Everything that now happens in this war, including the murderous missile attacks on Ukrainian cities, has to be understood in terms of the logic of Putin’s exposed position as a failed war leader. He is desperately trying to demonstrate to his hard-line critics that he is up to the task. The opening salvos of this week, ending yet more innocent lives for no discernible military gain, will not make Ukraine less determined or able to win this war. They will have the opposite effect.
The trigger was the damage inflicted on the Kerch bridge last Saturday. The bridge was built at considerable expense to connect Crimea to the mainland and opened by Putin with great fanfare in 2018. The attack combined a symbolic blow with painful practical consequences. Although some road and rail traffic will still pass through, the loss of so much capacity adds to the headaches for Russian logisticians. This link is vital to keeping Crimea, and, through Crimea, forces in southern Ukraine, supplied. News of the attack left the normal suspects on Russian state media unsure about whether to be angrier with the shoddy security that allowed the attack to happen or the audacity of the Ukrainians in mounting the attack. TV Host Vladimir Solovyov, who has been increasingly despondent of late, demanded to know ‘when will we start fighting?’, adding, channeling his inner Machiavelli, that ‘it’s better to be feared than laughed at’. When on the night of 9 October Putin declared this to be a terrorist act against vital civilian infrastructure (despite its evident military value) it was clear that he shared this sentiment.
Putin’s statement claimed that ‘high-precision weapons’ were used against ‘Ukrainian infrastructure, energy infrastructure, military command and communications’, as both an answer to the ‘crimes of the Kyiv regime’ and a warning against further ‘terrorist attacks on the territory of the Russian Federation.’ Some infrastructure targets were hit but so have, just in Kyiv, a playground, a symbolic glass bridge in a park (which survived), and the German consulate. As Kyiv is Ukraine’s main decision-making centre it is telling that none of these supposedly precise weapons hit anything of political or military significance.
State Media’s Margarita Simonyan, who had called the bridge attack a ‘red line’ for Russia expressed delight at the landing of our ‘little response’. Yet while they might satisfy urges for vengeance their impact will be limited unless they become part of a persistent campaign. Alexander Kots, a war reporter, has expressed his hope that this was not a ‘one-off act of retribution, but a new system for carrying out the conflict’ to be continued until Ukraine ‘loses its ability to function.’ Former President Dmitri Medvedev, who once appeared as a serious figure, has expressed his conviction that the goal of ‘future actions’ (but not current?) must be the ‘complete dismantling of the political regime in Ukraine.’
Such hopes are contradicted by the harsh reality of Russia’s position. Putin’s statement highlighted retribution. Russia lacks the missiles to mount attacks of this sort often, as it is running out of stocks and the Ukrainians are claiming a high success rate in intercepting many of those already used. This is not therefore a new war-winning strategy but a sociopath’s tantrum.
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