On war games – Christian Esch, Georg Fahrion, Matthias Gebauer, Christina Hebel and René Pfister in Der Spiegel:
‘Because Vladimir Putin's "special operation" in Ukraine has turned into a military disaster, the Russian president has ordered a mobilization. Men who already performed their military service years ago are being summoned to the front: fathers, cancer patients and even people who are half blind. Just a few days ago, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that mainly well-trained forces would be drafted. But the scene in Balashikha suggests something altogether different. Some of those gathered here still have the soft skin of youth, but other men have sunken cheeks and deep circles under their eyes, as if they have years of hard labor behind them.’
‘To the surprise of many in Russia, however, the war has largely revealed how dilapidated their own army is. Indeed, they are in retreat on numerous fronts. The situation has become so precarious for Putin that he has resorted to the ultimate threat: "When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people," Putin said in announcing the mobilization two and a half weeks ago. "This is not a bluff."
For now, at least, the last sentence is subject to doubt. If you talk to Western politicians and top officials, most assume that Putin's nuclear threat is primarily that: a threat. So far, according to German government sources, the Russian president has not followed up his words with action, such as mounting warheads on missiles. That’s the U.S. government’s conclusion as well. Putin's main goal is to divide the West, says Heather Conley, head of the German Marshall Fund, an influential Washington-based think tank. But will things stay that way?’
‘For the first time in years, scenarios are once again being played out in Washington, Berlin and Paris about how a nuclear catastrophe might play out. A vernacular is once again being used that seemed to have disappeared into the history books along with the Cold War: first strike, radioactive fallout, deterrence. Western military officials are also discussing how Putin might deploy his nuclear forces. In "war games" that are also being played out in strict secrecy at the German Defense Ministry in Berlin, strategists are largely ruling out an attack with strategic nuclear weapons capable of wiping out entire cities. The consensus is that an attack on that level would be a kamikaze mission for Putin. Experts also doubt whether the Russian military would carry out a kind of "Nero order" from the Kremlin without resisting.’
‘In Germany, in particular, where part of the population has grown up with the fear of nuclear war, doubts could grow over whether Ukraine is important enough to take such an existential risk. Back in April, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned in an interview with DER SPIEGEL: "There cannot be a nuclear war."
The threatening nuclear gestures are primarily directed at Europe and specifically at the Germans, believes Christoph Heusgen, Merkel's former security policy adviser and the new head of the influential Munich Security Conference. "It's part of Russia's intimidation strategy." From Heusgen's point of view, it would be extremely dangerous if the Germans allowed themselves to be ruffled by the strategy. He says the greatest threat comes from Putin when he believes he can exploit the weakness of others and cross red lines with impunity.’
‘No active military official wants to speak openly about what those consequences might be. But among experts, a massive U.S. conventional strike is considered likely if Putin were to detonate a tactical nuclear weapon. Earlier this week, former CIA head David Petraeus described quite concretely what an American response might look like. The former general believes a devastating U.S. military strike on the Russians' Black Sea fleet is conceivable. Military sources say there is also talk of further arming the Ukrainians with additional missile launchers or even medium-range missiles. If this went hand in hand with the provision of significantly more targeting information by U.S. intelligence agencies, the scenario goes, the Ukrainians could inflict even more painful casualties on the Russian invaders than they have so far.
Ben Hodges, who served as commander of the U.S. Army in Europe until a few years ago, foresees a massive U.S. conventional response. He says that the response would be precisely tailored to Russian action, but that it would be destructive enough to send a clear message to Moscow. In recent days, other military officials and experts have floated the specific idea of immediately destroying the launch site of the Russian nuclear missile. This threat alone, they believe, could have a deterrent effect. "Putin doesn’t push the nuclear button himself. The commander who does it knows that 10 minutes after he does so, he's dead," says Munich Security Conference head Heusgen.’
‘Back then, in October 1962, the world was on the verge of doom because the Soviet deployment in Cuba. The situation was so precarious that bomber pilots at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany slept overnight on the airfield so that they could take off within minutes and drop their nuclear bombs over Soviet cities. The situation was defused only because both U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev were willing to compromise – and, at the same time, Robert Kennedy, the U.S. president's brother, engaged in secret diplomacy with Moscow to prevent the worst from happening.’
‘The fall of Kherson would be a devastating defeat for Putin. But it has become more likely after Ukrainian artillery damaged bridges along the Dnieper, largely cutting off Russian supply lines.
And it's not only in the south, but also in the northeast of Ukraine that the Russian army has been forced to retreat. After hard fighting, Russia recently surrendered Lyman, an important railroad junction in the northern Donetsk region. Since then, Ukrainian troops have also been advancing toward the Luhansk region. These are defeats that cannot be glossed over – even with the best propaganda. At the beginning of April, the Kremlin was still trying to sugarcoat the withdrawal from the area around Kyiv as a "gesture of goodwill" and the army's flight from Kharkiv in September as a "regrouping." But now the Kremlin is running out of language to make the situation look better, and displeasure within the Putin regime is beginning to leak out.
Two men in particular have been particularly vocal in their critique of the Russian military's leadership: Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov and military entrepreneur Yevgeny Prigozhin. Both are active in Ukraine: Kadyrov has deployed Chechen units of the National Guard, and Prigozhin controls the Wagner group. In a sense, they are both partners and competitors of the Russian Army.’
‘The direct attack by Andrei Kartapolov, chairman of the Duma's defense committee and Shoigu's deputy, on the Defense Ministry did come as a surprise though. He said the military’s top brass had been more open about defeats against the Germans in 1941 than the army is today about its setbacks in Ukraine.
Many in the West fear that Putin may end up feeling he has no other choice but to use a nuclear strike to prevent defeat. That he could escalate the situation out of weakness.’
‘It is part of the logic of military conflicts that they can no longer be controlled even by those who set them in motion. One of the most dangerous moments of the Cuban missile crisis was the day a Soviet missile shot down an American U-2 reconnaissance plane over Cuba, an attack that had not been authorized by Khrushchev. What if Putin himself becomes a driven by his pseudo-religious rhetoric? When he celebrated the annexation of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions to Russia last Friday in the Kremlin's gleaming white St. George's Hall, the enemy was no longer NATO or the alleged "Nazis" in Kyiv, it was much older. Putin portrayed the war as an eternal clash of civilizations, an end-time battle of the Russian world against Western "Satanists." Isn't every means permissible in such a battle?’
‘"I haven't heard anyone defend the Russian invasion," says Scott Kennedy of the U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Kennedy is the first senior U.S. policy analyst to have traveled to China since the pandemic began, and he has held many policy meetings there over the past two weeks. Asked about Beijing's relationship with Moscow, the people he spoke to in China mostly stayed silent, he says. "I think this silence is an interesting sign that they are conflicted and have gotten themselves into a difficult place."
Putin himself indicated in mid-September that China was less than enthusiastic about the war. "We highly value the balanced position of our Chinese friends when it comes to the Ukraine crisis," he said during a meeting with Xi in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. He said he understood that Beijing had "questions and concerns." It was as if Putin had been forced to publicly castigate himself. Xi preferred to forgo the celebratory dinner with his "best friend" Putin. The Chinese leader was reportedly worried about COVID. That, at least, was the excuse given.’
Read the article here.
So what do we have, the fear that Putin will ‘escalate’ because of weakness.
The hope that China might prevent the worst.
And the realistic assessment that Putin hasn’t exhausted all other options. Ciber war, destroying Ukraine’s infrastructure.
The US doesn’t want Ukraine to be too victorious. This has been clear for a while.
There is no alternative for the hope that things will eventually calm down, unless you want to build yourself a bunker. The war is not controlled by those who set it in motion. And bunkers are not controlled by those who build it.
The war games, mentioned in this article, are nevertheless ominous enough. If Putin is no Nero and for that reason no Hitler, the question remains, who is he?