ADELAIDE – The ugly war in Ukraine is not proceeding according to Vladimir Putin’s wishes.
The result so far is a strategic failure that seems to be engendering a situation within Russia that is quite unstable.
Dictatorships rest largely upon an ability to enforce control by inspiring fear, and they employ large security apparatuses to do this.
However, if the security apparatus itself becomes infected with fear and a loss of confidence in the ‘Great Leader’, then things can go wrong very suddenly.
The demise of Romania’s Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu on Christmas Day 1989 – executed against a toilet wall in a hail of bullets - is a grim case in point.
Escalating the Ukraine conflict to the point of using nuclear weapons would, I think, be the point where the Chinese entirely parted company with Putin.
The situation is deeply unsettling for China, leaving Xi Jinping seriously conflicted about how to respond to the Ukraine invasion and the West’s united and robust response.
Hence we observe Xi precariously perched on a diplomatic barbed wire fence.
It is greatly against China’s national interest to become enmeshed in a war that it privately believes reflects an appalling misjudgement by Putin.
As I have written before, China is not the great power that most people imagine it to be.
It lacks the economic and military heft of the USA, and even the underlying social cohesion of the US, despite the deep fissures of that state.
If Beijing decides to give material aid to Russia in support of its war in Ukraine, China is seriously vulnerable to the “implications and consequences” of sanctions imposed upon Russia.
So Biden intimated overnight in a two-hour chat with Xi.
But it is Russia that will face the full fear and fury of NATO and the broader world unless it can reach a compact to stop the destruction of people and territory in Ukraine.
At a bare minimum, Russia will become completely isolated. All of its foreign assets seized as reparations, including those of the oligarchs who have backed Putin and who are already witnessing the confiscation or freezing of their assets.
Without a solution which it needs to be part of, there will be no return to normality for Russia or its people.
Like North Korea, it will be left cowering behind a nuclear shield, bereft of support and greatly loathed and feared by most of the world.
Upon Putin’s inevitable death a new regime will have to find a way to return to some semblance of normality.
I certainly would not want to be in their shoes.
They should also be mightily ill disposed towards the use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. They are in enough trouble already.
Perversely, having been fought to an effective stand still on the ground by the Ukrainian forces, Russia is on the threshold of becoming hostage to an angry, vengeful and heavily-armed nation that Putin insists does not exist. This is a fine irony indeed.
And to add to the irony, the NATO that Putin says he has feared so much is re-arming. Germany in particular seems in an instant to have cast off its self-imposed post-World War II shackles that resisted significant remilitarising.
Two weeks ago, as the Russians pounced, I wrote:
“So the overall situation remains febrile and perilous for the Ukraine but not yet hopeless.
“The chosen strategy of using asymmetric warfare tactics has been effective so far and the Russian army has struggled to achieve its objectives owing to the unexpected difficulties I’ve discussed.
“Added to these must also be the possibility, much reported upon but with no hard evidence yet, that there is low morale amongst the Russian Army’s mostly conscripted troops.”
Having executed the asymmetric warfare strategy that I foreshadowed at the war’s outset (why didn’t the Russians?), the Ukrainian army is not only substantially intact but, thanks to huge infusions of weapons, ammunition, intelligence, money and other materials from the Western powers, it is probably stronger now than when the war began.
The shoulder-fired weapons they now have are enabling them to devastate any mass assemblage of Russian armour and their air defences are becoming more potent.
Ukraine is a large country. At 604,000 sq km it’s almost half as big again as Papua New Guinea (460,000 sq km) and twice the combined size of Victoria and Tasmania (300,000 sq km).
So, as the Russians attempt to conquer this country, or large tracts of it, they will understand that behind every tree, hillock or ruined building may hide a Ukrainian soldier with a shoulder-fired tank-killing missile.
And there are well over a million Ukraine regular, reserve, territorial and volunteer troops
Strategists believe this is why they are standing off while using aerial bombardment, missiles and artillery against mostly civilian targets.
This is a tactic of the weak not the strong.
After three weeks of indecisive war, why would the Ukrainians now feel disposed to compromise with Putin?
They have turned the war into one huge, weeping, haemorrhagic ulcer for Russia and there now seems there is nothing much Putin can do about this.
Russian prestige has suffered incalculable damage through this grotesque performance, and its economy will take years to recover from the damage already wrought by sanctions.
Putin should not bet on these sanctions being withdrawn any time soon. More likely, he is facing new impositions each day.
So, in brief, Putin is in a no win situation.
His hitherto slumbering enemies are alert, alarmed, angry and re-arming.
His country’s economy is in a terrible mess and the worst is still to come.
His military has been revealed as badly led, poorly resourced and tactically incompetent.
His one potentially great ally, China, is offering tepid support at best.
And if he decides to use nuclear, chemical or biological weaponry on helpless civilians, Putin will render the fruit of war exponentially more foul and existentially threatening.
It is said by those claiming elevated knowledge that there is no prospect of a successful military or civil uprising against Putin.
It is also alleged that a ‘palace coup’ is unlikely.
I’m not so sure.
The world might get lucky and Putin will be deposed, or develop a sudden and possibly fatal illness or, as happened to Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu on that grey Christmas Day in 1989, experience a fatal dose of lead poisoning.
That I’d like to see. And I’d like to see it soon.