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Opinion: Vladimir Putin's dream has become a nightmare

8 March 2022

How long before Putin’s generals start thinking the only way out of this mess is to get rid of the man who created it, asks Professor Mark Galeotti (UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies).

Professor Mark Galeotti

Despite his bombastic rhetoric, and what looks like Botox, the strain is showing on Vladimir Putin's face. 

His dream of a lightning war - Kyiv falling in two days and the rest of Ukraine within two weeks - has become a nightmare.

The evidence is everywhere: a massive convoy bogged down in the mud, smoking hulks of aircraft shot down by Ukrainian forces, and Russian artillery resorting to shelling apartment blocks and hospitals.

Meanwhile, the invaders have even taken to laying landmines in humanitarian corridors and gunning down fleeing families - it is frightened and demoralised soldiers, unable to prevail on the battlefield, who commit such crimes.

Yesterday came another, even more telling sign that Putin is rattled.

In a surprise move, Russia announced that it would stop its onslaught 'in a moment' if Ukraine agrees to a raft of extraordinary demands.

It must cease military action, change its constitution to enshrine neutrality, acknowledge the Crimea as Russian territory, and recognise the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent territories.

So what is behind this abrupt about-turn? 

Two weeks ago, Putin would have scoffed at the notion that he might offer an olive branch - albeit a rotten one - just ten days after sending troops into Ukraine. 

So why is he proffering it now? Is it because he fears that his armed forces are incapable of completing their mission successfully?

On the face of it, that seems unlikely. Ukraine's defence expenditure is one tenth the size of Russia's. 

The invader's army is 280,000-strong, compared with Ukraine's complement of 170,000 troops. 

But war is not just a numbers game. 

Ukraine's soldiers are well-trained and highly motivated to defend their country under the leadership of their charismatic president Volodymyr Zelensky.

Many have combat experience gained from battles against Russian troops in Donetsk and Lugansk in 2014 and they are backed by 100,000 reservists, and territorial defence forces that include at least 100,000 veterans and an ever-increasing number of civilian volunteers. 

By contrast, 40 per cent of Russian soldiers are conscripts, many of whom have had little training.

And while Putin has the advantage in military hardware, superior firepower does not always win the day, as we have seen in Vietnam and Afghanistan.  

What really proves decisive in wars is the will to win: the victor is the one who exhausts the other side, sapping their morale to the point that they can no longer resist.

No one knows this better than Putin, a former member of the KGB, who is behaving like a KGB interrogator with a prisoner tied to a chair: withhold food and water, deny sleep and light, then torture until they submit.

In the case of Ukraine, this means pulverising cities with relentless bombing, and cutting off the vital supplies they require to survive. 

But Ukraine is stubbornly resisting these efforts. And the longer it holds out, the greater the chance that it is Russia that will break.

Now even Britain's most senior military man considers it a possibility. 

When the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, was asked at the weekend whether a Russian takeover of Ukraine was still inevitable, his answer was 'No'.

'Russia is suffering, Russia is an isolated power,' he said. 

'It is less powerful than it was ten days ago. Some of the lead elements of Russian forces have been decimated by the Ukrainian response.'

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken dismissed the idea that Russia could ever successfully occupy Ukraine and install a puppet regime: 'Forty five million Ukrainians are going to reject that one way or the other.'

He is right. The longer and more brutal the conflict, the stiffer Ukrainian resistance will be. 

And with the West supplying weaponry, Ukrainians could wage a guerrilla war for years that would demoralise Russian troops and eventually wear down their resolve.

Putin assumed that Ukraine would quickly collapse in the face of his invasion and that the West would, after some token protests, ultimately shrug and accept it just as they had the annexation of the Crimea in 2014. 

But in Crimea, many people identify as Russian and welcomed them. 

In Ukraine, the population is proudly independent and has no desire to be gobbled up by an economically stagnant, corrupt old Russian bear.

Ukraine's courageous resistance has shocked him, as has the reaction of the Western powers, which belatedly discovered their backbones and imposed sanctions that have sparked an economic crisis in Russia, which will undermine its military effort.

The longer the war in Ukraine goes on, the greater the prospect of economic collapse at home. Neither military failure, nor economic ruin, bodes well for Putin.

The Kremlin's brutal clampdown on free speech, which keeps any genuine reporting of the war off the TV news, might mean that some people are fooled. But the truth can't be kept from them forever.

As more Russian conscripts return home and report that the Ukrainians haven't welcomed the Russian 'liberators' but fiercely opposed their invasion and occupation, Russian public opinion will turn against Putin.

Word of mouth is more powerful than any other news source and defies censorship. People will start to hear that their neighbour's 19-year-old conscript son has returned home from 'exercise' without a leg, or not at all. 

The truth about Putin's war will be impossible to hide.

He can massage the statistics - claiming 498 Russian troops have been killed when the true number may be as high as 10,000 - but no amount of propaganda can alter the dire situation on the ground.

How long before his military chiefs start questioning whether the only way to extricate themselves and their men from this mess is to get rid of the man who created it?

Equally worrying for him are rumours of discontent within the FSB, Russian's feared spy agency and successor to the infamous KGB. 

A report, supposedly by an FSB analyst, that was leaked at the weekend described the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a 'total failure', concluding: 'Russia has no way out. There are no options for a possible victory, only defeat.'

Whether or not the report is genuine, the sentiments ring true.

And if both the people who are fighting Putin's war and those whose role is to keep him in power are losing faith in him, he is in trouble.

Putin, as I have written on these pages before, is not mad. 

He can see that things have gone badly and is casting around for a face-saving exit plan. For that reason, I think his peace plan represents a genuine offer.

So will Ukraine accept it? The devil is in the detail. 

If the Russians are offering to withdraw to the areas in the East held by the separatist rebels since 2014, that might be one thing. 

But if Putin wants to hold on to the whole of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, that is unthinkable.

People there are fighting bravely to resist the Russians. They will not want to be ruled by them.

If Ukraine agrees to Putin's conditions, it is resigning itself to never joining Nato's protective umbrella and laying itself open to the possibility that Putin could regroup and try again in a few years' time.

No one could blame Ukraine if they decided to accept the offer in order to save civilian lives.

But it would be a bitter pill, and from what we have seen of Zelensky and his courageous citizens they will not want to swallow it.

Putin will have to do better than this attempt to blackmail Ukraine into a fragile peace that he cannot be trusted to keep.

This article first appeared in Mail Online on 8th March 2022.