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Cornered rat

Cornered rat

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Vladimir Putin is backed into a corner. His war in Ukraine isn’t going to plan and he’s losing the support of allies.

I think it is necessary to support the proposal of the Ministry of Defence and the General Staff to conduct a partial military mobilisation in Russia. I repeat, we are only talking about a partial mobilisation.”

Wall Street Journal

That was Vladimir Putin last Wednesday… warming up the Russian people for something he hoped he’d never have to do – mobilise army reservists for the war in Ukraine. Three hundred thousand of them at least. Some say more than a million.

In the same speech he boasted about Russia’s nuclear arsenal and said he was quite willing to use it.

Now here he is again, being interviewed six months ago.

Putin speaking Russian

In that interview he tells a story about chasing a rat into the corner of a stairwell in Leningrad – the stairwell in the building where he lived. Instead of running, the rat came after him. It jumped from bannister to bannister, aiming for his head. And that, Vladimir Putin says, is why it’s better not to corner someone.

So which is he? Lord of all he surveys with his finger on the nuclear button? Or a cornered rat?

 ***

When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February, his approval ratings went up. To about 80 per cent. 

It didn’t matter that he’d said he wouldn’t invade.

It didn’t matter that he had no reason to invade. 

It didn’t matter that the 150,000 troops he’d assembled on the border didn’t know they were going to invade. 

And it didn’t matter that the rest of the world was begging him not to invade.

He had the Russian people on his side because he had a slick propaganda machine. Very slick. 

Vladimir Solovyov speaking Russian

That’s Vladimir Solovyov calling Ukrainian refugees Hitler-saluting Nazis. He’s on the biggest state-run TV channel two hours a night, six days a week, spouting alternative facts on NATO, Nazis and nuclear weapons.

His parallel universe is Vladimir Putin’s parallel universe. It seems ludicrous to many Westerners but only because they haven’t been paying attention. 

Rewind to Munich, 2007. 

Putin speaking Russian

In a speech there Putin rejects everything about the post-cold war international security system. The way America dominates it is, he says,   “pernicious”. He complains about double standards. He asks how the US president at the time, George W Bush, can invade Iraq, leave it a smoking ruin, and get re-elected?

World leaders are stunned – briefly – but they move on. They’ve got business to do with Vladimir Putin so it’s best to tune out the negativity.

But the next year he invades Georgia. 

In 2014 it’s Crimea. 

In 2015 he sends an army to Syria. 

And now he’s invading Ukraine.

Russian bombardment of Kharkiv

That’s the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv under Russian bombardment, watched by a mother and daughter from their balcony, wondering if they’re next. 

A month ago it looked like Vladimir Putin – despite setbacks and low morale – could be winning his latest war. His artillery was relentless. Casualty rates in some of Ukraine’s elite fighting units were over 80 per cent.

But Ukraine’s counter-offensive has changed everything. In one week its forces retook territory in the eastern Donbas region that Russia had taken five months to occupy. Russian forces simply turned and fled. This was the army Vladimir Putin spent ten years and trillions of rubles modernising. 

If Ukraine can counterattack in the Donbas, surely it can counterattack anywhere and victory is only a matter of time?

***

Vladimir Putin’s allies certainly want him to stop.

“Our top story tonight Prime Minister Narendra Modi has told Russian president Vladimir Putin, ‘Now is not the time for war.’”

NDTV

India’s Narendra Modi delivered that rebuke to Vladimir Putin’s face. 

China said more or less the same thing the day before, albeit in private. And the stans in Central Asia – with the exception of Tajikistan – which used to do as they were told by Moscow, are lining up with China on this. 

Their tone: quiet disapproval. They don’t want to be associated with humiliating failure.

US president Joe Biden’s disapproval wasn’t so quiet. Here he is at the UN, hours after Vladimir Putin’s mobilisation speech.

“This war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state. Plain and simple. And Ukraine’s right to exist as a people. Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you believe, that should not, that should make your blood run cold.’”

Joe Biden speaking before the UN General Assembly

And what about Russia itself? Most Russians haven’t kicked up a fuss about the war. But most Russians don’t want to fight either. So there have been protests… about 2000 arrests… queues to get out of the country at checkpoints from Lithuania to Siberia… skyrocketing ticket prices for one-way flights to Turkey.

But the mobilisation is happening anyway, whether Russia’s young men like it or not.

Police firing shots at a protest at Dagestan

Police fired shots in the air at a protest in Dagestan.

In Ukraine, the soldiers waiting say let them come, we’ll kill them all – and at this rate a new bloodbath seems inevitable. 

One thing no one expects is for Vladimir Putin to see the light and quit. So yes, he’s a cornered rat… with his finger on the button.

This episode was written by Giles Whittell and mixed by Patricia Clarke.


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