Picture Credit: ALEXEI DRUZHININ/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s megalomania is encountering reality

Campaign diary: Russian propaganda has gone from scalpel to sledgehammer

Artillery Row

It all seemed so easy. The Olympic course lay before him, with its ten hurdles. The pumped-up athlete from the Russian Federation, with muscles the size of Murmansk, was in peak condition. Practice heats in Chechnya, Georgia, the Crimea, Donbas and Syria left the world in awe. There was no doubt the Russian would complete the 400-metre course before his competitors had woken up.

“If you think we’re going to stop with Ukraine, think 300 times”

Yet, even with the traditional pre-race steroids, the first hurdle appears to have been too much. The coach is not angry, but furious. At home state newscasters have fallen over themselves to relate Russia’s success in the Great Event. However, for those who know the truth, the bread-queue humour that sustained the Soviet peoples in earlier times has returned. With a wink and a whisper, for Big Brother is once more watching and listening, they tell one another: “The two-day mission to take Kyiv is now in its 24th day.” 

What’s it all for? As Russia stumbles, seemingly uncertainly into its fourth week of war in Ukraine, it is worth revisiting the Federation’s strategic aims, but I’m still not sure we know what they are. From both Putin’s pen and lips, we have received lectures on why Ukraine is not really a country, but an appendage of the Motherland, and reunion of the two is almost a spiritual duty. Yet, his chief cheer leader, the Dr Goebbels of State television, Vladimir Solovyov, has gone further, informing us during the week, “if you think we’re going to stop with Ukraine, think 300 times, I will remind you that Ukraine is merely an intermediate stage in the provision of the safety of the Russian Federation”. 

The Rhineland-Sudetenland-Poland formula seems to have got stuck in the first anti-tank ditch. It seems likely that the rest of Vladimir’s European tour will now be postponed or cancelled altogether. In its murky world of misinformation, Moscow’s political aspirations, whatever they were, seem out of step with its military capabilities, but still the war carries on. We are left with no clear roadmap of the Kremlin’s intentions. If, as Putin claims, the Russian and Ukrainian people are one, then his forces are certainly going out of their way to murder their kin and grind their homes to dust. 

The real question is not where, but why now? Winston Churchill’s October 1939 allusion to Russia being “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” still carries weight. The ghosts of both Napoleon and Hitler would have advised their kindred spirit to wait until May. The weather is kinder, the ground better for off-road manoeuvres and the delay would have allowed time to get logistics in order. Catastrophic failure of supply is not an option in the unforgiving East.

Also wise, would have been a pause to allow the German certification of Nordstream 2. The flow of 55 billion cubic metres of Russian natural gas, already measured as 43% of Europe’s energy needs, would have increased Putin’s leverage. Churchill’s wartime “enigma” quote ended, “but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” This, too, has not changed.

The coming year also sees four German states and many European countries go to the polls for their presidents or parliaments, including Austria, France, Hungary, Latvia, Malta, Serbia, Slovenia and Sweden. Russian disinformation could have sufficiently muddied the outcomes of these contests to distract from Putinesque adventures further east.

I have speculated elsewhere that perhaps the reason for his impatience is that the Russian leader possesses a medical time bomb, known only to himself, and that is why he cannot delay his master stroke. I am no physician, but my observation has triggered broad agreement and much speculation from wiser medical minds as to the nature of the leader’s possible ailments.

There was certainly religious fervour in this week’s diatribe from the former KGB colonel. His latest pronouncements, first delivered in a press conference, and latterly at a sports stadium, which might have been Nuremberg, but was in fact Moscow, were aimed at his own people.

Putin spoke of the need to “self-purify” — surely a nod to his backers in the Russian Orthodox Church — and that “the Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors”. Such dictator-speak can be paraphrased thus. “Within the Russian Federation, true believers are the only patriots. All others, who do not share the leader’s vision are enemies, pro-Western and therefore anti-Russian”. There is no longer a middle way for the Russian people, the vast majority of whom would prefer to keep their heads down and concentrate on survival in uncertain economic times.

A No Fly Zone would provide a welcome advantage to Moscow while conferring none to Kyiv 

Putin went on to deride his oligarchs, incidentally creatures of his own making, who “have a villa in Miami or on the French Riviera, and cannot get by without foie gras, oysters or so-called gender freedoms”. Note the two countries he has singled out. As always, every word is calculated, measured. This was not a casual, Trumpian, off-grid grumble. He omitted mention that these are luxuries his close family and friends enjoy in Biarritz and elsewhere. However, his messaging has some way to go to reach perfection. As my knowledge of in-vogue clothing peters out after boating jackets and tweed, it was my fashion-conscious colleagues who noted the Führer of Russland wore a luxury-brand Italian puffa jacket to address his flag-waving minions. 

My Nazi allusion was not a gratuitous insult, for throughout the Motherland, Putin’s supporters have taken to wearing the infamous ‘Z’, a recognition symbol first seen on tanks in Ukraine, as a sign of honour. Banners, clothes and cars have appeared with the intimidating ‘Z’, while known opponents of the regime have reportedly had it daubed on their doors at night. I am sure the only reason for the absence of branded armbands is that they don’t work well in the era of T shirts, hoodies and sweatshirts.

We should remember that in Russia, ‘Z’ is not regarded as merely a letter from our Western alphabet, for the Russians write in Cyrillic. Swastika-like, its use goes some way to refute the baseless accusations of fascism in Kyiv, for the ‘Z’ has become as much a badge as the Nazi Hakenkreuz. Watch out soon for book burning and flaming torches.

The week has seen two Russian missile strikes in Western Ukraine, close to the Polish frontier. Strategically, these are designed to alarm and deter the more nervous members of NATO, horrified at being pulled into a wider war. Tactically, the two attacks on a military base at Yavoriv, fifteen miles from Poland, and a hangar at Lviv airport, had a specific purpose. Russia is clearly hurting from the flow of anti-tank missiles and air defence rockets from elsewhere into Ukraine. There are already more Western anti-tank systems in the hands of Zelensky’s lions, than Russia has armoured vehicles deployed in its “special military operation”. Let that sink in. 

The Russian premier is losing touch with reality

Thus, the Kremlin’s mitigation tactics are to interrupt the supply of these munitions from the West. They don’t know the exact routes the munitions take, but can guess where the storage and training facilities might be. These rocket attacks also illustrate why a No Fly Zone is a bad idea. Mr Zelensky has asked for one, knowing he will not get it. Such a request might be summarised as Page One of The Art of the Deal, good negotiation tactics. Ask for the Moon, and you will end up getting something worthwhile.

However, sympathisers in the West have become furious at NATO and the UN for refusing to accede. They overlook that a No Fly Zone applies equally to both sides. Neither Putin’s helicopters and jets, nor Zelensky’s aircraft and Turkish-supplied “Bayraktar” TB2 drones, which are doing so much damage, could fly. NATO, or whoever else was to enforce it, would be obliged to shoot down anything in the sky, yet Russia’s armour and artillery could still manoeuvre, unimpeded.

Neither will a NFZ necessarily eliminate every reconnaissance drone, mostly assembled from non-ferrous components, which guide the strikes of Russian ground-based forces, and are notoriously slippery to detect and destroy. Therefore, a No Fly Zone would provide a welcome advantage to Moscow while conferring none to Kyiv. 

Furthermore, the first batch of cruise missiles launched on Yavoriv were released from within Russian airspace, and the second, from the Black Sea, both outside the area of any proposed NFZ. This illustrates how the conflict is already leaking beyond Ukraine’s borders and the longer it continues, the more difficult that overspill will be to contain. 

Well-meaning souls around the world have since pronounced on the feasibility of shooting down cruise missiles. As yet, there is no fool-proof method of accounting for every precision-guided weapon launched. When they are hit, the explosive force of two rockets colliding scatters lethal damage over a wide radius. Ukrainians have already died from the debris of Russian rockets falling to earth. I suspect the moment the first Russian aircraft, rocket or even drone, was destroyed, Moscow in its current belligerent mood, would treat this as escalation, and thus a ticket to much wider strife. 

Besides, who would perform any No Fly Zone air policing, with its requirement for ground-based radar and airborne warning and reporting systems? Not many nations possess such kit. Whoever, would have to gain Russian acquiescence in a UN forum, which is not on the immediate horizon. A No Fly Zone is simply not going to happen, unless part of a wider peace plan in future months.

Meanwhile, Putin’s utterances increasingly support the notion, to put it politely, that the Russian premier is losing touch with reality. His loyal diplomats around the world, including Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s envoy to the United Nations in New York, have been obliged to parrot their leader’s insane rhetoric, to the increasing incredulity of journalists. 

Dear old Vassily, whose mellifluous accent is pure Cold War Soviet-spy, managed to casually dismiss accusations of war crimes in Mariupol as “fake news”. The term of course, was heavily promoted during the Trump presidency and elsewhere to mean “news with which I disagree”. I am sure the history books of 2122 will feature chapters headed with these two words to summarise our information age. We can only marvel at the speed of karma, for the phrase, now uttered by a Russian in the Big Apple, has come full circle, to bite back at the nation where it was born.

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