s dreadful performance, Putin is moving closer to viewing the conflict not merely a “special military operation” against Ukraine, which he has dismissed as a mythical country, but a full-fledged war against a global superpower. On Wednesday, he appointed Valery Gerasimov, the Russian chief of the General Staff, to take command of the offensive in eastern Ukraine.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the Russian army will suddenly snap to—chiefs of staff, even one as celebrated as Gerasimov, don’t necessarily have operational expertise—but it does signify that Putin has reassessed the nature of the war and elevated its stakes.
The west isn’t hiding the fact that it agrees that this is a proxy war. Lloyd Austin famously said during his visit to Kiev that America’s goal is to weaken Russia, not just preserve Ukrainian sovereignty. Liz Truss, the UK foreign secretary, went so far as to say that Britain hopes to push “Russia out of the whole of Ukraine.” The Russian nationalists screeching on TV every night about fighting “the west” in Ukraine may have an agenda, but they’re not wrong.
That said, bear in mind that there’s a difference between Putin *ordering* full mobilization and *achieving* full mobilization. I refer you to yesterday’s post touching on how much time it’ll take to train new Russian conscripts and how much difficulty Russia will have arming up when it’s cut off from western supply chains by sanctions. Already there are reports that Moscow is running out of precision weapons because it can’t manufacture new ones. They need to mobilize quickly to hold off the Ukrainians in the Donbas, and a country as weak as Russia is now can’t mobilize well if it tries to mobilize quickly.
So what happens when a strongman fails to impose his will through conventional means on a “weakling” neighbor, leaving all the world — including his own people — doubting his strength? No one knows.