There are no signs that the Ukrainian people are weakening. Russia’s brutality has only served to increase the people’s determination to defeat the aggressor.
It was show-time on Russian television last week when two elderly men faced each other across a table. One was Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s Minister of Defence, dressed in the medalled uniform of a General, even though he has never served in the armed forces. The other was Colonel General Sergei Surovkin, the overseer of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Surovkin is better known as “General Armageddon” on account of his brutality when commanding Russia’s operations in Syria. He had been appointed overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine on 8 October, in an attempt by the Kremlin and Defence Ministry to put the war effort back on track after numerous setbacks.
Surovkin started the conversation. “Having comprehensively assessed the situation, I propose that we take up defensive positions along the left bank of the Dnipro River. We will save, most importantly, the lives of our troops and the overall combat effectiveness of the troops, whom it is futile to keep on the right bank in a restricted area,” he said. A serious Shoigu replied: “Sergei Vladimirovich, I agree with your conclusions and proposals. Proceed.”
Many are asking the question why this surreal performance took place on prime-time television. After all, military orders are normally given behind closed doors in secret to avoid helping the enemy. Russian forces had been encircled by Ukraine on the western side of the river, and the bald admission by Surovkin that his forces could not operate effectively, was made despite efforts by the Kremlin to reinforce the Kherson front at the cost of the giving up of large parts of Ukraine’s east. The simple reason for this farcical attempt at theatrics was to mask the real culprit for the disaster in Kherson—Vladimir Putin. It had been only a few weeks since Putin had delivered a 37-minute long speech to both chambers of the Russian Parliament in the St George Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace, in which he declared that Kherson, together with Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia would be “Русский навсегда” (Russian for ever). In the case of Kherson, “for ever” lasted just a month. The pullout of troops is yet another humiliation for President Putin—no wonder he was in hiding in his bunker when Shoigu gave the order.
Vladimir Putin was also absent from the important meeting of the G20 summit on the tropical island of Bali last Monday, the only leader of a major economy to skip one of the highest-profile global summits. Observers say that the Kremlin is seeking to shield him from a storm of condemnation in Indonesia, but Putin’s no-show risks further isolating a country already battered by unprecedented Western sanctions. By comparison, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who attended the gathering virtually, lobbied global leaders for a stronger response to Russia’s invasion. The Kremlin blamed Putin’s absence on scheduling conflicts, but no doubt the Russian leader has memories of the Group of Twenty summit in 2014, soon after he seized Crimea. Placed at the far flank of the traditional family photo, he was so shunned by world leaders that he left early.
As anticipated, the war in Ukraine, which started with Russia’s invasion nine months ago, dominated the two-day summit. “Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine”, the leaders said in their declaration, signalling that Russia, a member of G20, opposed the wording. “It is essential to uphold international law and the multilateral system that safeguards peace and stability. This includes defending all the purposes and principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and adhering to international humanitarian law,” they all confirmed.
This was a clear criticism of Putin’s change of tactics in Ukraine. Having lost more than 50% of the land-grab following the February invasion and clearly losing the war, the Kremlin is now engaged in a battle of attrition against the Ukrainian people. With winter just around the corner and snow falling across the country, Moscow is hoping to so demoralise Ukrainians that they plead with their government to sue for peace—on Russia’s terms. For much of the past month, Russia has pummelled Ukrainian cities with hundreds of missile and drone strikes, targeting civilians and large swathes of the country’s critical infrastructure. Power and water supplies across the country have been severely damaged. Even in the capital, Kyiv, some 80% of the city’s consumers were without water and electricity last week, according to Vitaliy Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv. On Thursday, President Zelenskyy confirmed that 10 million people across Ukraine are without electricity, because of Russia’s attack on vital infrastructure. There are no signs, however, that the Ukrainian people are weakening. In fact, quite the opposite. Russia’s brutality has only served to increase the people’s determination to defeat the aggressor.
The world is taking note of Russia’s savagery. “We condemn the barbaric missile attacks that Russia perpetrated on Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure on Tuesday,” said the western members of the G20 in a statement issued on Wednesday. “We reaffirm our steadfast support for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in the face of ongoing Russian aggression, as well as our continued readiness to hold Russia accountable for its brazen attacks on Ukrainian communities,” they continued. This statement aligns with the resolution approved by the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, which called on Russia to be held accountable for violating international law by invading Ukraine. Supported by 94 of its members, with India abstaining, the resolution stated that “Russia must bear the legal consequences of all its ‘internationally wrongful acts’, including making reparation for the ‘injury and damage caused by such acts”. General Assembly resolutions are non-binding, but they carry substantial political weight.
There are reports that the European Union is already studying the feasibility of using billions of euros-worth of Russia’s central bank assets currently frozen by member states to help with Ukraine’s reconstruction efforts after the war. It’s estimated that there is about $300 billion that could be used, but confiscating central bank assets is a legal minefield, according to some EU lawyers. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian government has been calling for months to transfer frozen Russian assets to its accounts as compensation to use in rebuilding the war-torn country. The cost of such is estimated at $750 billion, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said in September, but after the massive raids carried out by Russia in recent weeks, experts believe the bill is more likely to be around $1 trillion.
The Kremlin has predictably denounced the freezing of its reserves as illegal and said it would fight any effort to seize them for other purposes. “We’re talking about an international act of thievery in violation of everything,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on 31 October. But this exposes the Kremlin’s hypocrisy. On the one hand it refuses to accept international law that prohibits any nation invading its neighbour, yet on the other hand it wants to use international law to prevent its assets being used to compensate for all the damage caused by the invasion.
All this supports the widely accepted view that President Vladimir Putin is living in a parallel universe, one he created last February to convince the country that it is under siege from its enemies in the West, and in which Moscow is on the defensive, forced to fight or risk losing its physical and cultural identity. He has remained in that world ever since. Even though his troops have been humiliated by the withdrawal from Kherson, he still believes that by destroying Ukraine he is saving his fellow Slavs from Satanism. “They (the West) are moving towards Satanism,” he said in a speech on 30 September broadcast to millions after the illegal annexation of the four Ukrainian regions. “We’re fighting for historical Russia to protect our children and grandchildren. I believe in the spiritual power of the Russian people and my spirit is its spirit, the suffering of the people is my suffering,” said the multi-billionaire Putin in the gilded halls of the Kremlin. “The destruction of the Western hegemony is irreversible,” he added as he neared the climax of his oration.
So there you have it. The words of a man in his own delusionary world. Back on earth, however, “Putin’s dreams of establishing Russia as a great power on the back of its military strength are over,” according to Russia expert, Professor Mark Galeotti, “and so too are his ambitions of securing a legacy as one of the nation’s great state-builders. His military machine is broken, his country’s economy so scarred that it will take years to recover, his reputation as a geopolitical mastermind is in tatters.”
Putin-the-man, living in his own parallel universe, may still cling to power for years. But Putin-the-legend is dead.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.