It was a bad week for Vladimir Putin. His biggest political friend in Ukraine, the oligarch Medvedchuk, has been arrested. His main warship on site, the Moskva, has sunk. Its neighbor Finland, together with Sweden, is looking for a safe haven in NATO.
The elimination of the Moskva is a symbol of a so far disastrous war of aggression against a neighboring country that seems to have the greatest sin that it still exists. The loss of the cruiser is also a military blow, both to the defense of the Black Sea Fleet and to the ambition to take Odessa. And although Moscow claims the crew has been evacuated, many of the 500 crew members have died, according to alternative Russian sources.
Putin wants to restore a Greater Russia under his leadership, but his invasion seems more like a death cry from ancient Russian imperialism. If the goal was to stop NATO, the opposite happens. Other goals (such as driving the US out of Europe) and assumptions (about, for example, the division and inertia of Europe) are also the opposite.
NATO will expand and significantly increase its military presence in the east. Economically, Russia is threatening a relapse to the detested 1990s – from which Putin once ‘liberated’ his people – or worse. Soon the sanctions will really be felt in Russia. But also elsewhere in the world: UN chief Guterres warns that one-fifth of the world’s population could go into famine as a result of the war.
Russo-German relationship as anchor
The strategic loss of Germany for Russia is often underestimated. The Russo-German relationship was an informal anchor of the post-Cold War European order: a historic bond that no Western ally could break, propped up by Moscow’s agreement to German reunification and the projection of German “war debt” on Russia alone ( rather than all Soviet peoples, including Belarusians and Ukrainians).
Only Russia could destroy this bond – and Putin now seems to have succeeded. Ton Nijhuis, director of the Germany Institute Amsterdam, points out that the ‘turnaround’ announced by Chancellor Scholz is being forced on Germany because the world has changed. “It’s a big struggle to really distance yourself from it.” This would never have happened without Putin’s massive invasion.
With the battle of the Donbas just around the corner, western countries are gradually losing their hesitation to supply the heavy weapons. The atrocities of Russian troops – the murders, torture, rapes – also increase the pressure on doubters like Germany to come up with more. At the same time, US General Retd. Wesley Clark warns that it is not enough and that ‘a moment of extreme danger for Ukraine and NATO’ is ahead.
Can Putin survive a loss?
Is there a way back for Putin? Autocratic leaders also calculate the consequences of their actions. Putin could pull the plug on the war. The US and the Soviet Union have already proven that great powers can lose wars. But the chances of Putin using his immense propaganda apparatus to pull off the retreat are slim. ‘Historical resentment remains one of the strongest and most poisonous forces in history’, noted Clingendael expert René Cuperus in a debate of the Netherlands Atlantic Association this week. And can the autocrat Putin survive a loss?
For now, he’s betting on escalation. The Russian Defense Ministry already announced before the Moskva sank that it would attack more ‘decision centers’. On Friday, Kyiv was specifically named and attacked. Russia will place nuclear weapons in the Baltic area if NATO expands there, the Kremlin threatens. But that is already the case, was the answer: according to the West, Russia’s Kaliningrad, located in the middle of the EU, already contains missiles that can be equipped with nuclear warheads.
It’s tempting to conclude that the use of force is losing value in the Kremlin as it turns out to be less effective than hoped. But it doesn’t work that way, argues security expert András Rácz in IP Quarterly: the war actually deprives Russia of alternative sources of influence (such as energy and prestige). “The increase in the use of military power for political purposes is likely, including nuclear weapons clatter.”
Putin said this week he will continue until “all the noble goals”, which are described differently from day to day, are achieved. In the first fifty days, Russia’s clout – which is by no means unlimited – is certainly limited. But Russia has the size and the weapons to escalate in the face of setbacks. That the loss of the Moskva is a big blow was clearly visible on Russian TV on Friday. Now the Kremlin is out for revenge.