Putin is panicking over the expected Ukrainian counter-offensive, which may already be in its preliminary “battlefield shaping” phase. He doesn’t know, any more than the rest of us, when the offensive will be launched, where it will strike or if it will succeed. What he does know is that if he achieves any significant success, his own days could be numbered, with fissures already opening inside the Kremlin and between its most important henchmen.
The barely deployed troops of the Russian army prepared strong defensive positions all along the front line to repel an attack or a series of attacks, and planned their own sabotage operations. But, besides the balance of forces, morale is of crucial importance for the success or failure of Ukraine.
Putin knows he is fragile among his own troops, many of whom are unsure why they are expected to fight a war they don’t even begin to understand. He knows he must break the morale of Ukrainian soldiers on the battle line and civilians on the home front. That is why it has recently stepped up air attacks on towns and villages. They are meant to kill civilians, destroy infrastructure, disrupt the war economy and make life a misery – both for those living in cities and those close to them at the front.
On Saturday evening, Russia launched the biggest wave of explosive drone strikes since the start of the full-scale invasion. Fifty-two of the 54 Shahed drones provided by Iran were knocked out of the sky. Forty targeted kyiv, the most intensive barrage targeting the city to date, killing one.
The next day, kyiv, celebrating the 1,541st anniversary of its founding, returned to normal. No mass panic, no serious disruption of life. Putin’s attempts to intimidate the Ukrainian people and their leaders simply don’t work. He first tried it in February last year, expecting kyiv to fall within days simply with rocket fire and Russian forces heading for the capital. Like London in the Blitz and later in the rain of Hitler’s V1 and V2 rockets, these Russian war crimes are having the opposite effect of what is intended, only serving to harden the people’s will to resist.
Ukrainian soldiers at the front are aware of the atrocities committed by the Russian military against local civilians in the areas they have occupied, as well as the industrial-scale kidnappings of thousands of children. The determination to drive the Russians away from their gates and push them back behind their own border makes these troops even harder to fight. One of the most common demands of the West that I have heard in Ukraine, from commanders and soldiers, is that our countries do not pressure their government to come to terms with Russia. . And no Macron-style outing for Putin.
The Russian president also does not want peace talks, but for very different reasons. How can he agree to stop a war that has done so little at such a huge cost in blood and rubles for his own people? But he wants to keep the false hope of a ceasefire. It’s part of a good cop/bad cop strategy just clumsily articulated by Andrei Kelin, Russia’s ambassador to London, who threatened escalation into a “new dimension we don’t need and we don’t want,” adding, “we can make peace tomorrow.
These remarks follow Putin’s typically deceitful remarks a few days ago to the Brazilian president, expressing “the Russian side’s openness to dialogue on the political and diplomatic path, which is still blocked by Kiev and its Western sponsors”.
The aim is to induce Western governments to appease Moscow by withdrawing military support in the hope of peace and fear of a wider conflict. Chinese officials may also have been put to work, with reports that Li Hui, Beijing’s special representative for Eurasian affairs, has urged European diplomats to end the conflict before it escalates further.
Along with recent promises of longer-term modern jets, Putin is rattled by the continued flow of munitions into Ukraine as he prepares for the counteroffensive. This is another reason for the increased frequency of drone attacks on Ukrainian cities – to wear down air defenses and deplete stocks of scarce munitions that will be so critical in major offensive operations.
Despite Russia’s diplomatic offensive, Western leaders, now acclimated to Putin’s usual threats, seem to be holding their own, for now at least. But in addition to providing military and economic support and resisting false rhetoric about peace talks, they must be more aggressive in helping Ukraine counter Putin’s entire war effort. One way to do this is to pressure Russia’s Iranian quartermasters, who played a significant role in Putin’s aggression, by providing drones, deploying troops, promising ballistic missiles and helping Moscow evade sanctions.
Greater resources should now be allocated to banning drone shipments, as well as tougher economic sanctions on Tehran and setting up a tribunal to deal with aiding and abetting the Russian war crimes.
Colonel Richard Kemp is a former British Army officer. He was an infantry battalion commander and served on active duty in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
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