A year after the invasion, the Russian leader’s aim remains to rip Ukraine apart. His focus now is on exploiting historic enmities in the west of the country, but he still does not understand Ukrainian resilience
February 17, 2023
Putin’s wars all too often kick off with Wagnerian brio and peter out after the initial slugfest. What remains is a frozen conflict, a lever that the Kremlin can use later to destabilise the neighbourhood at a time of its choosing. That’s not a mark of strategic genius; instead it’s a lazy dictator’s recognition that comprehensive peace treaties can box him in.
Ceasefires rather than major statecraft will be Putin’s diplomatic instrument of choice in Ukraine this year, deployed as an elongation of the conflict, a breathing space rather than as a serious humanitarian concession. Putin is counting on war fatigue in the West, disillusion with the Zelensky government and on the weakening of Kyiv’s fighting spirit. One year into what was supposed to be a ten-day Blitzkrieg smash-and-grab war, it’s beginning to look as if there is at least another year to go.
Other outcomes are possible. Parts of the Russian top brass may become so frustrated with Putin’s military leadership that they seek to oust him. One of the triumphs of Kyiv’s news management over the past year is the way that it has painted the Russian command as a laughing stock so desperate that it resorts to mercenaries, Chechen killers and pardoned convicts; a once-major army that pushes fresh-faced recruits straight into battle, ill-equipped and undernourished.
Some of Russia’s generals must be unhappy at the trashing of their cherished institution. Could they be putting out feelers to those who think that Putin is leading the army into dishonour? There was after all a coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev, and a putsch attempt in 2016 against the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And, of course, there was the German generals’ plot to blow up Hitler in 1944. Generals are capable of revolt against autocrats.
What distinguishes these military interventions in domestic politics, though, is that they were unsuccessful. Putin may lack an understanding of battle or any insight into the mind of a soldier but his survival instincts after almost a quarter of a century have allowed him to build counterweights to a suddenly politicised general staff — hence his construction of a national guard — and he wrongfoots potential rivals by shuffling around commanders on the front.
The same precautions apply to the possibility of an assassination by, say, a deranged veteran or a nothing-to-lose loner. Putin’s presidential protection squad is ruthless, his meals are tested for toxins, he avoids email, his daily routine is often altered at the last minute. As for a retirement forced by illness, it can’t be ruled out. Since the Covid pandemic there have been strict protocols in place on the quarantine required before meeting the Kremlin leader or even being in the same room as him. It is difficult to think of an international leader whose health is more closely monitored.
The past year has shown us that not everything goes to plan in a highly kinetic war. But, for now at least, one has to assume that the only man capable of ending the Russian invasion is Putin. In the past his power has partly lain in ending wars abruptly, only to pick them up again. The short, rather bumbling invasion of Georgia was sufficient to snatch two Russian-speaking territories, humiliate the government and halt any progress towards Nato membership. It was Putin who then decided not to capture the capital, Tbilisi, and stage a partial withdrawal.
Ukraine has been an altogether more complex operation, poorly conceived and based on spotty intelligence. It has become clear that Putin does not have the numbers or the secure supply lines needed for an army of occupation. His overarching plan, however, remains in place: to deny the further existence of an intact Ukraine and render it impossible for the Kyiv government to stay in place, or even limp towards Nato membership. That will entail, in Putin’s blueprint, making occupied Crimea ever more Russian, unchallenged control over an annexed Donbas basin and perhaps denying Ukraine the use of Black Sea ports. The current standoff between the West and Russia thus pits western efforts to make Ukraine a de facto member of Nato — by training its army, kitting it out, feeding it intelligence — against Russian efforts to dismember the Ukrainian state. Membership versus dismemberment.
Putin’s calculation for the second year of war is thus straightforward enough: to exhaust the Ukrainian population to such a degree that it pushes its government to reach a settlement with Moscow. By smashing electricity grids and phone masts he makes daily life almost unbearable for Ukrainians. By wrecking the Ukrainian economy he imposes high costs on Kyiv’s western backers. For those allies facing elections next year, the US and Britain among others, Putin is trying to frame an argument whereby their continued support for Ukraine is an act of self-harm and that voters should choose leaders who pledge to stop western involvement in the war.
He has taken the West at its word — that it will never go over the heads of the Ukrainians and agree to a Yalta-like carve-up with Putin. Could he turn this premise on its head by demonstrating that west Ukrainians are no longer so keen to die in their trenches for the sake of east Ukrainians? What if Ukraine is becoming so polarised, Putin may be musing, that it is willing to let Donetsk go? What if an east-west partition of Ukraine could be made attractive to the Ukrainians themselves? Or what if Putin could persuade the Ukrainians in west and east that he is the one hope of keeping the country together? That big powers are circling Ukraine like vultures determined to tear it apart?
It sounds far-fetched, disingenuous even, since he is the chief vulture in this scenario. But there is something afoot. Sergey Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service (the SVR), has been saying that Poland was preparing to annex territory in western Ukraine. Putin himself took up the theme in a November meeting with religious leaders and historians, calling Ukraine a “neo-nazi regime”. The supposed denazification of Ukraine was given by Putin as one of the reasons for his military operation. Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, with an eye on Poland’s expanding military, says Warsaw with Nato backing is looking for a pretext for the Polish seizure of western Ukraine.
The game is this: since the break-up of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth there has been rivalry and tension between Poles and Ukrainians. When Galicia, now part of the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Polish land-owners exploited Ukrainian peasants. Squeezed in between were Jews who worked on behalf of the Polish nobility as bailiffs and rent-collectors or on their own behalf as millers and inn-keepers. When both Poland and Ukraine became independent states after the First World War and the break-up of empires they fought a war.
Later, Soviet rural collectivisation caused a devastating famine in Ukraine as Stalin attempted to stamp out private farmers. Later still, the Nazis moved in and began systematically murdering civilians. Some Ukrainians joined the Waffen SS Galicia division. The Jews fled, were killed immediately or were sent to camps to be murdered. The Poles were killed by the Germans or deported to Siberia by the Russians. Ukrainian nationalists helped ethnically cleanse the Poles, helped the Germans root out fugitive Jews and were ultimately rounded up themselves by the Soviet secret police. After the war the Ukrainian nationalist insurgent army, UPA, carried on fighting, the arch enemy of the Soviet Union who feared that other constituent states of the Soviet Union would catch the separatist bug. Polish interior ministry forces, now working for a newly installed communist regime, joined in the scrap.
That is the miserable potted history of what has become known as the bloodlands. Now Putin seems to think he can make political capital out of it, stoking up ancient resentments, posing as a protector of a state which he calls an “artificial construct”. His aim is to make a cowed Ukraine into a Russian province, or at the very least an obedient forelock-tugging client rather than an interesting prize for Nato and the European Union.
But what do the west Ukrainians really want? Nobody seems to ask them. That’s why I decided to head last week along the border with Poland. Krakovets is a one-horse town without great strategic significance, though in 1981 Soviet tank troops positioned themselves there ready to invade Poland should the Solidarity revolution get out of hand. The Polish generals decided to declare martial law rather than risk a bloody invasion and so the tanks went home. Now it’s Krakovets that has martial law, checkpoints, air raid sirens as missiles hit power stations nearby, a night curfew, military graves. “I was woken up by a bright red flash and a crashing noise,” says the local pharmacist, Oxana Cholach. “That’s when I realised the war had come to us.”
It was a Russian cruise missile attack on a military training centre at Yavoriv a few kilometres down the road. It was on March 13 last year and killed up to 140 people, some of them foreigners preparing to fight alongside the Ukrainians. Mariia Vachko, a mother of three and a translator of children’s books, said she started to sleep in the corridor with her kids for the next month. “Safest between two walls.”
Oxana’s husband, Stepan, died a few weeks later fighting the Russians at Popasna. Her two sons are now on the front. We are sitting in the back room of her pharmacy and it’s clear that the women present are the brains trust of the township: Oxana, Mariia, plus the local doctor and two retired teachers from the underfunded special needs centre. One of the teachers, Hanna Scholdrak, speaking a very clear old-school Polish, embarks on a long story about how Krakovets families were taken to Siberia, some of their children dying on the way. “They [the Soviets] took away our language, they took away our schooling”
These are strong women in a township almost devoid of younger men, who have been called up. The head of the local council, Olga Mamchur, says 98 have volunteered for the war; so far the tally is five killed, four missing in action, one known prisoner. “I have been working here in the registry since 1992,” she says. “I recorded their births, their marriages and now I’m recording their deaths.” And the women speak with one voice: the tension with Poland has to be set aside, there’s a common enemy in Moscow.
They all seem to admire the local nationalist hero Roman Shukhevych, whose bolthole was surrounded by Soviet secret police in 1950 when he was on the run. He shot himself. Now his name is borne by the main street, the local school and there’s a statue of him in the park. Ukrainian nationalism has been repackaged as a legitimate patriotic response to the Russian threat. Across the nation, not just in west Ukraine, the nationalist flag flutters over soldiers’ graves.
The fact is the war has had the understandable effect of papering over the divisions in this splintered society. Oxana returns to the backroom having served an inevitably disappointed customer. Her clapped-out computer is no longer fit for purpose, the very idea of searching the stocks of other state pharmacies for cough medicine just a quaint memory of the prewar days of 2021. Supplies of even the most basic medicines have dwindled to a trickle. The flow of discussion about the cruelty of Soviet history — the 1930s famine is lamented as if it were still a fresh tragedy — dries up. It’s Oxana’s pharmacy, she is a war widow, has boys in the winter trenches, so she is given precedence by her friends.
A partitioning of Ukraine was out of the question, she says, answering my question. “The country’s like a family now, you know, one where all the regions are different but we have common territory and a common history.” Everyone nods. Yes, Ukraine has a tortured past but it has a resilient present.
Then the air raid siren blares. “It’ll be a false alarm again,” says Mariia but we head anyway to the grammar school because it has thick walls and is warmer than the bomb shelter in the old Jewish shtetl. It sits next to the old ritual bathhouse where volunteers now bake cake and pelmeni dumplings to be sent to the troops, in the same square as the old Jewish house that has been converted into the special needs centre. It has been repurposed again, this time to house war orphans from the Kyiv district.
Within minutes the streets are clear of people, the last stragglers cursing Putin. That’s the answer to Moscow’s manoeuvring, its attempt to fool the people of Ukraine into deserting their leader, its naive hope that they would choose a quiet life over resistance.
The central failure of Putin? Not his military blunders, not the shortcomings of his intelligence services, not even his crazed dream of building a New Russia. Rather it has been his inability to
listen to what Ukrainians were saying about their lot, their discomfort in the shadows of Moscow, his refusal to accept their victimhood and his toxic conviction that Ukrainians had not earned their right to an independent state. All that makes any form of peace process nigh impossible. It will be another difficult year.