First ‘Nazis’, now ‘terrorists’: Putin’s latest campaign stems from desperation | Simon Smith

In their vicious efforts to extinguish Ukraine, the Russians have reached an unprecedented state of weakness and cluelessness

  • Simon Smith is a former British ambassador to Ukraine

The Russian missile strikes on Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine over the past two days have opened a further deplorable chapter in Russia’s aggression against the country. Yet we need to resist seeing it as a shocking new moment in Russia’s assault.

Each additional death brings new personal tragedy and heartbreak. But, in many respects, the wrecking of civilian lives and infrastructure is not new. It’s what millions of Ukrainians have been bravely living with for months. These strikes – and those that may well follow – are more of the same: entirely in line with the vindictiveness and indifference to civilian suffering with which Ukrainians have become familiar over eight years under Russian attack.

It is, however, useful to reflect on the wider implications of the most recent attacks. Vladimir Putin himself has labelled the strikes an act of retribution for the “terrorist” act that damaged the Kerch bridge. Leaving aside the ludicrousness of this false outrage from a man whose soldiers have terrorised Ukraine for most of this year, it is significant that Putin has reached for the T-word.

It’s partly an internal message: to underline to his “party of war” that he’s one of them, that he’s lost no time in launching an act of vengeance for this purported “terrorist” outrage. If it looks – in conjunction with the appointment of a new military commander, Sergei Surovikin – like an escalation, it’s just the red meat the hardliners need and want right now. Putin is signalling that he is paying no heed to any waning commitment to the war among the population at large, following his mobilisation decision. And that he’s listening more closely to those who have been vocally critical of the army’s poor performance, and who have called for a tougher, (even) more ruthless offensive approach.

But it goes further than that. It’s also an intimidatory message to Russian citizens opposed to his needless war – or even those simply less convinced of its good sense or justice. And it carries a special warning to populations of some of Russia’s “ethnic” regions. Dagestan, for example, is one of several regions where there has been popular resentment at the disproportionate cannon-fodderisation of local young men. But there will also be memories of the brutal treatment by Putin’s administration of those it indiscriminately labelled “terrorists” in Chechnya.

There is an external message here, too, to the many countries outside the Euro-Atlantic sphere that have declined to condemn Russia’s war of aggression. Putin’s hope is that those with no time to read beyond the “terrorist” label will lazily reassure themselves that there are, after all, bad lots on both sides, and that it’s OK to continue to sit on the fence.

Perhaps we’ll see the “terrorist” label emerge as part of a new Putinist rhetorical strategy, to replace the “Nazi” label he ludicrously attached to Ukraine’s administration in his “justification” of the 2022 invasion. (Note also that terrorism is associated in many minds with non-state actors, and a non-state is how Putin, in his pseudo-historical ravings, invites the world to see Ukraine.)

There is, of course, much else that the Kremlin is not saying about why the latest strikes were carried out. Even before the Kerch bridge incident, it has been a singularly disastrous few weeks for the Russian armed forces in Ukraine. Their repeated failures to achieve objectives on the ground had already forced Putin to retreat to a modest redefinition of the focus of his attack.

Then, seeing his claims that the war was necessary to defend Russia’s security recognised across the world as a lie, he was forced into an attempt to redefine Russia itself, through fake referendums and “annexation” of several regions of Ukraine. And then his army, through its loss of huge areas of territory occupied since February this year, made what was already an outrage against international law an object of global derision.

Add to this the widespread evidence that his mobilisation order has simply mobilised thousands of Russians to hide or leave the country, and it’s not hard to see that – regardless of the status of the Kerch bridge – Putin would have felt compelled to try something new.

But for those countries, such as the UK, who have supported Ukraine’s efforts to defend its future, this is not a time to be shocked or awed. Putin and his accomplices in his vicious efforts to extinguish Ukraine have reached a so-far-unprecedented state of weakness and cluelessness. It is no surprise the Russian president has sought to intimidate and damage Ukraine in different ways.

As Ukraine’s friends in the international community continue to meet, in formats such as last week’s European Political Community, this week’s G7 meeting and beyond, they also need to ask themselves how they can do things differently. They need to ask how they can help the defence of Ukraine in new and additional ways, notably in the realm of air and anti-missile defence.

Putin’s missiles have clearly changed nothing in Ukrainians’ determination to defend their country. They should equally change nothing in our own resolve to do what we can to ensure Putin’s vainglorious project ends in failure.

  • Simon Smith is chair of the steering committee of the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House. He was previously the British ambassador to Ukraine, and Russia, South Caucasus and Central Asia director at the Foreign Office


Simon Smith

The GuardianTramp

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