When Russian President Vladimir Putin began the invasion of Ukraine a week ago, his calculations were clear: bring down the Ukrainian government, bring in a pro-Moscow government, and get internationally recognised pledges of Ukraine’s neutrality to the effect that it will not join NATO in future.
But the first week of the conflict made these Russian calculations seem tragically misplaced. The international response has been swifter, tougher, more coordinated, and united than Russia thought possible.
Moscow is being cut out of the global financial system. Most European airspace has been closed to Russian airlines. There has been a historic reversal in German foreign and security policy, with Berlin sending weaponry to Ukraine and pledging to spend more than two per cent of its GDP on defence. The NATO alliance has been given a new sense of purpose and Russia is turning into a pariah.
In the meantime, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fallen behind schedule thanks to fierce local resistance and multiple Russian equipment and logistics failures.
Facing stiff military resistance, a united West, and unprecedented sanctions, Russia began sending in military reinforcements and directing its missile strikes reportedly without much distinction between military and civilian targets. Then, in a dangerous development, Putin referred to the possibility of using Russia’s nuclear deterrent, something which shocked Europe and the US.
A beleaguered Putin could be a global threat worse than all the nightmares of the West. The central question now is whether the Russian president is serious about resorting to nuclear forces if the battle goes against Moscow. Is he simply waving this card in order to intimidate the West and push it to make concessions?
The answer requires knowing more about Putin’s state of mind, and this is one of the most difficult challenges facing the West because he has never established strong enough relations with any western leader for the West to know how he thinks.
According to the US network NBC, citing US officials, Putin is frustrated with the slow progress of the Russian military in Ukraine. The network said that current and former officials briefed on the matter have been told that US intelligence fears the Russian president may take out his frustration by escalating the conflict in Ukraine.
The report claimed that Western intelligence has “good visibility” into Putin, and although it is not believed that he is mentally unstable, he has been unusually harsh on people close to him as his anger grows at the military setbacks and worldwide condemnation of his actions.
The uncertainty over Putin’s thinking adds a wildcard to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Western officials must face up to Putin as they also wonder whether he comprehends or cares about the possibly cataclysmic consequences of his actions.
An aide to French President Emmanuel Macron who spoke with Putin on Monday said that the Russian leader had answered Macron “without showing irritation in a very clinical and a very determined manner”.
“We can see that with President Putin’s state of mind, there is a risk of escalation,” added the aide, who spoke anonymously in line with the French presidency’s practice. “There is a risk of manipulation from President Putin to justify what is unjustifiable,” he told the AP news agency.
Putin’s next decisions will depend on the course of the military operations in Ukraine. The Russian Defence Ministry has issued a warning to Kyiv residents that it is preparing to hit targets in the Ukrainian capital.
In a statement issued on Tuesday afternoon, Russian officials said their forces were preparing to launch “high-precision strikes” against “technological centres of the Ukrainian Security Service and the 72nd main PsyOps centre in Kyiv”.
“We urge Ukrainian citizens who are being used by nationalists to carry out provocations against Russia, as well as Kyiv residents residing near relay stations, to leave their homes,” the statement said.
The officials claimed the strikes were being carried out to “prevent information attacks against Russia”.
Meanwhile, a Russian-backed separatist leader in eastern Ukraine said his forces aimed to encircle the Ukrainian port of Mariupol on Tuesday, the RIA news agency said.
“The task for today is to directly encircle Mariupol,” it quoted Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin as saying in an interview.
Satellite images show a Russian military convoy northwest of Kyiv that stretches for about 40 miles (64 km). But Russia’s advance on Kyiv has made little progress in the past 24 hours due to logistical difficulties, and it has increased its use of artillery north of the capital, a British military intelligence update said.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday in a press conference in Warsaw with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki that “it is clear Putin is prepared to use barbaric and indiscriminate tactics against innocent civilians.”
He called the conflict an “unfolding disaster” on the European continent, with Poland also on the frontline. There are Western fears that Russia will expand the scope of the conflict to include Finland and Sweden if the two countries raise the possibility of joining NATO.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shocked the former Soviet satellite states of central and eastern Europe, drawing strong condemnation even from the region’s most pro-Kremlin politicians. For some of the countries that fled the Soviet bloc following a series of anti-Soviet revolutions more than 30 years ago, the footage of tanks and troops rolling in to punish a nation trying to pursue its independent course looks painfully familiar.
But Putin’s troubles do not end there. Some Russians have also begun to express their doubts about the invasion of Ukraine. Millions of others have begun to feel the seriousness of the economic sanctions against their country.
Russia’s central bank has more than doubled interest rates to 20 per cent in a bid to prevent the currency from falling further after the value of the rouble plunged. It fell 30 per cent to a record low against the dollar before the intervention and later eased to stand at 20 per cent down.
“External conditions for the Russian economy have drastically changed,” the Central Bank said, adding that the interest rate increase would “ensure a rise in deposit rates to levels needed to compensate for the increased depreciation and inflation risk”.
Russian Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina said on Monday afternoon that Russia could replace the SWIFT international payments system internally and stressed the need to support the banks. She said all the banks in Russia would fulfil their obligations and all funds in accounts were secured.
Meanwhile, the Russian financial authorities refused to open the Moscow Stock Exchange as they sought to protect the economy. Domestic businesses have been ordered to sell 80 per cent of their dollar assets held abroad to circumvent a clampdown by the US and EU aimed at preventing the central bank from selling foreign holdings worth $640 billion under its control.
The US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank spearheaded plans to effectively ban assets sales by Russia’s Central Bank.
Restrictions on trades using the SWIFT international trading system were agreed by the Western powers over the weekend in a move that targeted a range of commercial banks, including a ban on transactions by the Russian Central Bank.
The US went further, saying it would place sanctions on Russia’s most prominent sovereign wealth fund and its Chief Executive Kirill Dmitriev, a key ally of the Russian president.
The European parliament is set to call for EU-wide restrictions on imports of Russian oil and gas to the bloc, as it urges even tougher sanctions aimed at the “strategic weakening” of Russia’s economy and ability to wage war.
Russian bonds tumbled as investors braced for the possibility that the sanctions could push Moscow to default on its debt for the first time since 1998.
The Institute of International Finance said it was “extremely likely” that Moscow would default on its foreign debts, although the relatively small $60 billion size of them would limit the fallout.
The Russian president has taken many political gambles in his life, many of which have achieved the strategic goals he desired. He single-handedly made landmark decisions like the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, consulting only his inner circle and keeping others in the dark. He is surrounded by lieutenants reluctant to risk their careers by urging caution, let alone voicing adverse opinions.
But invading Ukraine appears to be Putin’s most dangerous political gamble so far. The ultimate goal of his campaign is to banish NATO from near Russia’s border, but that is now far from being achievable.
Worse still, although his demand that NATO not expand eastwards to Russia’s borders was understandable in the eyes of leaders such as Macron and Scholz, the military campaign against Ukraine has left Putin virtually without allies in Europe.
The EU has also agreed to consider Ukraine’s emergency request to discuss its accession to the bloc.
The scenes of destruction in Ukrainian cities, Russian tanks and planes bombing a neighbouring European country, civilian casualties, and the refugee crisis looming in Europe all paint Russia as a country that threatens global security, bringing up the question of the calculations of Putin and his inner circle.
By resorting to the military option to achieve what some had considered to be a legitimate security aim, Putin has set himself an impossible mission to win the unwinnable by violating his own strategic principle of not gaining the security of one country at the expense of another.
Whatever the outcome of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Putin will not achieve the political win he hoped for, and any security arrangements in favour of Moscow gained because of the conflict are likely to be temporary.
A version of this article appears in print in the 3 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.