What is Russian president Vladimir Putin up to in Ukraine now? Nothing clean, you can be sure. After eight months of a notably unsuccessful dirty war, he’s hinting that he might be about to fight even dirtier – and talking of “dirty bombs” about to be used by the Ukrainians. Psychological warfare, coupled with ruthless targeting of critical infrastructure, is vintage dirty politics, designed to buy Mr Putin time and win him negotiated concessions that the military situation does not warrant. It’s a ploy that, in the interests of long-term peace, mustn’t be allowed to work.
You don’t have to be a Sun Tzu or a Clausewitz to figure out what’s happening in Ukraine. In fact, even that military genius Vladimir Putin seems to have grasped the situation by now. The tide is running against Russia and there is no military prospect of turning it any time soon. So the Kremlin has changed tactics. It’s targeting critical infrastructure – above all, energy infrastructure. As a result, about a million Ukrainians are now without electricity or water.
Vladimir Putin’s message to Ukrainians is clear: either sit down and negotiate terms of surrender or be left in the cold and the dark over winter. These are terror tactics, pure and simple.
His message to the West is pretty obvious too: whatever military aid you pass on to Ukraine, you cannot stop us from making its citizens’ lives miserable – or prevent a new mass wave of Ukrainian refugees from heading your way.
Even more noticeable, however, is a stepping up of disinformation and hybrid warfare. For several days, Moscow has been firing off salvo after salvo of “dirty bomb” propaganda, to the effect that the Ukrainians intended to detonate such a bomb and then attribute the act to the Russians, the infamous false-flag operations.
Lieutenant-General Igor Kirillov – head of Russia’s Radioactive, Chemical and Biological Defence Forces – said at a press-conference that the use of a “dirty bomb” might be imminent, thanks to Kiev’s contacts with representatives of Great Britain on the issue of a possible transfer of nuclear weapons technology. Russia’s Defence Ministry (MoD), according to Lt-Gen Kirillov, believes that the use of the dirty bomb could be disguised as an “abnormal activation” of a Russian low-yield nuclear warhead.
Later came the allegation that the Ukrainian army was planning to use US-supplied HIMARS munitions to hit the Nova Kakhovka dam, which is situated on the route that army will take in its current drive to Kherson. This, you will recall, echoed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s warning that Russian special forces had mined the dam, thus giving Russia the ability to cause devastating floods in mid-winter over vast areas around Kherson.
Now, it’s a moot point whether such strikes and floods would do Russia much good in a strictly military sense. On the one hand, they might restrict Ukrainian troops’ ability to push forward and buy time for those just called up in Mr Putin’s “partial mobilisation” to be integrated into the Russian military. On the other hand, Kyiv’s military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov has played down the impact, saying it would slow down Ukrainian forces’ progress by no more than two weeks. And, of course, flooding territory occupied by themselves wouldn’t necessarily be a clever move on the Russians’ part, as the water reservoir of Nova Khahovka is essential for the water supply of Crimea, which will be the ultimate casualty of the flood waves.
But maybe military utility isn’t the point. Such floods, if they happened, could cause more casualties even than the use of nuclear or chemical weapons. So the informational and propaganda impact of such rumour-mongering is potentially huge.
- For a start, its effect could be to create “shock and awe” and to subjugate Ukrainian society by activating its “survival instinct”.
- It also sets the stage for informational, diplomatic and psychological counter-operations to mitigate and de-escalate a full-scale Western backlash should Russia risk using weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or opt for a large-scale terrorist attack. Of course, the Kremlin wants to be sure it can defuse a full-blown crisis and preclude the sort of direct intervention promised by the US and the UK if such a crisis developed.
- Finally, it serves to prepare international public opinion for anything – unpleasant, horrific, or downright cataclysmic – that might happen. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine stands ready to attribute anything or everything immediately to the Ukrainian army and to Mr Zelensky, alleging that he is killing his compatriots.
None of which bodes well. This piece of psychological warfare – combined with the Kremlin’s decision to pull out of Kherson, withdrawing its administration and its elite troops – strongly suggests that some desperate move is being contemplated. And Mr Putin has good reason to be desperate. The impending loss of Kherson is not the final act in his ill-starred Ukrainian drama. But it surely marks the beginning of the end.
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In addition, Russia’s two top military officials – defence minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff – have been busy with telephone diplomacy, ringing up their counterparts in the United States, Turkey, France and Britain. According to media reports from the Russian side, the purpose of these talks was to convey Russia’s concerns about Ukraine’s “dirty bomb” and about an escalation of the military conflict that could entail direct involvement of the West in it.
Now, Mr Shoigu and General Gerasimov are in a tricky position. They haven’t exactly distinguished themselves by illustrious command of the Russian army in the course of Mr Putin’s “special military operation”. Mr Shoigu in particular has been taking a lot of stick recently from hardliners like Chechen warlord-president Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin (“Putin’s chef”).
In fact, the only reason Mr Shoigu and his chief of staff are still in post is that they are the president’s hand-picked men and that firing them would embarrass Mr Putin, deal a severe blow to his authority and amount to a public admission of the failure of his Ukrainian adventure. So it’s no wonder that they are now working the phones, making themselves useful however they can.
We can reasonably assume that the two men’s recent phone calls presage an imminent radical move in Ukraine. Moreover, they target both the international and the domestic public, setting the stage for a possible future “coercive” use of WMD or an offensive involving measures with an impact of comparable scale.
Mr Shoigu also needs to reassure his compatriots that Russia is not isolated and that lines of communication with all major Western capitals are being kept open. Nevertheless, the subtext remains invariable: that Moscow is confident it can de-escalate any outrage in the West that may follow actions in Ukraine that result in mass casualties.
It is no coincidence that Mr Shoigu’s Western interlocutors immediately rejected these interpretations and stressed that Ukraine and Zelensky are in the driving seat and will decide for themselves when to negotiate a ceasefire and an end to the war.
Thus, responding to a letter from US lawmakers, White House spokesman John Kirby said that the administration “appreciate[d] their very thoughtful concerns”, but reiterated that the Ukrainians would remain key to any diplomatic overtures. “We’re not going to have conversations with the Russian leadership without the Ukrainians being represented… Because it’s his country, Mr Zelensky gets to determine what success looks like and when to negotiate”, said Mr Kirby.
And, once again, Kiyv’s terms remain invariable – namely, the unconditional and complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory.
Which explains why Mr Shoigu turned to his Western counterparts.
Psyops for a ceasefire
The foremost reason is that his boss Mr Putin understands that the Russian army stands no chance without a ceasefire and time to regroup.
In terms of “boots on the ground”, Ukraine has a clear advantage. If you count in territorial defence troops and reservists, as well as various combat-ready units, Ukraine has now mobilised more than one million men and women. By contrast, “partial mobilisation” in Russia has quite simply failed. That has shown Mr Putin that, numerically, there is no way the Kremlin can match the Ukrainian armed forces. Which, in turn, means that losses will continue to mount and that Russia will inevitably be pushed out of Kherson and out of Ukraine – including Crimea.
An immediate ceasefire now seems to top Moscow’s priority list. And that explains the shift from the military front (containing the counter-offensive) to the diplomatic front. “Diplomatic”, by the way, mostly means “military-diplomatic”: nobody talks to Russia’s hapless foreign minister Sergey Lavrov these days…
Mr Putin has explored various avenues, starting from the fact that there was no leverage he could use to influence the Ukrainian president directly.
First he tried using Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a mediator with the West. That failed. The Turkish President’s powers have been overrated and frankly he gets more by becoming more essential against Putin’s sinking international repute.
Then Mr Shoigu sought the mediation of his Western counterparts, knowing full well that he had zero chance of getting the US Secretary of Defense to understand, much less agree. That didn’t work either.
So, in the end, most of the work has been done by the Shoigu-Gerasimov double-act. This somewhat undynamic duo has been trying to discredit Mr Zelensky publicly with allegations of criminal intent and terrorist acts. They warmed to the theme after the Kerch bridge bombing and elaborated it by riffing on the “dirty bomb” idea – even managing to claim, in the process, that Ukraine was preparing to develop and obtain nuclear weapons, not just using those of other states.
But the common thread is that Moscow has the legitimate right to use a preemptive strike to avert nefarious actions about to be taken by Kyiv. Which is precisely the sort of justification used for starting the war in February, except that what was supposedly being preempted then was Ukrainian membership of NATO – a prospect that was in fact non-existent or at best extremely distant at the time.
The bottom line in all this is that the activities of the new Shoigu & Gerasimov Call Centre are serving to test the limits of a possible Western reaction – and to ensure that, as far as possible, that reaction is confined to verbal criticism of the potential use of WMD.
However, the Kremlin may have another card up its sleeve – or at any rate hopes and claims that it does. This is the prospect of Republican gains in the US midterm elections. The Russian media read very much like as they did a few years ago – when Donald Trump was openly dominant in the Republican Party, instead of the still strong presence lurking in the background that he is nowadays. The Kremlin propaganda line now is that the GOP is likely to win the election, tilting the balance in Congress and allowing the party to block the Ukraine funding programme. In parallel, there has been a relentless stream of insinuation in Russia-friendly media that America should withdraw and not intervene in the war in Ukraine.
Now, there are historical precedents for this “new isolationism” and they are not flattering. Before the US got involved in the Second World War, rallies in support of Adolf Hitler were held in various corners of the US in support of peace with Nazi Germany and calling for non-intervention in the war in Europe. And it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and an obliging decision by Germany to declare war on the United States to bring about a final break with this isolationism. Old traditions and old mind-sets die hard.
However, on balance it seems likely that, whatever success Mr Trump’s supporters and fellow-travellers have in next month’s elections. the basic equation of Euro-Atlantic security will not change. The best chance that Europe and the US have of reining in Mr Putin is Ukraine. And containing him there is the world’s only hope of avoiding a Third World War. Which means resolution, rather than repeatedly falling for Mr Putin’s constant psyops and upping of the ante.
Since February’s invasion, that penny appears to have dropped – except maybe with French leader Emmanuel Macron. He recently departed from the normal practice of keeping Moscow guessing, by declaring that France would not respond with its nuclear arsenal if Russia used WMD in Ukraine. Quite why Monsieur le President should have done that is unclear, but, well, you never can tell with the French – and with that Frenchman in particular. But generally, the impression is that the lesson has finally been learned.
Indeed, there are already signs that Mr Putin has become aware that all the talk of dirty bombs and terrorist plots has backfired. Dmitry Polyansky, Russia’s deputy representative at the UN, all but admitted the other day that the topic had been taken off the agenda because the Ukrainians had taken note of Russia’s concerns. He probably wouldn’t have dared to do that without at least some sign from on high.
But that doesn’t mean that the man in the Kremlin will cease his psychological games. Merely that his Dirty Tricks Department will have its orders tweaked a little. And there has been one hint recently of a development that could, depending on your mood, be seen either as hilariously funny or profoundly sinister. At the last meeting of the Russian Security Council, there was talk of the “desatanisation” of Ukraine. That’s right: desatanisation. Things have apparently moved on a bit from “denazification”, which is what the Putinistas said they were aiming at back in February.
And it’s not an aberration. The theme of Western (and Ukrainian) Satanism has cropped up with some regularity in discourse in recent months and years – and was mentioned, notably, in Mr Putin’s speech last month on the solemn occasion of Moscow’s annexation of four Ukrainian regions. But it has become noticeably mainstream in the last week or so. Everyone from indefatigable propagandist Vladimir Solovyov to the sinister Mr Kadyrov has decried Satanism. And Aleksei Pavlov – aide to powerful Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev – has even found time to pen a longish article in the popular weekly Argumenti i Fakti on Satanism’s prevalence and practice in Ukraine today.
Now, it’s neither news nor very surprising that Mr Putin is looking for a way to turn the war in Ukraine into a Holy War. He has signally failed to turn it into a Patriotic War, after all, and public reaction to “partial mobilisation” has made that failure still more obvious. Besides this, the ever-obliging Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus – the top man in Russian Orthodoxy – gave his blessing to Mr Putin’s battle with the Antichrist some time ago.
However, mainstreaming “desatanisation” would appear to be a step in what might, in other circumstances, be seen as an admirably ecumenical direction. Muslims lose no sleep over the Antichrist, but they – like Orthodox Christians – certainly have a problem with Satan (or Sheitan, as he’s known in the Koran). So it would seem that the Russian leader is hedging his religious bets and seeking a new jihad against the infidels of the West and their proxy Ukraine, as a motive for
mobilising more soldiers among Muslims in the Caucasus, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and elsewhere. It’s logical, because predominantly Muslim ethnic groups and regions have already been bearing more than their share of the burden of the war. It’s also because one of the main hardliners, Chechnya’s Mr Kadyrov, tends to flaunt Islam and, as we just saw, has been going with the anti-Satanist flow recently.
Whether Mr Putin understands the forces he’s toying with is an interesting question. Whether he cares may be more interesting still.
Meanwhile, things just get dirtier and dirtier. Last month it was explosions on the Nord Stream pipeline, even if we don’t know precisely whose dirty trick that was. This month it’s been talk of dirty bombs. Today (Wednesday) it’s been drones attacking oil tankers, which could end up very dirty indeed, if oil is spilled. And tomorrow? Who knows? But we shouldn’t be too surprised, since apparently Satan is involved…