Down but still deadly dangerous

Are we closer to peace or to a wider war?

Animals are known to be at their most dangerous when wounded, afraid and unpredictable, ready to lash out and resort to any action to survive. The Russian bear is badly wounded in the war that continues to wreak havoc across Ukraine. Russian troops are mauled, dispirited and shocked at the strength and increasing military successes of a supposedly weaker opponent. According to President Putin, the Russian invasion of its neighbour was meant to be a swift and decisive “special military operation”. Putin has never detailed precisely what the ultimate aims of that special operation were, perhaps it was always a case of getting away with as much as he possibly could as the situation on the ground and in the air unfolded. And at first, with Russian missiles raining down on Ukrainian towns and cities, and Russian troops sweeping aside brave but apparently futile resistance as they advanced on the capital, Kyiv, it appeared that Ukraine might even be wiped off the map as an independent nation. But gradually the situation has changed. Military hardware supplied by the West, coupled with the indefatigable determination of its fighters, has seen Ukraine turn the tables. Swift counter-offensives have clawed back vast swathes of land as well as cities previously under Russian control, both in the north-east and in parts of the south. In some areas Russian troops have turned tail and run. Tactics and weaponry are playing their part, but it’s clear that, as much as anything, the Ukrainians simply want it more.

Now, as his battered and bruised troops lick their wounds, with the Moscow propaganda machine describing recent military routs as merely “regrouping”, the bear master, Putin, ponders his next move. He knows his allies, particularly China, have serious reservations about the ongoing war. He claims he’s prepared to talk peace terms, but that the Ukrainians are unwilling to negotiate. But why should they negotiate when their position is clear? They want the Russians out and their land back – all of it, including Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. Other options include mobilising some of Russia’s two million reserves, but early moves to do so have already prompted protests, riots and arrests in cities nationwide. Demonstrators shouting, “No to war” before being dragged away by police shows that for much of the population there is little enthusiasm for Putin’s fight. The president may also be hoping that rocketing energy prices will persuade Europe to push Ukraine into a truce on Russian terms. So far, though, European resolve appears strong, with countries like Germany apparently determined to ride out winter energy problems. Some Russian nationalists want an expansion of missile targeting, crippling Ukrainian infrastructure on a more permanent basis. But such a move would undoubtedly bring further international condemnation. And then there is the nuclear option. It seems unthinkable, as any such move would almost certainly draw Europe and its allies into a direct war with Russia. The world watches and waits.

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