Boxed in and snarling back – but this is Putin’s admission that his war is an astonishing blunder

Published by The Daily Mail (21st September, 2022)

Vladimir Putin likes to tell a story about the lesson he learned as a child from a cornered rat that turned on him after being chased into a corner with a stick. ‘I was surprised and frightened,’ he said. ‘Now the rat was chasing me.’

The message to his foes was clear: like a rat, he is dangerous if forced into a corner. Now the diminutive dictator feels boxed in by the many setbacks he has suffered in the course of his botched invasion of Ukraine and so he is snarling back.

In a rare speech to his nation, Putin announced a ‘partial mobilisation’, which is claimed to involve the call up of 300,000 military reservists for his ‘special military operation’. He blamed all Russia’s problems on the West seeking its ‘disintegration’ and warned that he was not bluffing about using weapons of mass destruction.

This speech – a tacit admission of the Kremlin’s astonishing blunder in launching the war in Ukraine – might confuse Russian citizens who fell for the propaganda pumped out remorselessly by state media that portrayed Moscow’s military operation as a triumph.

And the words could not have been much further from the truth.

But his speech was really aimed at his enemies in the West, his typically-aggressive words designed to create cracks in the alliance of free nations that is backing Ukraine’s brave fight for survival.

The speech followed yesterday’s news that two separatist republics in the eastern Donbas region, seized in 2014 and run ever since by Moscow’s thuggish stooges, would hold a referendum on joining Russia – a move the Kremlin has resisted for eight years.

Russian-controlled parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine, taken early in the invasion, will also hold so-called referendums over the next few days.

Once the results of these sham ballots – similar to the one I watched being forced upon Crimea in 2014 – have revealed a desire for them all to become part of Russia, Putin can claim he is defending ‘their’ motherland and focus all his efforts on keeping this stolen terrain.

Have no doubt, this is a major escalation of Putin’s war: the formal annexation of 15 per cent more of Ukraine by a corrupt and fascistic dictator who claims to be fighting ‘Nazis’ in Kyiv but in reality is terrified by the existence of a democracy on his western border.

These moves mean he can force many more unwilling recruits to fight in his misguided war. Russia’s claim to have lost only 6,000 soldiers begs the question – why does the Kremlin need to call on 300,000 reservists and send mercenary leaders into prisons to recruit murderers and sex offenders for the frontline?

The announcement changes little on the battlefield, however. It takes months to mobilise, equip and organise fighting forces, and nor does an injection of troops resolve the chronic leadership and logistical problems that have wrecked Putin’s military assault.

Chillingly, the mobilisation also permits the rounding up of thousands of Ukrainian men who remain in the occupied regions to use as cannon fodder against their own nation – a tactic we have witnessed already in the Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Yesterday also saw the Russian parliament back the introduction of jail sentences of up to 15 years for recruits who refuse to to fight, a consequence of an estimated 50,000 Russian men refusing to participate in the war.

Already men in Moscow and St Petersburg are being served enlistment papers on the street. There are reports that Russian men travelling abroad face questioning before they can leave. The mothers of some conscripts say their sons are being sent to the border without sufficient training.

This hardline response comes as no surprise since the Kremlin had to do something – although harsh reprisals for refusing to fight could end up encouraging even more men to defect.

The truth is that the first seven months of the war have gone terribly wrong for Putin. First came the failure to seize Kyiv. Then the amazing advance of Ukraine’s troops in recent days, which has seen them recapture a huge slab of the east of the country, forcing Moscow’s troops to flee – leaving behind precious military supplies and more mass graves.

Ukraine claims almost one in four Russian troops have been killed, wounded or captured – and two-thirds of Moscow’s tanks and one-fifth of its aircraft have been lost.

These developments have not only created panic in the Kremlin but increasingly loud rumbles of dissent on the home front – not from liberal critics, many of whom have been jailed or terrified into silence, but from Putin’s most extreme allies, the hardline nationalists who are horrified by the prospect of humiliating defeat.

In another significant move at the weekend, Alla Pugacheva – a hugely popular singer who is possibly the nation’s famous woman – publicly slammed a war that has exposed Russia’s weakness instead of displaying its power.

Significantly, Putin did not declare war in yesterday’s speech, since this would increase his personal risk. A ‘special operation’ can be stopped more easily than a war, which would be either won or lost at immense personal cost to the prestige of both Putin and Russia.

The speech should be seen as Putin’s inadvertent testimony to Ukraine’s reaction to his invasion. As I have witnessed in the course of reporting for 17 weeks in the country this year, the immense bravery on the frontline has been matched by the united response of a citizenry horrified by Russia’s atrocities.

Yet this is a fresh challenge to the West. For the former KGB officer who built his rule on intimidation and lies is now seeking a political victory having realised he is struggling to achieve a military triumph.

He hopes the Western alliance will fray as the energy crisis bites and fears grow that a dangerously cornered despot might use his weapons of mass destruction, forcing Ukraine to sue for peace as its critical supplies of aid and arms dry up.

This is a pivotal moment in the war – and like the indomitable Ukrainians, the West must remain resolute in this epic struggle between democracy and dictatorship that will shape the future of our continent by standing up to the cornered rat in the Kremlin.

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