Decision time for Putin

17 March, 12:06 PM
A Russian tank, destroyed by Ukrainian army (Photo:Ukrainian land forces)

A Russian tank, destroyed by Ukrainian army (Photo:Ukrainian land forces)

Russia is losing in Ukraine. Bad tactics, crap equipment, and inexperienced troops suffering low morale fighting in a country which they are quickly realizing is not theirs is a recipe for a military disaster.

The opposite has been the case for Ukrainian forces. Highly motivated fighting for land they know inside out and for which they care deeply, playing to their strengths and giving the invader a hell of a battle which they did not expect. And exception leadership, not only from Zelensky but across the board, from local mayors, but also throughout the chain of command. Bottom up actually.

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The past few days have seen the Ukrainians retake the initiative with counteroffensives which routed Russian forces in a number of locations. It feels like this rout could become more generalized as Russian troops have now been in the field for weeks and don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

Something has to change here now or Russia is set to suffer a devastating and humiliating military defeat with major consequences at home.

Russia has few additional reserves to deploy. There were some interesting military developments in Belarus overnight, with explosions which some have argued might be a false flag operation to bring Lukashenko’s forces into combat in Ukraine.

But if Russian troops were unwilling to fight in Ukraine, I doubt that Belarus’ troops will be any more motivated, indeed less so, and their failure in Ukraine would then leave Lukashenko brutally exposed to a counter coup at home. Why would he risk this? I just don’t see it.

It feels like it is turning point time for this conflict, Putin has to either bow to peace talks, and even the leaked Russian version of 15-point peace plan suggested not much of a win given the costs now to Russia. Or he has to double up.

The key military pressure point now seems to be Western arms supplies to Ukraine, as even the lower tech Javelins, Manpads, Stingers etc have proven highly effective in the hands of mobile insurgent Ukrainian forces. Putin has realized this and has now issued several warnings to the West to stop arming the Ukrainians.

He even reinforced this message with the missile strike last weekend on the staging base near the Polish border. The response was given by President Biden yesterday, announcing another $800m in fresh arms supplies to Ukraine, including S300 ex-Soviet SAMs, plus loads more stingers and javelins.

The message surely to Putin from Biden is fuck-you.

You started this war, we are not going to rollover to you now. Your only option is to sue for peace, and on Ukrainian terms.

Indeed, talking with the Ukrainian side they are increasingly confident and not eager to quickly accept any peace terms that Moscow offers. Hence we saw the Ukrainian side row back from the fifteen-point peace plan leaked I guess by Russia to the FT. Even neutrality now for Ukraine is not a given.

So Putin has two choices now, either sue for peace, on almost any terms, or double up. On the latter we might have seen that yesterday with the heinous attack on the theatre in Mariupol which likely left many civilian casualties.

And Putin appeared very mad on the video message he released yesterday. He can still go through the military escalation options and he may well think he has escalation dominance, as he proved in Syria. What are his limits in terms of the kind of military response he can roll out?

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