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How Putin’s Latest Attempts to Escalate in Ukraine Have Backfired

Plus: the moral degradation of Russian propagandists.
October 14, 2022
How Putin’s Latest Attempts to Escalate in Ukraine Have Backfired
In this picture taken on November 3, 2021 Sergei Surovikin, commander of Russia's Aerospace Forces, attends a meeting of Russian President with top military officials in Sochi. (Photo by Mikhail METZEL / SPUTNIK / AFP) (Photo by MIKHAIL METZEL/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

In the last several days, Russia’s war in Ukraine has taken a new turn, mostly far from the frontlines. Last Saturday, the Kerch Bridge, which connects Crimea to Russia and serves both a tactical and symbolic purpose, was rocked by an explosion that collapsed a section of its highway part and damaged the railway part. On Monday morning came what many commentators assumed to be Vladimir Putin’s revenge: a barrage of missile and drone strikes that hit Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv, Zhitomir, and more than a dozen other Ukrainian cities, killing at least 19 people, injuring about a hundred more, and temporarily cutting off power and water for millions. The attacks, which coincided with the appointment of a man known as “General Armageddon”—Gen. Sergei Surovikin, known for his ruthlessness and likely collusion in war crimes in the Syria campaign five years ago—to oversee military operations in Ukraine, appear to signal an escalation in Russia’s war. But escalation toward what, and at what cost?

Let’s start with the obvious: The strikes on Ukrainian cities are not commensurate to the bombing of the bridge, even if, as Russia alleges—in this case, not implausibly—Ukraine is behind that attack. (Some, including Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the office of President Volodymyr Zelensky, have floated the theory that it was a false flag operation by Russian military intelligence, intended to justify escalation and perhaps undermine other security services; but the loss of face for Russia and for Putin himself—the bombing took place hours after his 70th birthday—seems far greater than whatever dubious value would be gained from such a move.) The Kerch bridge is a legitimate military target, routinely used to transport troops, weapons and machinery from Russia to Ukraine; the blast happened before dawn, when traffic on the bridge was minimal, and caused only three casualties, or perhaps four counting the driver of the truck that apparently transported the explosives.

By contrast, the deadly blasts in Kyiv came during the morning commute, timing that seemed intended to maximize the human toll. While Putin has claimed with a straight face that Russian forces used precision weapons to target military infrastructure, the actual targets struck included a children’s playground, a university, and a traffic intersection; the dead included Oksana Leontieva, a doctor at a children’s cancer hospital who was caught in the barrage on her way to work. The toll undoubtedly would have been much higher if Ukrainian air defense systems had not reportedly intercepted more than half the rockets. A number of Ukrainian experts, including military analyst and reserve colonel Roman Svitan, have said that the main purpose of the strikes on civilian areas—in addition to sowing terror—was a diversion to overload Ukrainian air defense systems and make them ineffective against the “second wave” of rockets, directed mostly at civilian infrastructure such as power and water treatment plants.

Svitan and some other analysts, including U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, have also argued that the airstrikes were likely planned before the attack on the Kerch bridge—though the bridge bombing may well have accelerated the timing.

Either way, if the desired effect is to cow Ukrainians into submission and make them beg Zelensky to sit down with Putin at the negotiating table, such a scenario seems extremely unlikely. “It’s only going to make us angrier,” Oleksiy Arestovych, a prominent adviser to the office of the president, told Russian expatriate YouTuber Mark Feygin. Arestovych, who pointed out that power and water were soon restored to most Ukrainian households, insisted that the greatest damage from Monday’s attacks (and the far smaller follow-up barrages on Tuesday and Thursday) was to Russia itself: The strikes had “radically” hardened world opinion against the Kremlin, weakening arguments in favor of new peace talks and strengthening arguments in favor of supplying more advanced weapons systems—and air defense systems—to Ukraine. Of course, Arestovych has reasons to stress Russian weakness. But it is a fact that in the wake of the attacks, the delivery of missile defense units to Ukraine from Germany, the Netherlands, France, and the United States is being sped up; meanwhile, on Thursday, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a near-unanimous resolution (99 votes in favor, one abstention) urging member countries to “declare the current Russian regime as a terrorist one.” Footage from the air strikes and their aftermath seems almost calculated to create a new wave of sympathy for Ukrainians: When you see civilians in Kyiv singing their national anthem while sheltering in the subway, it evokes iconic images of heroic resistance such as the “Marseillaise” scene from Casablanca.

Seen from this vantage point, the Russian strikes seem less like a show of strength and more like a show of desperation. To be sure, if the Russians could keep up their air terror campaign for weeks, the calculus could change. But this is where a classic Soviet joke comes to mind: A zoo visitor outside an elephant’s cage reads an inscription cataloguing the massive amount of vegetables an elephant consumes in a day and asks a passing zookeeper if the elephant can really eat that much food. “Sure he can,” says the zookeeper, “but ain’t no one gonna let him have it.” There’s little doubt that Putin would happily bomb Ukraine into rubble if he could; but if nothing else, he doesn’t have an unlimited supply of rockets, and whatever drones the Russians can get from the Iranians in a hurry are unlikely to help much.

What’s more, an attempt to destroy or seriously undermine Ukraine’s infrastructure may run into a rather karmic obstacle: According to expatriate Russian journalist Yulia Latynina, Ukrainian power stations were mostly built under the Soviet regime in the Cold War era, and they were built with a view to withstanding a possible nuclear attack from the United States. That means disabling them permanently with conventional strikes—or even a tactical nuclear weapon—would be extremely difficult. If this is indeed the case, Putin’s attempt to rebuild the Soviet empire is being obstructed by the Soviet legacy itself.

One kind of escalation made evident after the airstrikes against Ukrainian cities is in the moral degradation of Russian propagandists, who are no longer even trying to hide against the pretense that the Russian military in Ukraine is saving peaceful Ukrainian from “Nazis.” You might even call it the escalating Nazification of Russian propagandists. As Kirill Martynov, a commentator for the independent Novaya Gazeta put it: “When you spend long enough justifying a war of aggression, you turn into Goebbels.”

One of those new Goebbelses is Rossiya-1 talk show host Olga Skabeyeva, who gleefully reported on the Monday morning airstrikes using footage that very clearly showed scenes of devastation wrought on civilians (clouds of fire and smoke rising over city buildings, charred remnants of cars, people running in terror). It was a nauseating spectacle that prompted former Russian TV journalist Alexander Nevzorov—a onetime Russian nationalist and Putin supporter who joined the opposition some years ago, fled the country, and was granted Ukrainian citizenship directly by president Zelensky for “outstanding service to the country”—to suggest on his YouTube channel that if a teenage Skabeyeva twenty years ago had gotten a chance to watch her future self, she probably would have jumped from a tall building “just to stop such words from ever being spoken.”

Present-day Skabeyeva waxed particularly enthusiastic over the appointment of Gen. Surovikin as the new commander in charge of the “special operation.” She also admiringly noted his nickname “Armageddon,” received in Syria for “harsh, unconventional actions in the battlefield.” In this case, “unconventional” means wanton bombings that slaughtered civilians and combatants as well as helping cover for the Syrian military’s use of the sarin nerve agent.

What relevance this will have for the Russian war in Ukraine is unclear: Russian commanders who are not nicknamed “Armageddon”—such as Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, who reportedly oversaw the siege of Mariupol—have already proven themselves more than willing to use brutal tactics entailing carnage and devastation for Ukrainian cities. But Surovikin’s reputation as a butcher has pleased Putin’s hawkish critics such as Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner mercenary unit commander Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had lamented the weakness of Russian military leadership in Ukraine.

Surovikin’s biography has another striking episode with an uncanny relevance to Russian history: In 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev was ousted by a group of hardliners determined to save the USSR, then-24-year-old Captain Surovikin was the only Soviet army officer to initiate deadly force against the protesters who took to the streets in Moscow to resist the coup. He commanded a column of armored personnel carriers which, at his orders, tried to break through a barricade in a Moscow tunnel and started a confrontation in which three protesters were killed. (A lesser-known detail is reported, citing contemporaneous sources, by the dissident Russian site When Surovikin’s APC got stuck after smashing through the barricade, Captain Courageous promptly got into another vehicle and drove away, leaving the column behind.) Surovikin was arrested and spent six months in prison awaiting trial in the protesters’ deaths; he argued that he was merely following orders. Ultimately, the case was dismissed, and according to the young captain was not only released but promoted to major.

To many Russians, his elevation today is a symbolic statement that the coup won after all.

In a Novaya Gazeta column, Latynina points out another notable fact:

Until now, the names of the generals commanding the war with Ukraine have not been officially announced. There was a war, but who commanded it was not officially known. Putin did not want any general to share with him the honor of victory and gain a prestige that could undermine his own authority.

Latynina also notes that onetime Russian political insider and businessman Leonid Nevzlin (who now lives in Israel) has asserted for some time that Surovikin was in charge of the entire “special operation” from the start, in which case his status has merely been made official. Nevzlin, a regular on Latynina’s popular YouTube show, has also mentioned Surovikin as a possible member of a military junta that could oust Putin. Obviously, no one knows whether these claims have any more validity than any other speculative theory articulated on dozens of political shows on Russian dissident YouTube. But if Surovikin is part of a clique of Kremlin hardliners, his elevation could be less a path to power than an attempt to neutralize him. It could even, Latynina suggests, be a setup: His new role would make him a natural scapegoat if and when the war is lost.

Surovikin’s appointment can also be seen as Putin’s signal that now, Russia is getting serious. (Remember his “we have not yet begun to fight” comment in July?) And yet at this point, it seems doubtful that he can turn things around. The “partial mobilization” may not have been a complete bust: Arestovych concedes that the influx of even poorly trained manpower has helped “plug holes” in the Russian lines and slow down Ukrainian advances. Nonetheless, the old-fashioned Russian strategy of throwing cannon fodder at the enemy is unlikely to be effective in the long term, especially when the enemy has the advantage of better training, discipline, and motivation as well as allies with advanced weapons systems. And even now, “not a complete bust” is far short of success. Videos of Russian mobiks who have surrendered to Ukrainians forces, and who talk about being abruptly thrown into trenches with an automatic rifle and going hungry for two or three days, are already making the rounds online.

There is also the continuing exodus of potential conscripts from Russia—along with other forms of draft evasion. Many men, writer Dmitry Bykov mentioned in a recent discussion, flee within the country, hiding out in towns and villages sufficiently far away from home that the local enlistment board is unlikely to find them. And some may not even go very far: According to the Russian site, an attempt to draft several men in two villages in Karelia, a northern Russian region close to Finland, was thwarted because, according to the men’s families, they were off in the woods harvesting cranberries. Gazeta reports that “the men’s current whereabouts are unknown to officials.” Given this state of affairs, it’s hardly surprising that the Council of Federations—the upper chamber of the Russian parliament—is working on legislation that would follow in Prigozhin’s and Wagner’s footsteps and enlist convicts with a promise of a pardon after service.

Does Putin have other resources? The Monday airstrikes coincided with the announcement of a joint deployment of Russian and Belarussian troops near the Belarus-Ukraine border, and with some tough talk from Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko threatening a devastating response if “the president of Ukraine and the other lunatics” touch so much as a square foot of Belarusian land. This too could be a sign of escalation—or maybe not. At present, it’s unclear just what the joint force will actually do; Lukashenko’s defense minister Viktor Khrenin has stressed that it will be purely defensive and that “we don’t want to fight.” The entire episode may be another instance of Lukashenko’s intricate two-step dance in which a gesture toward Putin is immediately followed (as Arestovych put it on Mark Feygin’s YouTube show) by “a couple of curtsies to the West.”

At least so far, then, Putin’s attempt to escalate the action in Ukraine looks like a self-inflicted blow that makes his position worse. Of course, that brings us to the elephant in the room of so much Ukraine/Russia discourse: Do Russian failures make it more likely that the next phase of escalation will be nuclear? Does the lack of even a small nuclear response to the crossing of the Kremlin’s red lines—the Ukrainian seizure of Lyman a day after Putin recognized it as Russian territory, the attack on Kerch Bridge—suggest that this is a line either Putin or other men with a say in the matter are unwilling to cross? Obviously, the West must take nuclear saber-rattling seriously. My own view is that even in defeat, Putin is not suicidal. He is not a true believer like Hitler, who would not have hesitated to blow up the world if he had the means to do it rather than accept Germany’s defeat by the Allies. Putin, until the day he is deposed or killed, will always believe that he can spin a loss as a win—at least, enough of a win to save face.

Which is why I think we can cheer for the eventual collapse of Putin’s war effort without worrying too much that we are cheering for Armageddon (the conflagration, not the general). Of course, it’s still hard to say what a victory for Ukraine will look like. But it looks real, and the past few days’ events make it more likely.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.