Each day, it would seem, Russian President Vladimir Putin has become ever more adept at creating more victims and new enemies – solidifying, even enlarging, the ranks of those arrayed against him, and strengthening the resolve of those he would seek to conquer. At home and abroad, there seems to be no limit to Putin’s appetite to wreak mayhem in pursuit of an ever more elusive victory.
The first missile to have landed in Poland – a NATO member – on Tuesday may well have been a Ukrainian anti-aircraft rocket intercepting an incoming Russian missile a short distance from one of Ukraine’s largest cities, Lviv, as suspected by Polish and NATO leaders. (President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, has insisted the missile was not Ukrainian)
But the proximate reason for this action was in fact Putin’s utterly inhumane carpet bombing of Ukrainian infrastructure. This is all part of Putin’s misguided, and likely futile, effort to hammer the nation into submission – a hail of rockets designed to knock out electricity, water, and other critical civilian infrastructure as winter looms.
Whatever the exact circumstances of the missile, one thing is clear. “Russia bears ultimate responsibility, as it continues its illegal war against Ukraine”, said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg Wednesday.
These attacks began at the outset of the war and have only increased in scope and virulence since Ukrainian forces last month attacked a bridge – one particularly close to Putin’s heart – between mainland Russia and Crimea, which the Russians annexed in 2014.
Russian retaliation – an onslaught of missile attacks – has expanded as Ukrainian forces have continued to push back Russian units and reclaim territory seized in the early days of the war.
Now Poland is facing the repercussions from these attacks – and it’s not the only bordering country. Russian rockets have also knocked out power across neighboring Moldova, which is not a NATO member, and therefore attracted considerably less attention than the Polish incident.
But beyond these most recent missile attacks lies a laundry list of horrors Putin has launched that only seems to have driven his nation further from the pack of civilized powers that he once sought so desperately to join.
His forces have planted mines in vast stretches of territory in Kherson from which they’ve recently withdrawn – much as the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia stretching back to the 1970s. Indeed, Cambodian de-mining experts have even been called in to assist with the herculean task facing Ukraine in 2022. At the same time, Russian armies have also left behind evidence of unspeakable atrocities and torture, also reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge.
That said, a growing number of Russian soldiers have rebelled at what they have been asked to do and refused to fight. Amid plummeting morale, the UK’s Defense Ministry believes Russian troops may be prepared to shoot retreating or deserting soldiers.
Indeed a hotline and Telegram channel, launched as a Ukrainian military intelligence project called “I want to live”, designed to assist Russian soldiers eager to defect, has taken off, reportedly booking some 3,500 calls in its first two months of activity.
Putin has also tried, though he has been stymied at most turns, to establish black market networks abroad to source what he needs to fuel his war machine – much as Kim Jong-un has done in North Korea. The United States has already uncovered and recently sanctioned vast networks of such shadow companies and individuals centered in hubs from Taiwan to Armenia, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, France, and Luxembourg to source high-tech goods for Russia’s collapsing military-industrial complex.
Diplomatically, Putin finds himself increasingly isolated on the world stage. He was the only head of state to stay away from a session of the G20, which Zelensky dubbed the “G19”. Though Putin once lusted after a return to the G7 (known as the G8 before he was ousted after his seizure of Crimea), inclusion now seems but a distant dream. Russia’s sudden ban on 100 Canadians, including Canadian-American Jim Carrey, from entering the country only made the comparison with North Korea more striking.
Above all, many of the best and brightest in virtually every field have now fled Russia. This includes writers, artists and journalists as well as some of the most creative technologists, scientists and engineers.
One leading Russian journalist, Mikhail Zygar, who has settled in Berlin after fleeing in March, told me last week that while he hoped this is not the case, he is prepared to accept the reality – like many of his countrymen, he may never be able to return to his homeland, to which he remains deeply attached.
Rumbling in the background is the West’s attempt to diversify away from Russian oil and natural gas in an effort to deprive the country of material resources to pursue this war. “We have understood and learnt our lesson that it was an unhealthy and unsustainable dependency, and we want reliable and forward-looking connections”, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission told the G20 on Tuesday.
Moreover, Putin’s dream that this conflict, along with the enormous burden it has proven to be on Western countries, would only drive further wedges into the Western alliance are proving unfulfilled. On Monday, word began circulating in aerospace circles that the long-stalled joint French-German project for a next-generation jet fighter at the heart of the Future Combat Air System – Europe’s largest weapons program – was beginning to move forward.
Above all, Putin still does not appear to have learned that revenge is not an appropriate way to act on or off the battlefield and in the final analysis is most likely to isolate and weaken Russia, perhaps irreversibly.
Still, he continues to hold, as he did in a Tuesday address in the Kremlin, that “attempts made by certain countries to rewrite and reshape world history are becoming increasingly aggressive, ultimately and obviously seeking to divide our society, take away our guiding lines and eventually weaken Russia”.
Though ironically, the country aggressively seeking to reshape world history is Russia itself.
David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, is a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, author of A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen and blogs at Andelman Unleashed. He formerly was a correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Europe and Asia. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.