One striking feature of Russia’s fast-evolving war against Ukraine is the highly uneven dynamics of escalation in its different domains. The economic pressure on Russia has reached the level of extra-high intensity and keeps growing daily, for instance, as Halliburton and Schlumberger, two major oilfields servicing companies, announced the closure of their business activities over the weekend (Kommersant, March 19). In contrast, the cyber-domain, where disruptive attacks and counter-attacks were expected, has remained remarkably quiet. Cultural ties have been severed and Russia is expelled from most international sports, but a diplomatic compromise has been reached in the Vienna talks on reconfiguring the nuclear deal with Iran, which can be finalized this week (Rosbalt, March 16). Perhaps the most apparent discord has emerged between the deadlock in key military battlefields and the sequence of defeats for Russia’s policy, of which this war is supposed to be a continuation.
Russian strategic plans for directing and executing major operations are being constantly revised. Each new design is flawed in a different way, so President Vladimir Putin’s persistent claims that the “special operation goes according to plan” become nonsensical (Moskovsky Komsomolets, March 16). The fiasco of the original Blitzkrieg plan was followed by the failure to execute forceful breakthrough simultaneously toward Kyiv, Odesa and Kharkiv, and then by the inability to lay siege on Kyiv, the obvious center of gravity in the ill-planned war (Zerkalo Nedeli, March 14; EDM, March 17). Logistical problems exemplified by the 40-mile-long convoy are now aggravated by elementary lack of supplies and trucks and other shortcomings, like the breakdowns of the most basic command-control-communication systems (Svoboda.org, March 18). Russian top brass is trying to advertise the high-tech capabilities, particularly the hypersonic air-launched Kinzhal missile, but there is no way to present the indiscriminate artillery barrages as precision strikes against the stubbornly defiant Mariupol (Izvestia, March 19; Meduza, March 16).
This combination of exposed inefficiency and growing brutality of the Russian military machine energizes the Western political offensive, which delivers heavy blows to Moscow’s international positions every day. One humiliating slap last week was the unanimously adopted United States Senate resolution defining Putin as a war criminal, and when President Joseph Biden elaborated on this definition, the Kremlin could only complain that such rhetoric was unacceptable (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 17). President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s address to the US Congress signified another serious defeat for Russia, and Putin can hardly fail to see that the destruction of his own reputation goes in parallel with the rise of Ukraine’s leader to the ranks of world statesman (The Insider, March 15). What matters for Russian diplomatic defenses the most is ensuring maximum possible support from China, even if every small material manifestation of this support translates into deepening dependence upon this domineering strategic partner (Russiancouncil.ru, March 15). The fact that the US and China engage in hard, even if inconclusive, high-level discussions on the war in Ukraine—without Russia being present at talks that might decide its future—amounts to a very serious political setback (Grani.ru, March 17).
Interactions with Washington are of pivotal importance for Moscow, but it is also experiencing a series of upsets in relations with Europe. It declared intention to withdraw from the Council of Europe, but this organization took a pro-active stance and voted to expel Russia (Republic.ru, March 18). The EU has approved a new package of sanctions and expanded investigations into the networks enabling Russian export of corruption (Novaya Gazeta, March 18). The joint visit of three prime ministers (of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia) to Kyiv last Tuesday was not only a gesture of support but also proof positive of Russia’s failure to put Ukraine’s capital under siege (Izvestia, March 15). Putin may find satisfaction in phone conversations with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, but his repute has plunged even among the right-wing parties that used to praise his devotion to conservative values (Kommersant, March 17). European governments and citizens extend extraordinary generosity to help refugees from Ukraine, and while this outflow has passed the mark of three million, some 250,000 Russians have also chosen to leave the country, which cannot possibly sustain any resemblance of normal existence in tightening isolation (Forbes.ru, March 17).
Every setback in the international arena prompts Putin’s war court to increase control over domestic policy and expand repressions of any kind of dissent, so that not only the word “war” is banned, but every mention of “peace” is treated as an act of extremism (Svoboda.org, March 18). The Kremlin is worried about hidden discontent in the middle class, most affected by the sudden disruption of habitual lifestyle, and also about the mixed feelings in the more numerous lower class, which used to form a solid support base for autocratic order (Meduza, March 19; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 16). Seeking to mobilize “patriotic” enthusiasm, Putin performed his usual pep-talk at a mass rally in Moscow, but it was staged so hastily that the TV coverage was interrupted by technical breakdowns (Novaya Gazeta, March 18). The content of that speech set a new low in the degradation of political discourse, as Putin lashed against “nation-traitors,” a term borrowed from the Nazi German propaganda (Moskovsky Komsomolets, March 17). The emphatically proclaimed instruction on exterminating the “fifth column” of saboteurs of the enforced but non-existent unity around the messianic leader translates into an attempt to erase all features and all carriers of Russia’s European identity (Vazhnye Istorii, March 14).
What is intended as necessary measures of national mobilization against hostile external pressure actually amounts to an accelerated disruption of crucial economic support systems and social fabric. The war, which only in the extreme flight of geopolitical imagination could have been planned as a short victorious campaign, has inevitably turned into a protracted and exhausting stalemate, for which Russia has neither trained reserves nor stockpiled resources, nor economic stomach. As Ukraine forges in this tragic war its new national identity and anchors itself firmly to Europe, Russia stumbles on the road that leads to its self-destruction. Every political defeat leaves less space for doubt about the forthcoming collapse of Putin’s criminal regime, but the risks of this cataclysm are yet to be measured.