Russian President Vladimir Putin is currently waging a war on two fronts. First, there is the military front, against a Ukrainian army whose valour he had underestimated. Then there is the ideological front, against a West that he considers to be in full moral decadence.
On the military front, things are not going very well for the master of the Kremlin, who never goes to the front line. In eight and a half months of war, the Russian army has shown itself to be less maneuverable, less imaginative, less disciplined and less well equipped than its Ukrainian adversary. I
It has no allies to provide it with training, intelligence and modern weapons. It is hard to see how the Russian occupier could now hold on to its enclave of Kherson (a city on the western bank of the Dnieper River), the only Ukrainian regional capital to have been taken in this “special military operation” begun on 24 February.
Leaving a garrison of young Russian soldiers in Kherson would put it at risk of encirclement, of a siege without possible supplies, of a capitulation. One can imagine the honey that Ukrainian propaganda could make of the images of a surrender of Russian units.
They would remind all the former Soviet nations of the images of the surrender of the cold soldiers of the sixth German army of Marshal Paulus, on January 31, 1943, in Stalingrad.
History is unpredictable, but it is likely that Putin will withdraw from Kherson without a fight, to consolidate his front behind the natural obstacle of the Dnieper River, which is more than a kilometre wide. The winter will probably be used by the Russian army to perfect the military training of its 300,000 newly mobilized soldiers. It is very possible that the Kremlin is now thinking of making the Dnieper the new western border of Russia.
Will it manage to hold it in 2023? Everything will depend on the ability or inability of the Russian army to modernize by then.
On the ideological front, Putin is taking the lead against the West. At a meeting of Russian historical societies on November 4, the Russian president told them that “the confrontation between Russia and this neo-Nazi regime that has emerged in Ukraine is inevitable”.
He presented his February 24 invasion as a “preventive” action in the face of an imminent attack on Russia. Putin’s use of the word “preventive” is not insignificant. It refers to the “preventive” operation of the Nato powers in March 1999 against Serbia, in order to save the Albanian-speaking secessionists of Kosovo from a massacre that they predicted.
This preventive war of Nato was illegal, as it was not authorised by the UN Security Council. Putin says he attacked Ukraine preventively to save the Russian-speaking secessionists of Donbass from an anticipated massacre. It is a rhetoric that does not lack effectiveness against Westerners who have practiced preventive wars in Iraq and Libya, which have left chaos.
But the Russian president went on to accuse the West, which is equipping the Ukrainian army, of promoting “their geopolitical objectives” which have nothing to do with the interests of the Ukrainian people.
It is quite possible that the West has ulterior motives in this war that go beyond simple solidarity with the Ukrainian people. But impartial observers will tell Putin that they do not see what “interests of the Ukrainian people” the Russian army is promoting, by raping women in Bucha, razing apartment buildings in Mariupol, bombing supermarkets in Kremenchuk or the electricity infrastructure in Kiev.
Uncomfortable on Ukraine, Putin then decided to project himself higher. In the civilisational space. In his speech at the Valdai Forum on October 27, he criticised the “neo-colonial” arrogance of the West, which seeks to impose its “mercantile” liberal order on the entire world, and which denies other nations the right to follow “their own traditions”.
This rhetoric, which is intended to be emancipatory, is very successful in developing countries. It also impacts the conservative masses of America and Europe, attached to traditional family values, who are exasperated by wokeism and the tyranny of minority identities.
Tucker Carlson, a Fox News star journalist and conspiracy theorist, has become the informal leader of a Putinite fifth column in America.
This article was first published in Le Figaro.