The West should not give into blackmail, but see the Russian president’s rants for the bluster they are
CON COUGHLIN DEFENCE EDITOR
13 October 2022 • 6:50am
The longer Vladimir Putin persists with his disastrous campaign in Ukraine, the more apparent his military impotence becomes. Of the many setbacks the Russian leader has had to endure since he launched his invasion eight months ago, he will have felt the attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge linking Russia to the Crimean peninsula the most keenly.
The 12-mile long structure, after all, was his pride and joy, the symbol of his conquest and illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, one of the few tangible achievements of his two decades in power. To see parts of it reduced to a billowing cloud of black smoke, as it was after being struck by a series of explosions last weekend, must have been enough to reduce the Russian despot to tears as he celebrated his 70th birthday.
His response, to fire a barrage of cruise missiles and drones indiscriminately at various Ukrainian cities, certainly suggested that he was feeling personally wounded by the attack. However, the bombardment, while claiming the lives of scores of innocent Ukrainian civilians, will ultimately have little bearing on the course of the conflict.
For although Putin is becoming increasingly indignant at the constant setbacks his “special military operation” is suffering, he also knows that there is precious little he can do to revive the Russian military’s fortunes.
The parlous state of the Kremlin war machine, whose ranks have been decimated by high casualty rates, has been laid bare by the latest battlefield failures. Russian forces have failed in their offensive to capture territory recently reclaimed by the Ukrainians, and their attempts to deploy Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones have similarly failed, with Kyiv reporting that scores of these “kamikaze” machines were easily intercepted by the country’s air defences.
Western intelligence officials have claimed that Russia’s stocks of long-range precision weapons are running low and the Kremlin appears to have been forced to turn to rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran to find replacements, as its own ability to replenish supplies is limited by Western sanctions.
Moscow has ordered 2,400 of the Iranian drones in the hope that they could help it arrest Ukraine’s relentless advance in the east and south of the country. They have not.
In such dire circumstances, Putin has few other options but to rant and rave about the terrible fate that awaits Ukraine and its Western backers if they continue to resist his attempts to conquer the country while constantly making reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal and how it might be deployed to deter further Western interference in the conflict.
This is nothing more than bluster on Putin’s part, a tacit admission that, with no hope of prevailing through conventional military means, he is powerless to arrest the repeated setbacks Russia is suffering on the battlefield.
He can fire missiles and drones at Ukrainian cities but they will make no material difference to Moscow’s military prospects on the ground.
In such circumstances it is vital that the West should not be distracted from giving its full support to the Ukrainian cause amid concerns that Putin might actually resort to using nuclear weapons, especially in the event that the Ukrainians attempt to recapture Crimea.
One of the more alarming claims in recent days about Putin’s nuclear intentions surrounds Elon Musk, the American car magnate. The Tesla billionaire was reported by one political risk analyst to have spoken to the Russian leader personally and was apparently told by Putin that he would resort to nuclear weapons if Russia’s hold over Crimea comes under threat. This needs to be treated with a hefty dose of scepticism, not least because both Musk and the Kremlin have denied that any such call took place. Even so, it has caused consternation in some Western circles, with questions raised about whether Nato should back any future Ukrainian attempt to retake control of Crimea which, as The Daily Telegraphreported last week, senior US military officials now believe is a serious possibility.
Scaling down the West’s support for Ukraine over Putin’s nuclear threats is, of course, precisely why the Russian leader is resorting to them in the first place. However, like the missile strikes on Ukraine, such threats should be seen as further evidence of Russian weakness, not strength.
Putin and his cronies know full well that any nuclear strike on their part would ultimately prove self-defeating, if not utterly catastrophic, to the Russian cause.
A far more likely avenue for the Putin regime to vent its frustration over the failure of its Ukraine venture would be to resort to hybrid warfare tactics which, as Sir Jeremy Fleming, the head of the GCHQ spying agency, warned this week, is a real possibility. Moscow has already employed cyber attacks to destabilise Ukraine and its allies and this is the actual threat that Russia poses to our security.
Nato should concentrate its efforts on protecting Europe’s vital infrastructure instead of fretting about Putin’s empty nuclear threats.