Humiliated Russia faces an epoch-defining defeat

The invasion of Ukraine isn’t a fiasco on the same scale as the Soviet assault on Afghanistan. It’s worse


5 May 2022 •

Back in February, when Vladimir Putin launched his unprovoked assault on Ukraine, I ventured the opinion that the conflict would ultimately prove as damaging to the Russian leader as the Soviet Union’s ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. With the war now well into its third month, it is clear that Mr Putin’s Ukrainian adventure is actually turning out a great deal worse for Russia than its decade-long involvement in Afghanistan, which ended with the Russian military being forced to undertake a humiliating retreat from Kabul in February 1989.

Moscow might be reticent about publishing the true extent of the fatalities it has faced so far in Ukraine, but the latest Western intelligence estimates put the number in excess of 20,000, with tens of thousands more suffering serious injury. This compares with the total of 15,000 war dead the Soviets suffered in Afghanistan.

Equally damaging for the Kremlin has been the crippling defeats inflicted on the Russian military which, far from achieving its original objective of implementing regime change in Kyiv, now finds itself literally bogged down in a war of attrition with Ukraine’s heroic defenders.

Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest that it can ultimately achieve its more limited objectives of capturing and securing the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, ownership of which would allow Mr Putin to establish his land corridor to Crimea.

In the meantime, Russia has been reduced to the status of a pariah state, with international war crimes investigators looking to press charges over atrocities committed in places like the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, as well as suffering the humiliation of seeing the Moskva, the pride of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, being sunk by Ukrainian anti-ship missiles.

The decidedly underwhelming performance of Russia’s armed forces, which has also resulted in the loss of hundreds of tanks and scores of aircraft, is the reason why it is widely rumoured that Mr Putin will use his Victory Day speech on May 9 to declare that the military campaign in Ukraine is not so much a “special military operation” as a full-scale war.He needs to make this move because, far from being able to celebrate victory, Russian forces are facing the prospect of defeat unless they receive urgent reinforcements.

Officially declaring war on Ukraine would allow Mr Putin to increase the number of conscripts forced to fight in the Russian military, while enabling the Kremlin to direct all the key state resources to support the war effort.

Yet even if the Russian leader does manage to provide a much-needed boost for the offensive, he will never be able to repair the enormous damage he has inflicted on his country’s global standing.

The fact that a company like BP has been prepared to write off billions of dollars to extricate itself from its involvement with the Russian oil giant Rosneft illustrates the lengths major Western multinationals have been willing to go to terminate their dealings with Moscow. And, so long as Mr Putin remains in power, there is little prospect of any of them reopening operations in Russia.

Nor is Mr Putin’s deepening isolation limited to the mass withdrawal of foreign conglomerates from Russia. One of the more positive developments to emerge from the Ukraine crisis has been the new-found sense of unity and purpose demonstrated by the Nato alliance, confounding Mr Putin’s view that the organisation was weak and moribund.

Mr Putin’s appalling conduct in Ukraine, moreover, has finally persuaded Finland and Sweden, two countries that previously have taken great pride in their neutral status, to give serious consideration to joining Nato, with their membership now actively being discussed in alliance circles.

The admittance of Sweden and Finland to Nato’s ranks would not only help to strengthen the alliance’s European defensive posture. It would also make it a great deal harder for Mr Putin to create divisions among European nations on the Russian issue.

This week’s dramatic falling out between Israel and Russia provides yet another example of the increased isolation Russia is suffering under Mr Putin’s leadership. Previously, the Jewish state had been criticised for its equivocal approach to the Ukrainian conflict, with Israeli premier Naftali Bennett offering himself as a possible peace mediator. Israel’s reluctance to support the Ukrainian war effort stems from its desire to maintain cordial relations with Moscow, whose backing is deemed essential to Israeli efforts to limit Iran’s military consolidation in Syria, which is deemed a threat to Israel’s own security and where Russia has a significant military presence.

This policy now lies in shreds after Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s combative foreign minister, caused outrage by claiming that Adolf Hitler had “Jewish blood”, prompting the Israeli government to urgently review its dealings with the Kremlin.

With even supposed friends deserting Moscow, it is clear that Mr Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, far from restoring Russia’s greatness, is merely hastening its demise.


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