by Miceál O’Hurley
MOSCOW — Despite his deadpan delivery, Putin’s speech to the nation on Wednesday could only be described as pandering to the dwindling nationalist stalwarts whom still believe in him while hoping to terrorise the West with threats of releasing nuclear weapons in a fit of anger. Putin’s call for a “partial mobilisation” of Russian citizens is an act of desperation. It comes in the face of successive failures for the Russian Federation to achieve any discernable military, strategic, political or economical goals. It also narrowed the ever-elastic goals and objectives for his “special military operation” espoused since Russia’s February 2022’s widened invasion of Ukraine. Russian’s who last week remained sublimely satisfied to stand idle while Russian Federation troops, their Wagner mercenaries and rapacious Chechen allies raped, pillaged, burned, tortured and otherwise attempted to destroy Ukraine, are now outraged with the war and fleeing like rats from a sinking ship. One can only read with disbelief that some correspondents are now calling those who last week were satisfied to give Putin their support for widespread carnage committed by a litany of war crimes and ‘heroes’ for the small public protests. To be fair and honest, these are not protests against the Russian Federation’s war on Ukraine and its civilians – these are acts of desperation now that their personal lives might be disrupted with having to join in that which they condoned with their silence since 2014.
Putin has come to where all authoritarian leaders eventually arrive – standing on the precipice of disaster created of their own making by over-reach and hubris. Having seen the litany of failures and the recent setbacks on the battlefield by the very army Putin touted as one of the “… best professional armies in the world,” Putin has positioned himself to be unmasked as the foolish Head of State in Hans Christian Andersen’s proverbial “The Emperor Has No Clothes.”
Putin’s call for an “immediate, partial mobilisation” of Russian citizens sounds menacing but it lacks teeth. His projection of fielding an additional 300,000 soldiers in Ukraine rings hollow and is grounded in delusion. The ability of Russia to put such a trained force into the field before the harsh winter falls is dubious, at best (temperatures in Ukraine routinely fall below zero and reach -20 degrees for long periods of time during the winter). Putin might want to consult the novel by Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago. As the scene from the eponymous MGM film shows, hardened Russian veterans who have been fighting in Ukraine, fed lies that have become exposed and already sick of the failed war meet new conscripts dressed in newly sewn uniforms with creases still in the pants. As the scene shows, conscripts are never enthusiastic soldiers (as the Czar discovered in 1917 and as Stalin re-discovered during World War II) and their introduction with hardened veterans rarely goes well.
Indeed, as Russian discovered in World War II, conscripts routinely confronted the enemy at their front and NKVD (KGB) machine gun ‘enforcer units’ at their rear positioned to gun-them-down if they didn’t advance (historically accurate). Such armies only prevail by sacrificing conscripts like cords of wood into the fire and maintaining discipline by fear and is therefore unsustainable. There is a reason Russian casualties were so high in World War II — Stalin had more conscripts than he had sense, leaders or equipment. He was willing to sacrifice Russian people en masse in order to gain success on the battlefield. Putin won’t have the same success today.
As the Soviets experienced in Afghanistan, the morale of conscripts forced to fight in wars with uncertain moral grounding make success illusory. Their reports of misery sent home to their families destabilise the homefront. In countless intercepts made electronic intercepts make clear Russian soldiers complain endless ly to their parents and wives about the poor leadership, lack of equipment and the lies they were told about being welcomed as “liberators.” Putin’s lies to his troops, inability to con the Russian public into believing his “special military operation” was to confront fascists in Ukraine and the failure to win a quick victory and now facing a slow but devastating economic meltdown can no longer be ignored. Despite the Kremlin’s best efforts and news blockades, with news of atrocities reaching the home front from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok and caskets and human remains of Russian soldier arriving home in conspicuous numbers the public is being forced to confront the reality of the war and come to grips with the immorality and illegality of it. Even the most ardent supporters of Putin and his kleptocratic ring of oligarchs, including media personalities, have begun to be unusually critical of the war and at time, even Putin himself.
Students of history will immediately draw parallels between Hitler and Put and the Russian Federation and Nazi regimes. Like Hitler, intelligence confirms that Putin has taken to giving his General Staff military direction. In an age of professional armies this is almost unique except amongst authoritarian regimes. And like the Nazis experienced after the fall of Stalingrad, Putin’s speech in the aftermath of Russian battlefield failures at Izium and Kherson in which he now claims he will use “… all means at our disposal” is reminiscent of Josef Goebel’s “Total War” speech in February 1943. A failure at politics, whose ability to buy-off supporters by creating a class of oligarchs made wealthy on the misery of others and the resources of the State, Putin now realises he cannot win militarily and the only tool left in his box is terror.
There is every possibility that Russia’s equally humiliating defeat by Ukrainian forces may not be the conclusion of this war for some time – but there can no longer be any doubt about the eventual outcome – Ukraine will prevail. All that Putin and his Russia has accomplished is tantamount to their Nazi predecessors did – temporarily occupy European territory and terrorise, rape, murder, execute and brutalise its population. The fruition of that conduct has now come into sharp focus – the populations they sought to subdue by war crimes and overt aggression have been galvanised against them. The moral superiority Putin falsely projected as Russia being the “… protector of Christianity and Western Civilisation” have been laid bare by the rapes of children, women and the elderly and rampant destruction of cultural and historic objects of intrinsic value to humanity. Russia has no more lies to tell that even the deaf could hear to be false or the blind see to be empty. The world must stay-the-course and not only continue to support Ukraine without wavering in the face of Putin’s threat of nuclear war but increase the amount of aid it sends Ukraine and the tempo by which it is delivered. Now is not the time for second-guessing or self-interest but for unity of resolve.
Six-months ago many in the West, like Germany and France, believed Ukraine would fall within days or weeks at best. They encouraged Ukraine to surrender sovereign territory (something they would not do with their own nations) and even considered declarations barring Ukraine from NATO or EU membership in the future. Now that Ukraine has masterfully marshalled its resources and unleashed an impressive string of battlefield victories in time to demonstrate to the world they can win – just before the opening session of the United Nations this week – the West can have no reasonable doubt of the outcome of this conflict. Ukraine deserves the world’s most fervent support.
The West must also cease fantasising that anything other than total victory by Ukraine is an option. Putin has shown a two-decade alacrity for taking Western diplomatic initiatives and encouragement for civil conduct as weakness. Should the world fail to stand-up to Putin and the Russian Federation because of threats of their use of nuclear weapons they will find once again that Putin will only see this as a sign that violence, or the threat of violence, is an acceptable mode of diplomacy and a rules-based world order is toothless.
Now Putin is once again reaching into his bag of tricks and hope his verbal slight-of-hand can mask the bankruptcy of his and Russia’s conduct. To do this he again follows in the footsteps of the Nazis and attempts to cast himself and the Russian people as victims. Just as Hitler claimed Jews, Masons, Gypsies, Gays, Lesbians, religious leaders and intellectuals posed a threat to Russia’s security and way of life now Putin attempts to do the same. While castigating Ukrainians as “Nazis” failed to gain traction his new attempt to appeal to the hearts of Russians is to create “Novo-Russians” by means of illegitimate referenda to annex Ukrainian territory and make their occupied and coerced inhabitants “Russians.” The hubris of creating the very pretext for nuclear war by proclaiming occupied peoples to be Russians and they claiming attempts to liberate them is an unwarranted and unlawful attack upon Russia cannot be accepted.
From adopting the Nazi ploy on the necessity of “Total War” following catastrophic defeats to creating a pretext for Annexation in order to make those in the homeland feel threatened al la the Sudetenland the ‘Russian Playbook’ seems remarkably torn from the pages of the ‘Nazi Playbook.’ Not to draw too fine a point on the matter but Russia’s targeting of critical civilian infrastructure like electrical, gas and water supplies to civilian homes as Ukraine heads into winter seems remarkably reminiscent of the Nazi’s siege of Leningrad. The Nazis’ siege of Leningrad reduced the population to privations of heat, water and food that left the population freezing unto death or starved unto cannibalism. That Russians now seek to inflict this depravity on Ukrainians because they refuse to again become a Stateless nation subsumed by Russian colonialism and exploitation demonstrates the moral bankruptcy of the Russian State and the people who sustain it.
Following the first Allied Victories in 1942, Winston Churchill spoke of the end of the beginning of the war. I would venture to say that Ukraine’s offensive to take back Izium and the Kharkiv region marked the end of the beginning of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Consequently, as we venture into the nascent days of the beginning of the end of this war we must prepare ourselves for the same kind of dark, dreadful and costly days the Allies experienced before the final Victory in Europe. Putin, like Hitler, has promised to quarter. And just like Hitler’s Strafbataillons (penal battalions), Putin’s use of rapists, murderers, thieves and pedophiles to serve on the front lines underscores how tyrants will attempt to win at all cost.
It is time for the West to abandon the idea that Russia is capable of being a rational actor (rational actors don’t condone widespread rape, murder and create mass graves that are only uncovered when their occupation falls to lawful Ukrainian forces) and embrace the idea, as the Allies did with the Nazis, that this war must end by the unconditional surrender of illegally occupied territories to their rightful State – Ukraine. Only when every square meter of Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored can peace truly be achieved.
For now, we must steel ourselves against the new horrors Putin threatens to unleash fortified with the knowledge that while more pain is to be experienced in the months ahead, yesterday’s speech by Putin truly signaled his acknowledgement in all but name that Russia’s days in Ukraine, and his in power, are numbered.