First came the Kharkiv power plant, hit by several missiles on September 11, depriving hundreds of thousands of people of electricity. Then strikes on the Kryviy Rih dam and, in the south-east of Zaporizhia, on electrical networks. In the midst of a rout in eastern Ukraine, the Russians are sinking into cynicism, systematically pounding critical infrastructure – electrical installations, district heating centers… The objective is clear: “to leave people without light , without heating, without water and without food”, denounced the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
A strategy of terror, but above all an admission of impotence from Moscow, which is in the process of suffering a new military defeat, after its failure to conquer kyiv. Prepared meticulously, announced for weeks in the South, the Ukrainian counter-offensive has, in reality, pierced the enemy lines to the North and East, forcing the Russian soldiers into a hasty retreat. Simple “regrouping of forces”, as Moscow claims? A real Berezina, rather, which suggests a new way out of this terrible war: what if Putin loses it?
Until last month, few seriously asked this question. The Russian army crushed the Ukrainian forces under a carpet of bombs, and one saw, week after week, villages falling into its hands. But this “nibbling” was an illusion, notes Phillips P. O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the prestigious University of St Andrews: “On the surface, not much happened this summer. Artillery Russian seemed stronger. In reality, the Ukrainians exhausted the Russian forces by making them pay a high price for each advance in the Donbass. Their small gains were, in fact, akin to a bloodletting.”
“The Russians can collapse”
So much so that the situation seems a little more complicated every day for the Kremlin soldiers. “They are apparently out of ammunition, notes historian Galia Ackerman. They use Iranian drones which are not of the highest quality and are now going to buy shells from the North Koreans! They lack electronic components and spare parts for their guns and missile launchers. In a few months, the Russian army could experience a catastrophic situation.”
Between a quarter and a third of the troops deployed in Ukraine would have been put out of action, according to the most serious estimates. “If the Russians don’t send more troops, they may collapse,” predicts Phillips P. O’Brien, who anticipates other “major advances” by the Ukrainians by Christmas. We still have to find these resources. Images posted on social networks on September 14 show Yevgueni Prigogine, an oligarch close to Putin linked to the Wagner mercenary group, playing recruiting sergeants in a Russian prison. “I can get you out of here alive, he says to the convicts in black outfits, gathered in the yard. But not everyone will come back from the front.”
And for good reason. Poorly motivated, badly commanded – many officers were decimated in the first months of the conflict – the Russians have in front of them soldiers who are waging an existential war. And, unlike their adversaries, they know why they are fighting… For all these reasons, the scenario of a reconquest by Ukrainian forces of territories lost for seven months seems less and less hypothetical.. And even areas occupied by secessionist forces since 2014 are no longer out of reach.
Hence the importance of stepping up military aid to kyiv at this time. “The more time passes, the more the Russians will be able to stabilize their defensive line”, insists Philips P. O’Brien. “We can say, with a certain degree of confidence, that Vladimir Putin will not win this senseless war. But he will do everything to refuse to recognize his defeat”, adds Marie Mendras, political scientist at CNRS and Sciences Po.
“Let’s not forget that Putin is a coward”
How will the “tsar” react? Weakened, the head of the Kremlin, who passed for a great strategist, finds himself in an untenable position, his room for maneuver having been considerably reduced. He who has always wanted to give himself the image of a strong man in the face of a declining West, is beginning to be criticized more and more openly. MPs call to ‘get rid of him’, while singer Alla Pugacheva, one of the country’s biggest stars, blasts the end of freedom of expression and the death of young Russians for ‘illusory purposes’ on his Instagram channel to 3.5 million subscribers. Even Putin’s staunchest supporters go wild – but for other reasons. On television sets, at the heart of the propaganda apparatus, some commentators no longer hesitate to say that Russia will not be able to win the war. The “hawks” are getting impatient and calling for a higher gear. In this case, the general mobilization.
The conflict would then enter a new dimension, drawing from a reservoir of about 2 million men. This decision, which the Kremlin has so far been careful not to take, would not be a panacea. Far from it. “We would have to organize the training, provide the equipment, manage the deployment. That is at least a year to have well-prepared troops”, specifies Phillips P. O’Brien. Which is to say an eternity.
Above all, the Russian autocrat, who would be forced to contradict months of propaganda by declaring a war much more anxiety-provoking than a “special military operation”, would expose himself to revolts, his obsession. For the time being, the power has gone to look for its soldiers in the poor and remote regions. Although the vast majority of Russians still support their leader, what will happen when the coffins return by the hundreds to the larger, better-educated cities? “Let’s not forget that Putin is a coward, ironically Iegor Gran, son of a famous Russian dissident, and author of Z as zombie (POL). When people took to the streets to protest against compulsory mask-wearing during the Covid-19 epidemic, for example, it quickly backed down.
“If he loses this war, Putin will lose power”
This time, the matter is much more serious. “Putin knows that if he loses this war, he will lose power, even his life, because he is the one who is personally responsible for starting it,” said Galia Ackerman. “His departure is only a matter of time,” says Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whom L’Express met in London, where he is exiled. The former boss of Yukos, imprisoned for ten years by Putin, does not believe in general mobilization: if the power gives arms to the people to fight in Ukraine, “this one can very well, he says, turn them the other way…” Nor does he find Moscow’s use of a tactical nuclear weapon credible. “Putin would lose his last allies in Europe. And that would make him personally a target,” he argues.
However, US President Joe Biden does not rule out this possibility. “Don’t do it,” he repeated three times on television on September 18, while promising a “consequent” reaction if his Russian counterpart took the plunge. Still, the Russian military chain of command would have to let him do it…
But let’s stop being victims of the nuclear blackmail of the Kremlin and look at his regime for what it is: a power in perdition, drawn into an infernal headlong rush. “The Putin system, which some considered solid and effective, and saw as a very great military power, is falling apart a little more each day”, summarizes Marie Mendras. Today, the dictator is naked. And his Potemkin state can no longer deceive.