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Marking Putin's card at a critical juncture

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Chancing my arm with the trolls again …  In May of last year, after Russia had proved itself quite unable to execute Putin’s offensive plans (though it was still advancing westwards – by inches – from the Donbass start-line and supposedly threatening to turn Slovyansk and Kramatorsk into a classic ‘cauldron’) we gave him the following advice, (based purely on a military assessment): 

Putin’s orders must surely now be: Define a defensible subset of what we now occupy – categorically including whatever it takes to water Crimea. Dig in; set up the resupply lines; and hold that territory to the last mercenary. Lay waste and abandon the rest … the chunk in the map running north and east of Luhansk up to fiercely-contested Kharkiv looks to me like turf to be abandoned on the theory outlined here.

Well, well.   And what did he do, starting about 4 months later?  Yup, abandon the extension of his gains up to Kharkiv, and dig in on a defensible subset.  No charge for the strategic advice, L’il Volodya.  Unfortunately for Putin (and for a 100% C@W clean sweep), the chosen defensible zone didn’t – in the judgement of his generals – include the west (right) bank of the Dnipro river[1] – so he doesn’t get to water Crimea and other large agricultural swathes of his captured territory in the south east.  

Still, thus far his defensive lines are holding.  Going on the offensive against a prepared defence was, for Ukraine, always a massive stretch without (inter alia) serious air cover, as we made clear.  Plus he seems, just about, to have recovered from the Wagner flying column episode[2].  So: he’s in the lead at half time in the Round 4 match.  But now we’re at a perilous juncture, and things could start to go horribly wrong – not strictly for military reasons, but rather from the dumb strategic calls he’s making.

- Scrapping the grain deal, and blasting grain storage facilities, looks like a serious blunder.  At long last, Ukraine is essaying some serious diplomacy in the “non-aligned” / Third World, which ain’t happy.  FFS, there have been “talks about (peace) talks” held in Saudi, to which almost everyone was invited except Putin – and China attended!

[- While we're on the subject of China, Xi has banned export of all dual-use drones, detailing just the specs that define the very drones Russia has been importing as fast as it could raise the funds (often crowd-sourced).  Obviously, there will be "ways around this" - but what more of a stinging, demonstrative slap in the face could Xi dish out?]

- The corollary of the grain deal fiasco – declaring the western Black Sea unsafe for shipping – certainly makes things awkward for regular merchant shipping dependent on ordinary maritime insurance.  But – exactly as predicted some while back by the more astute Russian milbloggers – this opens Pandora’s box: and Ukraine has predictably countered by (a) declaring the north-eastern Black Sea unsafe, followed by (b) successfully attacking Russian shipping there, just to prove the point.  It’s one helluva logistical feat to mount a naval drone-strike off Novorossiysk, but that’s what they’ve done.  For those who don’t know, Novorossiysk is as important to Russian maritime exports as Sevastopol is / was for its navy.  Getting insurance for anywhere in the Black Sea has just become, errr, difficult.

This all looks to me like the potential for a grotesque Putin mis-step coming along soon.  As critical Russian commentators have been quick to point out, a de facto Russian blockade of Odessa will drive Ukraine to export via the Danube.  Now: much as Russian historians love to recount the Battle of Izmail[3], do they really plan to blockade the Danube, arguably Europe’s greatest river linking 9 countries (mostly NATO members), 4 national capitals and a large amount of trade?  Really?  Article 5 looms large here; and although the Americans have cleverly declared that almost nothing will cause them to react with nukes, they have said it’ll be a decisive conventional hammer-blow that will befall.

Putin’s capacity for cocking things up on the world stage has known few limits since 2021: he’d better pause now, before crashing forward on this new path.  I can’t guess what he’ll do next. 



[1] If you want to hold a river, you must hold both banks – old military precept.  Then again, Putin doesn’t seem to hold with any basic military notions whatsoever

[2] There is a long Russian history of pretty bellicose “petitioning” of the Tsar but, so long as certain proprieties are observed, this has generally been an opportunity for an adroit Tsar to reinforce his position, with everyone conveniently blaming the “bad boyars

[3] As did Byron in his epic Don Juan – over two characteristically ripping cantos!  (and historically quite accurate, too)


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