Vladimir Putin should expect more Ukrainian strikes deep inside Russian territory, such as those on two military airbases last week. US attempts to dissuade Kyiv’s leaders from taking the war to Russia in retaliation for Putin’s merciless missile and drone attacks on their people and cities were bound to fail eventually.
It was asking too much. The strikes by newly developed, homemade, long-range drones, one of them only 150 miles from Moscow, are of a different order from previous attacks in Crimea and other Russian-occupied areas. They take the war to a more expansive, dangerous level – and represent the escalation that Nato allies fear most.
The Ukrainians claim self-defence. Putin will see their actions as deeply provocative and will hit back any way he can. Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, believes the ground war in the Donbas will become frozen this winter, pending spring offensives. Russian forces are on the back foot around Kherson in the south.
So while continuing his air attacks on Ukraine’s home front and, especially, the energy grid, Putin can also be expected to up the ante in asymmetrical, deniable and non-military ways to raise the cost to Kyiv and its backers. US insistence that it did not encourage or enable the airbase strikes cuts no ice with him.
In truth, Nato’s efforts to contain the war inside Ukraine’s borders have already failed. Putin is escalating a global sanctions-busting fight with the G7 and EU, typified by his defiance of last week’s Russian oil export price cap. As winter cold bites, his ruthless weaponisation of gas supplies is hitting home all across Europe.
Diplomatically, his battle to divide opponents is intensifying. Putin’s admirer, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, blocked €18bn in EU funding for Ukraine last week. Ukraine’s European embassies are coming under physical attack. Who gave the green light?
Nato applicants Finland and Sweden report increased cyberattacks. Putin is playing up fears of a military spillover. Poland and Moldova have experienced recent cross-border scares. Troops are on the move in Belarus, to the north of Ukraine.And Russia’s reckless president is again raising the spectre of nuclear weapons
Suggestions that Russia’s depleted forces have, in effect, done their worst and are not capable of further escalation sound complacent. As Putin belatedly realises he cannot bomb Kyiv into submission, he becomes ever more reliant on the “globalisation” of the war.
When Putin warned it would be a “long process”, he was not merely talking about his “special military operation”. The way he frames the conflict now is as a historic, all-encompassing confrontation between Russia plus like-minded authoritarian states, versus the western democracies.
Meeting in Washington,the US president, Joe Biden and France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, seemed to broadly agree. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, summed it up last week: the world (meaning principally Russia, China, and the US and its allies) was “in a global competition to define what comes next,” he said
It’s unlikely Putin planned it this way. But his failure to swiftly subjugate Ukraine in February, his subsequent, repeated tactical blunders and his need to survive politically and personally are driving him towards ideological and strategic, as well as military, escalations. Nato did not corner him. He cornered himself.
The way hawkish US commentators see it, “what comes next”, to use Blinken’s phrase, is a struggle against an expanded axis of evil comprising founder members Iran and North Korea (which are arming Russian forces), China and dictatorships such as Syria, Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela and possibly other Middle East states.
What Putin seems to want is a return to a 20th-century, Orwellian cold war model of a world divided into antagonistic power blocs, locked in rivalry, competing for acolytes and assets, and repressively ruled – on one side at least – by inculcated hatred, mass surveillance and fear.
What a contrast between this dystopian prospect and an alternative paradigm, set out last week by Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz. For a left-of-centre, social democratic politician, Scholz cuts a remarkably conservative figure. He plainly dislikes change. He would prefer things to go back to how they were.
This, he suggests, means restoring Europe’s cooperative relationship with Russia, if not its present ruler, and a return to the post-1989 idea of security through trade and shared prosperity. Some say Putin’s actions since at least 2008, when he invaded Georgia, prove this is an illusion. But Scholz clings to it like a drowning man to a wooden plank.
Scholz says Europe should work to re-establish the prewar “peace order” and resolve “all questions of common security” (code for Nato concessions) – if Putin renounces armed aggression. Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, he said a new cold war must be avoided.
“Germany and Europe can help defend the rules-based international order without succumbing to the fatalistic view that the world is doomed to once again separate into competing blocs,” he wrote. A multipolar world underpinned by the UN charter and respect for international law was still possible and desirable.
Many Europeans and nearly half of Americans (47%) want to see a negotiated peace. Yet many in the “justice camp” call Scholz an appeaser and say such hopes are naive. Ukrainians reject any accommodation. They want Putin tried for war crimes – which must surely form part of any law-based path to conflict resolution. Putin himself shows no interest in talking.
That, in a nutshell, is the immediate, seemingly insurmountable problem obstructing all schemes and dreams of a benign postwar settlement. While Putin remains in power, peddling fantasies of a revived Russian global empire and squatting on Ukraine’s sovereign land, the way ahead is blocked.
Putin’s fall is a prerequisite for lasting peace.
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