Putin’s plan for Ukraine lies in ashes
Published by The i paper (10th October, 2022)
Ukraine was a place of joyful celebration when people woke on Saturday to learn that an explosion had ripped through the bridge linking Crimea to Russia. There were comic memes flying around social media, jokes shared, even a new stamp to mark the occasion. For this was Vladimir Putin’s pet project after his theft of the Crimean peninsula, an event that I witnessed eight years ago at the start of this cruel conflict.
The concept of such a structure over the Kerch Strait defeated the Nazis and the Soviet Union. But it was demanded by Putin, built by his billionaire pal Arkady Rotenberg and opened by the dictator driving a truck over its 12-mile span. This imposing edifice was intended to reflect Putin’s prestige, reinforcing his pose as a modern-day tsar restoring Russian greatness. “In different historical epochs, people dreamed of building this bridge,” said the despot, hailing it as a “miracle”.
Yet despite defences costing an estimated £150m and claims of impregnability, it was attacked. Perhaps they can repair it quickly to keep supplies running to retreating forces in Kherson. Yet that fireball showed the advancing Ukrainians can hit any part of their land being claimed by the Kremlin. It reiterates Kyiv’s determination to take back Crimea, a defeat that would be devastating for the occupiers.
The blast was, above all, a potent demonstration of Putin’s waning power. It was a highly symbolic strike against a preening dictator whose image was nurtured so carefully over the past two decades with all those images of manliness as he rode bare-chested on horses or flipped judo opponents. Now, as the Kremlin strongman turns 70, we see the shredding of his authority – and deep inside his shrivelled soul, he knows this is due to his own foolishness in launching the full-scale invasion in February.
Instead of his planned victory parade in Kyiv, the dictator has turned Russia into a pariah state with the economy shattered, vast numbers fleeing his panicked draft and his beloved military confronting the possibility of defeat by a nation that their leader claims does not even exist.
It is always gratifying to see tables turned on a despotic bully, especially one whose hands are dripping with blood. Yet while many “experts” in the West were duped by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, Putin’s career since taking power at start of this century has been etched in failure both at home and abroad. He stole the country’s wealth while the armed forces were corroded by corruption, the economy holed by sanctions and theft, towns and cities depleted by an exodus of youthful talent and neighbouring nations driven by his aggression into his enemies’ embrace.
This war is a catastrophe for Russia. Yet it marks the natural progression of a disastrous rule that so despoiled the nation. Putin has responded to setbacks in typical style: by attacking innocent civilians in cities such as Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia, where I was last week, and appointing a ruthless operator with a similar reputation for brutality and corruption as his new military chief in Ukraine.
Perhaps this uniformed thug will turn the tide for Russia in their botched war. More likely waves of reluctant recruits will be mown down in horrific numbers; one analyst has even speculated that Putin wants to see them slaughtered to unite his nation in distraught fury as in the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis.
But the big looming question is: what happens if Ukraine’s forces continue to outfight and outsmart their flat-footed foes, sweeping forward in their righteous battle to recapture Crimea? The sweetest result would be Putin’s replacement by a more liberal and democratic regime, ideally in tandem with the harmonious collapse of Russia’s empire. Sadly, this is almost certainly a pipe dream.
Already, other ogres in the inner circle seem to be jostling for power as hardliners lash out at military failures and demand that Russia responds more forcefully. Sergei Aksyonov, the stooge governor of Crimea, warns menacingly that “emotions have been triggered and there is a healthy desire to seek revenge”.
Putin himself raised the spectre of nuclear war in his nutty speech when formally annexing the part-occupied regions in Ukraine that now seem to be slipping from his grasp. So might he sanction nuclear response? Clearly the stakes are rising. The diminutive dictator loves to tell a tale about a cornered rat that turned on him as a child when chased it with a stick; the story sends out a message that he is dangerous when backed into a corner.
And Ukraine is a place painfully aware of nuclear catastrophe after the Chernobyl disaster; my colleague Kate, who suffered thyroid cancer as a teenager in Ternopil, was almost certainly just one of its many victims. Now there is much discussion about protective measures in nuclear attack while iodine tablets are distributed in schools and sell out in pharmacies.
For all the risks, however, we must ignore the siren voices of “realists” suggesting we should rein in Ukraine’s advance, slow down supply of weapons or push Kyiv’s leaders to offer a peace deal to Russia that lets Moscow retain even an inch of their stolen land. Putin constructed this scaffold for himself.
Yes, the prospect of possible nuclear attack is terrifying, especially here in Ukraine. But this conflict has already, sadly, shown the vulnerability of nations giving up nuclear weapons – as Ukraine did with its Soviet inheritance in 1994 following a hollow promise by Russia to respect its borders. Giving in to nuclear blackmail now would only fuel global instability still further by showing that autocrats possessing such weapons can do what they want.
Asked to respond to growing fears of escalation and the supposed need to offer Putin an off-ramp from his war, Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin said there was a simple solution. “The way out of this conflict is for Russia to leave Ukraine.” She is right. Until that day, there is no peace.