The war in Ukraine is already medieval in its brutish cruelty and singular provenance. Vladimir Putin’s villainy could almost be Shakespearean, were his motivations more complex and his character even a little tortured, but his motives are remarkably simple and those tortures which animate both character and deed are all externalised. He is less Richard III than first draft Bond villain.
And as a lesser, somewhat poorly-sketched Bond villain his next moves are depressingly easy to script.
He will escalate.
The Russian army, having proven itself incapable of doing even the most basic things a modern professional army should be able to do, has defaulted to those things for which medieval armies were rightly feared; ravaging the land and slaughtering the innocent.
The ravaging is partly a function of poor planning and logistical failure. When you’re ordered to pack a spanky dress uniform for your triumphant victory march through Kyiv, rather than extra rations or ammunition, you’re a good chance to find yourself hungry in a hostile land, turning your weapons on grocery stores and bread lines.
On the other hand the slaughter of children, the shelling of hospitals, and the reduction of whole cities to rubble is a core competency of the Russian military, executed as a matter of policy in each of the wars fought by Russia since Putin’s rise to power. In Chechnya, Georgia and Syria, initial failure led quickly to the use of massed long range fire not simply to suppress resistance but to destroy utterly the source of that resistance; the cities and societies from which it emanated.
In Ukraine, however, Putin finds himself stymied.
Putin needs to take Ukraine’s cities, but he surely knows by now that he can’t. He can frame the epic failures so far as other peoples fault. Enemies in the west flooding the battlespace with sci-fi weapons the backward Ukrainians should never have had. Treacherous spymasters who stole the billions he gave them to fund a fifth column. Corrupt, incompetent generals who stole the billions more he spent on modernising the Russian army. The arrests have already begun.
But whatever soothing lie he tells himself, it will not change the irreducible truth.
He needs to take those cities, or somehow take them away from the Ukrainians.
He can reduce them, he can kill hundreds of thousands, even a million civilians, and he would still have to put his own troops onto the streets to control the ground.
The more damage he does to those cities, however, the less freedom his armour has to move in and support the infantry; infantry who have proven themselves a poor match for the Ukrainians, an enemy less likely to be daunted by terror than resolved as a people to punish the authors of that terror.
He needs to smash the Ukrainian state and raise the Russian flag over the wreckage. The Russian economy hurtles towards total collapse. His spies and generals cannot be trusted. Some unknown number of the wider Russian population would rise up against him if he took his boot off their neck for just one moment.
So how does he remove the Ukrainian fighters, which to be clear now means the Ukrainian population, if he can’t do so with the long range fires he employed in Georgia, Chechnya and Syria?
He needs weapons of much greater destructive power than massed artillery or strategic bombing.
Biological weapons are probably out, because there would be no controlling the blowback, literally, into Russia. Nuclear weapons, especially smaller, so-called tactical or battlefield nukes would do the job of killing enough Ukrainians in Kyiv for his struggling armies to finally stumble into the radioactive rubble and declare victory. But firing off nuclear weapons in Europe invites retaliation in kind from the three nuclear powers in NATO – the US, UK and France.
Chemical weapons, then, are the most likely option if Putin insists Ukraine’s cities must fall. This would explain the sudden narrative shift in Russian state media which has completely lost interest in the earlier stated goal of the Special Military Operation; preventing a genocide of Russian-speakers in the Donbas. It’s all about the secret American biolabs now, justifying Russian reprisals.
Grimly amusing side note. Millions of crazy-adjacent numpties in the West have marinated their brains for so long in secret bio lab Covid conspiracies that weaponising the disinformation is both ridiculously easy, because it meshes neatly with Rupert Murdoch’s business plan…
… and strategically effective because it hits hard on the fault lines already opened up in western society by years of information warfare. For Putin, if one unintended and unwanted consequence of attacking Ukraine was to revive NATO’s purpose and mission, a pleasing effect of spinning up a biowar conspiracy could be to weaken some of that newfound resolve and singularity of purpose.
With his armies potentially on the edge of collapse, however, there is always the possibility that Putin might decide to go big before he goes home. As Tom Nichols explains in The Atlantic:
Only one military force in the world can save Putin from utter humiliation now: NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO intervention in Russia’s war on Ukraine could halt that country’s barbarous attacks. But it would mean war between Putin’s regime and the West, and this war would be such a gift to Putin that we should expect that he will soon do everything he can to provoke it.
Three weeks ago Putin needed NATO cowed and divided. He needed them to so fear the consequences of any action they might take in support of Ukraine that no such action could be contemplated, let alone effected.
Now, he needs something very different.
The only way he survives is by reframing his disastrous war as a great patriotic struggle against the fascist west. (I know. Projection much, Vlad?)
To this end, it is increasingly likely that rather than escalating within Ukraine, he seeks a way to provoke a wider conflict outside it, something that allows him to start turning keys on Russia’s strategic nuclear forces, the long range bombers and ICBMs, that would bring everyone running to the negotiating table.
He doesn’t have an army worth a pinch of shit, but he does have 5000 nuclear warheads and the incentive structure of this unfolding catastrophe is increasingly aligned with putting them into play.
Look for him to do something provocative but deniable.
Shoot down a civilian airliner with a missile system used by both Russia and Ukraine.
Or collapse the power grid in western Europe, or even the US, through an untraceable cyber attack.
He needs NATO to intervene more than Ukraine does.
I’m sorry, again. I would love nothing more than to go back to writing cruel jokes about Scomo, the dumbest hobbit in the Shire, but I really do feel he is less important than what is happening in Ukraine. (For what it’s worth, he feels it too, which is why he keeps trying to insert himself into the story.) We’ll try again next week. -JB
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