The next couple of weeks is likely to see Ukraine’s weather taking a turn for the worse, bringing first rain and then, as temperatures plummet, increasingly heavy snowfalls. “General Winter” has always had an important part to play in armed conflicts in this part of the world – something that Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolph Hitler both learned to their cost (Hitler was clearly an imperfect student of military history, given he appears not to have factored the catastrophic 1812 retreat from Moscow into his Operation Barbarossa invasion plans).
Once the snow sets in, it’s generally there until April. Frank Ledwidge, a military strategist at the University of Portsmouth, has spent a lot of time in these conditions and describes it as being like walking out of your well-heated apartment and into a freezer. Not that Russia’s troops will be bivouacked in apartments, of course. This time round, it’ll be Russians suffering the privations that Hitler and Napoloeon’s military experienced. Far from home and with uncertain supplies of food and cold weather equipment, morale will be difficult to maintain.
This, writes Ledwidge, is one reason for the attacks on Ukraine’s power plants. Vladimir Putin is only too aware of the onset of winter and wants the Ukrainian population to suffer as well. On the battlefield, the swift offensives of recent weeks are likely to move at a slower pace as first mud, then ice underfoot make rapid manoeuvring more difficult.
Meanwhile reports from the front continue to focus on Ukrainian advances in the south and east, particularly around the city of Kherson, where civilians have been ordered to evacuate to the eastern side of the Dnipro River in anticipation of bitter urban fighting.
There is also continuing speculation about the prospect of a Putin escalation – and the form that escalation might take. Regular unsubtle hints about the possibility of resorting to the use of nuclear weapons continue to emerge from the Kremlin, but Stefan Wolff and David Dunn, experts in international security at the University of Birmingham, believe that Putin has several other non-nuclear options he can employ first.
They write that the recent targeting of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure – like the aforementioned power stations, is an integral part of Putin’s war strategy. And Kremlin claims (which Kyiv vehemently denies) that Ukraine has mined and is preparing to destroy the vast Kakhovka dam near Kherson would seem to indicate that this is something that Russia could well be contemplating with the warning simply a “false flag” to sow confusion. These sort of deniable attacks are an integral part of Russia’s military playbook. Meanwhile, the attack on the Nord Stream gas pipelines and more recent cyberattacks that have disrupted German rail systems and US airports are designed to get Kyiv’s western allies worrying about their own defences instead of just Ukraine’s.
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Another likely false flag was the round of calls from Russia’s minister of defence, Sergei Shoigu, to various of his opposite numbers warning that Ukraine was planning to detonate a “dirty bomb”, arguably less heinous as a weapon of mass destruction than a tactical nuclear warhead, but still something that would sow misery and confusion across a large area of Ukraine. The west has dismissed Shoigu’s warning, instead taking it as a hint that Russia is planning something similar. Christoph Bluth, an international security expert at the University of Bradford, walks us through what dirty bombs are, whether they’ve ever been used before and what their potential use might mean for this conflict.
All the while Kremlin watchers are anxiously looking for signs that Putin’s authority might be crumbling – something most observers believe is the best prospect for an expeditious end to the conflict. But Nick James, an expert in Russian politics at the University of Oxford, believes that Putin’s longevity will depend on the outcomes of the war, rather than the other way around. James gives us three possible scenarios for the future of Putin’s leadership given different outcomes of his Ukraine conflict.
We also have this fascinating parallel insight into the different between populist leaders and tyrannical dictators, with a bit of help from the philosophers and historians of Ancient Greece.
Putin has attempted to justify this invasion in several ways and for different audiences. His appeal to Russians has been based on either the country’s imperial past and the idea that somehow Ukraine has no separate existence from Greater Russia, or the idea that this “special military operation” has always been about rescuing Ukraine’s pro-Russian populations from the “Nazi gang” in power in Kyiv. Russia has also run the line that this is all actually a defensive fight against aggression by an expansionist Nato.
But, as historian Ronald Suny of the University of Michigan writes, none of these justifications stand up to any serious scrutiny. In the eyes of most of the world – and, given the growing anti-war protests in Russia itself – Putin’s narratives are crumbling in the face of reality.
Bigotry of war
In neighbouring Belarus, meanwhile, Alexander Lukashenko – one of Putin’s staunchest allies – clings to power despite his enduring unpopularity. Many people there look to reports that their country may be dragged into the conflict on Russia’s side, but there seems little or no public appetite for this eventuality. And many Belarusians feel as if their president’s friendship with Russia leaves them out in the cold.
As political scientists David Roger Marples of the University of Alberta and Katsiaryna Lozka of Ghent University report, Belarusians visiting other countries for work – or even those who have fled Lukashenko’s repressive regime – are encountering discrimination on all sides. Even those who have aligned themselves with the exiled opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, are being shunned or worse.
While we’re on the subject of discrimination, the Russian state’s deep homophobia has been well known for many years. But since the war began, Russia’s exploitation of this bogus threat to justify its political aims has sunk to new lows. Announcing his invasion in February, Putin denounced the west’s “aggressively imposing … attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature.”
Richard Foltz, a professor of religion and culture at Concordia University in Canada, presents some of the more bizarre manifestations of this extreme prejudice – including from Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, whose contention is that the promotion of LGBTQ+ rights by many western countries is the “forcible imposition of a sin condemned by divine law” and that the invasion of Ukraine is a holy war against Nato turning Russian boys gay, something that would be almost laughable if it wasn’t so dangerously unpleasant.
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