Vladimir Putin will soon have to select the version of defeat that suits him best. His plan A – a lightning quick invasion, followed by installing a government in Kiev, then horse trading with the effete and corrupt West – has failed entirely. To that extent, he has already lost.
For now, Putin has applied plan B. It consists of tactics used elsewhere, such as in Grozny and Aleppo, which allows him to indulge his penchant for blind slaughter while waiting for someone to blink. Aside from one man’s vainglory, there is a hellish calculus at work here: how long can Ukraine resist the invaders; how long can the Russian army sustain this miserable enterprise, both morally and in terms of supply; and how long will Putin’s subjects at home put up with a rapid attrition of living standards?
Nobody can call the outcome of this spread bet, but for all his bluster and rage, Putin isn’t looking or sounding like a winner worth backing today.
Those Kremlin meeting tables – many yards long – at the far end of which sit those he must assume to be his closest allies, yet whom he treats as potential assassins: it’s not a convincing look. The choreographed rally last Friday in central Moscow during which his ‘live’ speech was cut off mid-flow and revealed to be heavily edited. The fact is that those attending had been hurriedly bussed in for a few roubles; those who’d tried to leg it early with the cash were promptly arrested outside the stadium. And the natty roll-neck knitwear that Putin sported almost certainly concealed a bulletproof vest, not just plastic surgery scars.
None of it speaks of a man in control of the narrative. The wheels are falling off the Kremlin’s much vaunted infernal communications machine. So it must be especially trying for Putin that he is being nudged each day to sit down opposite a man he has described as a Nazi and a drug addict: Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
In his day, Putin plinked out a dreadful version of a film theme on a grand piano. And in a bizarre concert for credulous foreign celebrities, gurned his way through Blueberry Hill. Both performances were shockingly bad – whatever innate talents the botoxed tough guy may have, swing isn’t one of them. So it must be especially galling when your opposite number has, among his growing claims to fame, the ability to play tunes on a keyboard with his penis. (Putin doesn’t use the internet, they say, but the rest of us can find Zelensky’s performance on YouTube.) Which is why the Ukrainian president, ex-comedian, is no longer a laughing matter. He proposes to be Putin’s military as well as musical nemesis.
How can the ham-fisted Fats Domino wannabe let this happen? Plainly, he can’t. Yet neither can the annihilation in cities like Mariupol last indefinitely. So Putin must be thinking very hard about how victory may yet be seized from ignominy. He may also be considering the prospect of a war crimes trial, if he doesn’t meet a more probable defenestration at home.
What does Putin do? One clue may lie in the recent events on Ukraine’s far western border, especially the rocket attack on the Yavoriv military base, where training with Nato used to be conducted. It has been interpreted as a warning, just like Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s caution that proposed supply lines from Europe could be treated as a legitimate target. Yet is Russia trying to stave Nato off? Or on the contrary, draw it in? Is it a notice to desist, or rather a calculated entrapment?
The fear of international confrontation is properly justified, of course, by the presence of nuclear warheads. But that fear among westerners will have been priced in a long time ago by the Kremlin’s decision makers, and prepared for weaponisation up to, but short of, real warfare.
For sure, these people don’t want bombs dropped on their heads, either. But they might risk an entanglement at the border. Something that doesn’t ‘go nuclear’, but which, fuelled by public trepidation in Europe and the US, could bring Nato to the negotiating table.
At the far end of the table this time, however, would not be Putin’s hapless chief of staff and defence minister, but Biden and Macron, and sundry others. All looking to demonstrate their statesmanship. And maybe share in the glory for averting Armageddon. Something that plays well with voters.
Putin’s lines to Russia at such point would be something like this: 'Look how Nato was forced to talk to us! Look how we showed our country’s historic might! Behold how I lifted Russia from its knees! And wonder at the depth of my vision!'
That might be the so-called ‘off-ramp’ Putin now seeks, rather than a shabby stitch-up over borders and a form of words about neutrality. It would certainly be a much stronger sell to the Russian public than some deeply undignified accommodation with Zelensky, who currently holds the lead sheet. And is by far the better pianist.