If nuclear weapons are used in Ukraine, it won’t be Russia that starts it, says Russian president Vladimir Putin – ostensibly seeking to reassure the world while also delivering an arch reminder that he does, after all, have the power to swing the world’s largest nuclear arsenal into action if he chooses.
Putin was speaking to what has been described as “his personal human rights council”, skirting for the moment the convenience of having your own human rights council when the United Nations human rights council, the OHCHR, tends to insist on paying more than lip service to awkward things such as … human rights.
The Russian president also said he thought that the war in Ukraine was becoming a lengthier operation than he had initially thought, but reassured the public that he had no plans for further mobilisation. This last point is a key message for Putin, who will have been concerned at recent internal polling conducted for the Kremlin’s Federal Guard Service (FSO) and leaked to the exiled dissident news website Meduza, that support for the war has fallen to about one in four of the population.
Natasha Lindstaedt of the University of Essex, one of whose research specialisms is the operation of authoritarian regimes, believes that while this collapse in support for the war will certainly give Putin much food for thought, the idea that his leadership is at risk – which many media outlets took as a cue for intense speculation – is, for the present at least, fanciful. Over more than two decades Putin has effectively “coup-proofed” his presidency and he has more or less complete control over Russia’s political and social elites.
But if Russia’s military continues its below-par performance on the battlefield, you can expect the level of dissatisfaction to continue to rise. Despite Russia’s attempts to destroy Ukraine’s power grids, the Ukrainian people continue to make do and mend, constantly repairing and patching up and conserving power through scheduled blackouts when needed. Scott Lucas, a professor of international affairs at the Clinton Institute, University College Dublin, explains this and various other factors which are likely to be hallmarks of the conflict as winter sets in.
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Battlefields: Ukraine and Syria
Among other things, Lucas gives us a brief snapshot of the various battlefronts, chiefly in the south and east of the country. But Frank Ledwidge, a specialist in military strategy at the University of Portsmouth, drills right down into the Kinburn spit, a tiny headland at the mouth of the Dnipro river, which – he says – will be of “enormous strategic importance” over coming weeks.
A tiny strip of land about 40km long and between 4km and 12km wide, the spit’s position enable whoever controls it to command entry to the Dnipro river and also project influence south and east into the Black Sea. Its strategic importance, writes Ledwidge, explains the numerous battles that have been fought to control it over centuries.
Ledwidge believes an operation to retake it is already underway. We’ll be watching carefully in the coming days and weeks. Meanwhile – despite the accepted wisdom that fighting slows down or stops in winter in inhospitable climates such as Russia and Ukraine, some military analysts believe that Ukraine will seek to capitalise on the Russian military’s low morale and shortages of munitions to press ahead with its counteroffensives in the south and east.
Liam Collins, a former US military intelligence officer and the founder of the Modern War Institute of the United States Military Academy West Point, writes that Russia “lacks the ability to conduct large-scale attacks, and it is left with little option but to continue … conducting missile strikes against targets that are either defenseless or offer little strategic value”. He adds that: “the cold will further lower – if that is possible – the already low morale of Russia’s poorly outfitted and undertrained soldiers”.
It’s often overlooked that, thousands of miles from the battlefields of Ukraine, Russia is already embroiled in a conflict in Syria where it backs the regime of Bashar al-Assad against opposition groups variously supported by the US and its allies and others supported by the regional power, Turkey. Turkey recently launched airstrikes against Kurdish groups in the north of Syria and Iraq.
Stefan Wolff, an international security expert from the University of Birmingham, believes that reigniting the conflict in Syria could benefit Russia by bringing Ankara and Moscow closer together as it will inevitably pit Turkey and its proxies against groups that derive their support from the US. And Putin’s support for Assad will go down well with Iran, which may help in negotiations over fresh arms supplies.
The diplomatic front
We also have this fascinating piece about the way Turkey has often rather adroitly pivoted between supporting Russia and the west from Georgios Giannakopoulos, from the Centre for Hellenic Studies, King’s College London. Giannakopoulos charts the delicate diplomatic game being played by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as he tries to fulfil his country’s obligations as a Nato member while also maintaining a close relationship with Putin. This east-west divide is a dilemma that has exercised Turkish leaders for a century or more.
Since Putin sent his military into Ukraine at the end of February, around 1.5 million Ukrainians have settled in neighbouring Poland, which initially welcomed them with open arms. There were already about 1.3 million Ukrainians living in Poland – mostly young men of working age who have taken up residence there for mainly economic reasons but also to escape the turmoil after Russia’s intervention and annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Félix Krawatzek and Piotr Goldstein, of the University of Oxford and the Zentrum für Osteuropa und Internationale Studien (ZOiS) in Berlin, have conducted a survey in Poland of both young people and those older Poles who remember the turmoil of the early 1990s. It reveals that while most people believe Poland is doing the right thing by hosting so many desperate people, the sense of kinship with their neighbouring Ukrainians has come interesting nuances.
Finally – and with a nod to the aforementioned survey which finds most Russians want negotiations to end the conflict, we have some pointers from the Northern Ireland peace agreement that all sides would do well to bear in mind.
Thomas Hadden, now professor emeritus with the school of law at Queen’s University Belfast, was involved over many years and in various capacities with the peace process. He believes that “only compromise will make it possible to bring this conflict to an end” – and offers examples of his reasoning from Northern Ireland as well as Colombia and South Africa.
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