Decoding the Russian gameplan in Ukraine - Hindustan Times
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Decoding the Russian gameplan in Ukraine

Oct 08, 2022 05:28 PM IST

Putin has said he is prepared to defend territories he annexed using all available means. Does he hope to arouse such fear that America and NATO agree to cut back or even stop their supply of arms to Ukraine, or is it possible that Putin is prepared to go nuclear?

Seven months ago, Russian leader Vladimir Putin launched what he believed would be a walkover in Ukraine. He thought the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, would be unable to resist the Russian troops, and they would march into Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and Russian administrators would take responsibility for administering the country. There would be some resistance, but that, Putin thought, could be managed.

A Ukrainian firefighter pushes out a fire after a strike in Zaporizhzhia on October 6, 2022 (AFP) PREMIUM
A Ukrainian firefighter pushes out a fire after a strike in Zaporizhzhia on October 6, 2022 (AFP)

It hasn’t turned out as Putin expected. Russian soldiers are not in Kyiv. Instead, they are fighting hundreds of kilometres away on the southern and eastern borders to establish Putin’s far more limited ambition to control the four regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson. The last one borders Crimea, which Russia claims to have annexed in 2014.

To establish the annexation claim, the Russian government held referendums asking citizens to vote on whether they wanted to be Russian citizens. Their validity was damaged by the results, according to which over 90% of the voters chose to be Russians. If any further evidence was required of the reality of these referendums, it was provided by the armed Russian servicemen on duty inside the polling booths.

Despite widespread international condemnation of the referendums, Putin recently held a solemn ceremony in the Kremlin, announcing the annexation of the four regions. In an admission of the inadequacies demonstrated by the Russian army in Ukraine, Putin has instituted compulsory recruitment. A senior Russian military officer claimed that the army has called up 200,000 of the 300,000 men they need. Still, queues for transport out of Russia are evidence of the widespread unwillingness of men to be recruited.

A spokesman of Levada, an independent polling agency, has said that rural Russia is “a key source of support for the Russian military,” and the notion hammered daily on television and held by many in the country is that “Russia is involved in a broader war involving NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] and the United States”.

Putin’s recent actions don’t seem likely to have much impact on his opponents. At the time of writing, the Ukraine army is more than holding its own in the border regions. There is no sign of its morale coming under strain. The army’s success has depended on the supply of modern, sophisticated western military equipment. The largest donor has been America. And President Joe Biden has dismissed the referendums as “an absolute sham ... the results were manufactured in Moscow”.

America has agreed to send weaponry worth $625 million to Ukraine. Despite its close, long-standing ties with Russia, India has recently shown concern about Russia continuing the war with Ukraine. Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Putin this was not an era for war. He has said to Zelensky that India respects the United Nations charter, international law and the territorial integrity of all States and is willing to back peace efforts.

So, what is Putin’s game? He is internationally isolated, and injecting thousands of raw recruits into his demoralised army is unlikely to improve the military situation. Dividing his country over recruitment surely won’t help him politically at home. Claiming territory, much of which he has no control over and all of which is Ukrainian, can only lift the morale of the public which believes the propaganda of Russian television.

Putin has said he is prepared to defend territories he annexed using all available means. There has been speculation on whether this meant using nuclear weapons. Does he hope to arouse such fear that America and The North Atlantic Treaty Organization agree to cut back or even stop their supply of arms to Ukraine, or is it possible that Putin is prepared to go nuclear?

The views expressed are personal

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