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Explosions deep in Russia present Putin with a new problem, with no obvious answer


Moscow’s accusation that Ukrainian drones struck two air bases deep in Russia has once again raised the feverish question of escalation after nine months of war.

The strikes are an extraordinary violation of Russia’s assumptions that it can protect its deep interior, from which its strategic bombers have caused carnage across Ukraine with relative impunity.

These are very remote airbases inside Russia, and regardless of the truth about the strikes – whether they represent a new long-range drone capability announced by Ukraine, or whether there is another explanation – it’s just not something that was supposed to happen when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his “10-day invasion” in February. Week after week, there are even more signs that Moscow’s military machine can’t do what it says on the box.

On Tuesday, a Russian official said another drone strike hit a Russian airfield in Kursk, closer to the Ukrainian border.

Ukraine has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the explosions, in line with Kyiv’s official policy of silence regarding attacks inside Russia or in Russian-occupied Crimea. An aide to President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared to be pleased with the strikes, tweeting cryptically that “if something is launched into the airspace of other countries, sooner or later unknown flying objects will return to the starting point.”

Russian state news agencies compounded the discomfort with humiliation by adding on Monday that the first two airfields in question had in fact been photographed by a commercial US-based satellite imagery company over the weekend. -end.

The low-tech tools employed in this embarrassment pop the balloon of Russia’s peer status in NATO.

A satellite image shows an overview of Engels Air Base in Saratov, Russia, December 4.

Russian humiliation is usually accompanied by fears that it could escalate the conflict. But it’s hard to know what else Russia could do to Ukraine than it has already done. It razed cities, ruthlessly and relentlessly struck civilian infrastructure when it could, killed thousands of civilians and even more soldiers, and bombed maternity hospitals and shelters marked with the word “Children”.

At some point, the labored assumption that Russia still has magic, not doomsday buttons to press will begin to fade. Let’s first take a quick look at why a Russian nuclear strike seems off the table, at least for now. After months of deeply chilling nuclear rhetoric – covering potential ‘accidents’ at nuclear power plants, unsubstantiated talk of Ukraine’s use of a dirty bomb, open threats invoking Moscow’s nuclear arsenal – Moscow seems to have loosened the rhetoric of Armageddon.

China has been very clear that it believes such talks should stop. India too. Late last month, Putin found himself in an extraordinary moment, signing an executive order with the President of Kazakhstan reiterating that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought. It was a reinforcement of a 2006 declaration between Moscow and the Central Asian states it at the time sought to lead as a geopolitical power. How times have changed: Moscow is no longer turned towards the West as it did 16 years ago. And Kazakhstan, which as recently as January depended on Moscow to quell internal unrest, is looking to China and Europe for its future, and appears to be pushing Putin to promise again that nuclear weapons are bad. .

None of this rules out the remote possibility that the Kremlin will give in to the moody fringe of state TV talk shows and unleash its worst weapons. But it’s clear that everyone Putin knows is now reminding him of the harsh consequences if he did.

So what is left for Russia? Chemical weapons are a possibility, but were probably part of the warnings he received not to use nuclear force. Moscow’s choices seem limited to more precise or more savage use of the same conventional brutality it currently unleashes almost daily on Ukrainian cities.

This is the most damaging side effect of the way the exhaustion of the Russian military has been made public: there is no real “fear factor” left. Months ago, state television commentators liked to think that Russia has been fighting with “gloves” so far, but clearly the gloves have long since come off, their adversary has learned to dodge his punches and also brought a knife to the ring.

This overt degradation of Russia as a power has been compounded by claims – difficult to confirm – by Ukrainian officials that more than four out of five Russian missiles fired on Monday were intercepted by Kyiv’s hardened air defense systems. Again, this is another of the certainties held about the broken Russian army. Its attack and air defense systems are overwhelmed during the same week.

So where is it going? The West is caught in a bind. The better Ukraine’s military performs on the battlefield, the less likely Kyiv is to agree with some European capitals on the need for peace talks with Russia. When you win, why agree to talk about a form of losing? And NATO can’t begin to slow arms supply or face criticism – even from its own citizens – that it’s letting Ukrainians die. He can’t really demand that Kyiv accept the permanent loss of part of its territory as part of a settlement without essentially endorsing Russia’s invasion.

Instead, the dynamic is entirely against Russia. When they are weak, they are not suddenly strong in any way – they are just weak, to paraphrase the private analysis of a Western official. Are these slow and continuous humiliations bringing closer the day when Putin struggles to control his own hierarchy, or is he succumbing to pressure to withdraw from the territory he has occupied since 2014?

While waiting for the answer, the trajectories are unchanged: Ukraine: cold in winter, but winning and slowly better armed. Russia: cold in winter, but losing and slowly broken militarily. The key variable is patience and support from the West.

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