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China’s victory in Ukraine

By Edward Lucas

(First published by CEPA)

A secret US-brokered deal gave the Chinese Communist Party a European foothold. Be cross, not grateful

Did you see our decision-makers quail as the Chinese tanks crunched through the streets of Berlin, Brussels, London and Paris, establishing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the arbiter of Europe’s security? Me neither. But according to Owen Matthews, a veteran Russia-watcher (and — full disclosure — an old friend of mine), that is in effect what has happened. 

Most of his new book “Overreach” is an insightful account of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Unlike some other accounts, Matthews’s research includes in-depth reporting from inside the Russian power structures. He ably depicts the Kremlin’s paranoid, nihilist worldview, the suffering it has unleashed, and the still bleaker prospects that await us. 

But half-buried in the book is a scoop, now gaining increasing attention, about a backstairs US-China deal not to “escalate” the conflict. The US administration apparently blocked Poland’s attempt to send elderly MiG-29 warplanes to Ukraine. In return China agreed not to supply Russia with the equipment it desperately needed. It has also, apparently, sternly warned the Kremlin against nuclear escalation. 

This fits the facts. The American flipflop over the MiGs was mystifying. Chinese displeasure at the Kremlin’s recklessness is palpable, belieing the supposed “no limits” Sino-Russian partnership. Vladimir Putin’s war machine has struggled to find the chips, drones, trucks and shells it needs. China could have supplied them in profusion. 

But other factors are in play too. As Matthews notes, China matters far more to Russia than vice versa. Chinese trade with the European Union and United States is $1.5 trillion annually; with Russia it is just one-fifteenth of that. By far the biggest factor weighing on Chinese calculations was the need to prevent even greater strain on its economic ties with the West — and particularly to avoid sanctions. The CCP leadership prizes stability. A breach in the nuclear taboo, or a collapse in the credibility of the US nuclear deterrent shield, could prompt a free-for-all in which countries such as Japan go nuclear. That would not, put mildly, suit China. 

It certainly suits the CCP to be seen as a responsible actor in global security: in the words of Matthews’s source, positioning itself as “our last hope for peace in this world”. Such a posture contrasts sharply with its saber-rattling over Taiwan, its fortification of the South China Sea’s rocks and reefs, and its thin-skinned response to outside criticism. 

Some aspects of this are welcome. No matter the motives, it is better to constrain Putin than to incite him to more violence. But the real story is not of China’s guile or clout. It is about the United States nervously making a deal with a hostile superpower over the heads of its European friends. This has involved stopping one ally, Poland, providing military aid that might have saved Ukrainians from death and destruction. That is part of a bigger story: nine months into the war, it is quite clear that Western efforts are agonisingly slow and stingy; the price has been paid in Ukrainian blood and tears. 

The long-term result is to make China for the first time look like a contributor to European security rather than a threat to it. The message, put crudely, is that if you want to stop the Ukraine war boiling over, be nice to Beijing. Having been given this American-made leverage, the CCP will assuredly use it. 

The West’s China policy should focus on unity, not concessions. This misbegotten exercise in Realpolitik leaves us no safer. The US, for all its military might, prioritized avoiding escalation in a conflict rather than values or victory. That is excellent news for autocrats, less so for allies. 

Blowing Hot and Cold

(First Published in The Times of London)

By Edward Lucas

Russia’s military collapse is accelerating. Now what? 

Heat speeds up decomposition. But in the military, it is cold that corrodes. As the temperature drops, it takes more effort to move about and you get hungrier more quickly. If supplies fail to match need, morale sinks. Desertion, surrender, looting and mutiny all start looking more attractive. Actual fighting, less so. 

In the past, General Winter was Russia’s great ally. But now the cold months are helping Ukraine. Its soldiers are better equipped, better trained, better led, better treated and therefore more highly motivated. Russians, by contrast, are paying the price for their system’s endemic incompetence and corruption. When you are wearing the wrong clothes, the cold bites hard. Just ask the Germans and the French, who invaded Russia wearing their summer uniforms. Modern technology makes things worse: the thermal signature of vehicles, and even human warmth, is more conspicuous to infra-red cameras. Russians suffered from that at the tail-end of last winter, nine months ago. Now it will hurt them again.

Russia badly needs a pause, to regroup and refit, but has little chance of enjoying one: Ukraine is on the front foot now and will press home its advantage. Long-range strikes are having a devastating effect on Russia’s already-flimsy logistics. The longer this goes on, the higher the chance of a Russian military collapse. That will raise the stakes in the power-struggle that is already going on in the Kremlin. It is bad to lose a fight in Ukraine. It is even worse to lose one in Moscow. 

Putin’s options are narrowing. On the battlefield, Russia is redeploying the forces it withdrew from Kherson to reinforce its defensive positions and continue its costly attack on Bakhmut. Newly mobilised forces are arriving. But that is not the real frontline. Modern urban societies cannot survive without water, sewerage and electricity. The Kremlin hopes that their systematic destruction will force Ukraine’s leaders into retreat. I hope our generosity when it comes to supporting Ukraine now, and rebuilding it in the future, matches the easy words of praise uttered for the country’s astonishing resilience.

The Kremlin’s other big hope is that Ukraine’s friends lose interest and cut their supplies of money and equipment. It is true that public support has shifted a little. But Rishi Sunak, Britain’s new prime minister, made a trip to Kyiv his top priority. The supposed isolationist tide in the Republican Party failed to rip through Congress. Left-wing Democrats who turned briefly squishy in their support for Ukraine quickly fell silent. The White House slapped down talk that it was trying to arm-twist Ukraine into talks with Russia. 

This is a dismal outcome for Russia’s vaunted arsenal of “hybrid warfare” tactics. Over the past nine months it has used energy cut-offs, propaganda, cyber-attacks and nuclear sabre-rattling to cow the West. Nothing has worked. Overall, Western countries are stepping up their military and other support for Ukraine. It is much easier to back a winner than a loser.

Yet this is no cause for congratulation. The real question for the West is why it did not support Ukraine more, and earlier. It is also worth remembering how many warnings about Russia’s repressive, aggressive trajectory were ignored, over how many years.

We can see that Russian politics is nearing boiling temperature. A further mobilisation, now being mulled by the Kremlin, may prove the tipping point. Putin, in my view, will not see another winter. The task for the West is to get ready for what comes next, whether it is a junta, a superficially friendly regime, or chaos leading to partial or even full disintegration of the Russian state.


Photo by Ales Krivec on Unsplash

Britain’s image is taking a pounding

(First Published in The Times of London)

By Edward Lucas

International engagement can overwrite the dispiriting narrative of a chaotic and declining country

It is not just the credit-rating agencies. Our closest foreign friends are reassessing our political stability and the strength of our institutions. The verdict is biting. A country that used to be a byword for pragmatism is run by fantasists. Germany’s Der Spiegel calls us “Banana Island”, explaining how we became the “laughingstock of Europe”. The French daily Libération chronicles the latest instalment “in a high-powered exercise of self-destruction” that began with Brexit.

Only recently the world was gawping admiringly at the Queen’s funeral ceremonies. Those days in September now look like the end of an impressive era, not its continuation. “The Queen is gone, you might get Johnson back, we can’t believe it” laments Annette Dittert, a long-serving German television correspondent in London. Russia and China gloat at our discomfort: proof that democracy is a sham. Anglophobes snigger. But for most outsiders, Britain’s meltdown prompts pity, mixed with concern. Our self-deprecating humour is no longer funny.

Yet doom and gloom are only part of the story. I recently chaired a panel of international bigwigs at a conference in Washington, DC. These sprawling discussions can test even a seasoned moderator’s skill and when I learned of a last-minute addition, in the form of Boris Johnson, I groaned. But as we mulled the origins and possible outcomes of the war in Ukraine, the British guest visibly dazzled the politicians and pundits present. I had to pinch myself. They were taking my country, and my former prime minister, seriously.

It was partly personal: none of the other decision-makers on the panel had been to Kyiv so early or so often, or spoken to President Volodymyr Zelensky so much. Johnson’s quips raised laughs, too. But this was no comic turn. What really sticks in foreigners’ minds is not the well-thumbed charge sheet surrounding his departure from office, but that faced with the greatest crisis in European security in living memory, Johnson masterminded what in retrospect may be seen as Britain’s most successful defence intervention since the Falklands.

As Russia’s onslaught loomed, British and American intelligence worked together, with unprecedentedly speedy declassification of secret material, to expose Putin’s plans. When the offensive started, no other country in Europe provided such speedy and effective help, notably £2.3 billion worth of weapons and other equipment, plus financial aid, humanitarian assistance, intelligence, and a highly effective crash training programme for thousands of Ukrainian troops Admittedly, our efforts pale beside the US contribution, roughly seven times as much. Small European countries such as the Baltics have done proportionately more. But Britain’s efforts contrast sharply with German shilly-shallying and France’s empty grandstanding. Ukrainians are hugely grateful. Bate Toms of the British-Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce likens Johnson to Winston Churchill and the Dukes of Marlborough and Wellington in standing up to continental tyrants.

The response to the Ukraine crisis has also underlined Britain’s role as the one big country in Europe that the Americans can really trust. Radek Sikorski, the former Polish foreign minister and member of the European Parliament, says post-Brexit Britain has found an “honourable role”, which is “to do the right thing before the EU has a chance to come to a consensus.”

Some continental friends, like Johnson’s domestic critics, overlook this or doubt his sincerity. The Ukraine policy was just grandstanding. Britain acts as America’s poodle in order not to descend into complete irrelevance. Johnson’s past record on standing up to Russia, especially to dodgy rich Russians, is lamentable. The refugee programme was badly administered. It is also true that Britain’s armed forces are grievously overstretched: deploying even one brigade to Europe for six months would test us to the utmost.

But however skinny the underlying capabilities, and however questionable the motives, in practice Britain has made and is making a profound difference. It is worth reflecting how different things might have been had the peacenik Jeremy Corbyn won the 2019 election. That would truly have had our friends worried.

The lesson from this is that the underlying strengths in Britain’s international capabilities and reputation provide the next prime minister with the means to overwrite the decline-and-fall narrative now filling the headlines. It will require cherishing our clout in global security and wielding it decisively, from boosting cyber-defences to curbing illicit finance and countering disinformation, as well as the decisive exercise of hard military power.

This comes at a price. Part of this is financial. It will be tempting, but mistaken, for example, to cut the overseas aid budget: this spending is justified not only on humanitarian but on pragmatic, influence-boosting grounds. I am less convinced about the headline-grabbing pledge to raise defence spending to 3% of GDP, especially when we find it so hard to spend the existing budget wisely. More effective than splurging money would be to curb our more far-flung aspirations, such as creating a marginal presence in the Indo-Pacific region, and to focus on doing fewer things better. The chief task should be maintaining the security of Europe. This is now in flux, immediately because of a belated awakening to the threat from Russia, and soon because of Germany’s potentially destabilising, but welcome, rearmament. The cost here is political: trimming our ambitions and accepting the realities of geography.

The reputational damage of the past weeks, months and years will be lasting, just as hard slog of recovering our economic strength and political stability is unavoidable. But it need not be fatal.


Edward Lucas writes a column for The Times of London.

Crunch time in the Kremlin

By Edward Lucas

(First Published in The Times of London)

As defeat for Putin looms it’s time to think the unthinkable. The next Russian ruler may be worse! And we are pitifully ill-prepared

Like an ageing mafia boss, Vladimir Putin exudes menace even as his power frays around him.

Make no mistake, the man who has ruled this vast country so ruthlessly for the past 22 years now has his back to the wall. Russians like their Tsars to be wise and all-powerful. Putin is neither. His botched war in Ukraine has shrivelled his reputation. He is out of time and out of options: “increasingly relegated to the past” in the words of Andrey Pertsev, of the opposition media outlet Meduza. 

As the analyst Tatyana Stanovaya notes, “belief that victory is inevitable is fading” among Russian elites. They do not share Putin’s obsession with Ukraine. They do not want nuclear escalation. They worry about their luxurious lifestyles. For years they have tolerated Putin’s bombast and corruption. But they do not want him to take the country over a precipice. 

Ordinary Russians are fed up too. They may share the Russian leader’s nationalist views. But the botched mobilisation has turned the war from a show on television to something that threatens their husbands, brothers and sons with hardship, crippling injuries and death. 

The Russian leader may hang on for days, weeks or months. But this is increasingly looking like his last winter in power. 

For years Putin has seemed irreplaceable. Grateful for order and prosperity after the chaos and humiliation of the 1990s, Russians gave him adoring support.

Even fierce critics like me must concede that no point in history has Russia enjoyed such a long period of relative personal freedom and stability. Russians can travel freely, invest and save as they wish, choose their place of work and where they live — all freedoms that were scarce or unknown under Communism or the brutal autocracy of the Tsarist era. 

For all the corruption, incompetence and brutality of the Putin years, many Russians felt Putin was the only man for the job. 

He was also an effective arbiter in disputes between Russia’s feuding clans. Industries, regions, government agencies and organised crime gangs are in ceaseless competition with each other for power and money. 

With the legal and administrative system plagued by bribery, it is by direct appeal to the top that powerful Russians have the best chance of protecting and enforcing their interests. 

Aloof, seemingly disinterested, and with all the ultimate levers of power in his hands, Putin decides who gets what, who pays what — and, for those who challenge his rule, who ends up in jail or exile. 

But for how much longer? Putin’s current term ends in 2024. Another six-year term is there for the taking — but he needs to look credible.

In Russia’s rigged election system, the winner must triumph over public apathy and cynicism, not political rivals. A botched election campaign risks sparking public protest. 

To put on a good show Putin must start politicking next year — and a failed war is hardly a springboard for a successful launch. 

So what comes next? Succession in Russia can be a messy business — Tsar Nicholas II was removed from power and murdered. Hardliners removed the reformist Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1964. A coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 led to the disintegration of the country. 

Until recently, control of the system was as solid as the secrecy at the top. 

The Russian leader accepts no outside advice, and shares his thoughts only with the tightest inner circle. 

If you think that the British government is made up of third-rate chancers, they seem like paragons of public-spirited virtue compared to the rogues’ gallery that rules Russia. 

We know that those who are even rumoured to pose a threat to the Russian leader — such as secret-police chief Alexander Bortnikov — fall quickly out of favour. But we can only speculate which of these insiders— grey-haired, grey-suited, men steeped in the greed and brutality of Kremlin politics — may wonder if they should wield the knife, and inherit the crown. 

For as Putin’s popularity and authority fray, the unthinkable becomes thinkable. 

How might a change of power play out? One option is that with disaster looming in Ukraine, an ageing and frail Putin decides that a managed departure from office is better than the alternative. The model for this would be how Boris Yeltsin in 1999 abruptly handed over power to Putin, at the time his prime minister for only four months. 

On paper, in the absence of the president the top job must pass to the prime minister. This rule is filled by the discreet and loyal bureaucrat, Mikhail Mishustin. But Putin would want real power to lie elsewhere — probably with his closest friend and ally, Kremlin insider Nikolai Patrushev. 

Hard though it may be to believe, Putin is by Russian standards not the most hardline leader. Lurking on the sidelines of Russian politics is a junta-in-waiting, comprising the thuggish Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, and Evgeny Prigozhin, the sinister mastermind of the mercenary Wagner Group. 

The latest addition to their ranks is “General Armageddon” — Sergei Surovikin, newly appointed by Putin as commander of the Ukraine war. Accused of war crimes in Syria and elsewhere, he could be a potent threat to Putin, especially if he joins forces with other military rebels.As with the Roman empire two thousand years ago, legions returning from ill-conceived far-flung wars can wreak havoc in the imperial capital.

Also in this hardline camp are nationalist ideologues such as the wispy-bearded eccentric Alexander Dugin, and polemicists such as Igor Girkin, who pens blistering critiques of the Russian military’s corruption and incompetence. 

These people do not think the war was a mistake. They just think it has not been properly fought. Kadyrov explicitly advocates the use of nuclear weapons to crush Ukraine and to deter the West. General Surovikin was associated with the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. 

Under their rule, Russia would become a nuclear-armed rogue state like North Korea, bristling with weapons and determined to make trouble. It would also become a full-blown dictatorship at home. 

That could work for a while — but Russia is no longer in the mood to tolerate totalitarian rule. Millions of people would seek to leave for freedom and safety abroad, far more than have fled already. Maintaining effective repression across this vast country with its eleven time zones would be beyond the resources of the Russian state, with its feeble institutions rotted by corruption. 

A hardline dictatorship might last for weeks and months, but it would contain the seeds of its own destruction. This would not be the longed-for democratic revolution, in which jailed opposition figures like Alexei Navalny would receive their much-deserved vindication. 

More likely is that a post-Putin Russia would plunge into chaos as long-festering disputes boil over into armed violence. Regional chiefs who have long chafed at Moscow’s intrusive rule could all too easily try to assert their independence. 

The nightmare is a new Russian civil war — a breakup on the lines experienced by Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In those wars, around 130,000 people were killed and four million displaced. 

But a similar disintegration in Russia would be far worse, not least because the country is also home to the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. 

My prediction is that Russia will not break up — at least not yet. 

It is far more likely that the regime will hold on to power, even with Putin himself gone or sidelined. Even loyal Kremlin insiders would chuck Putin overboard to save their own skins. 

In that case the regime might scramble to find someone a presentable frontman. The popular mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, for example, could help defuse public anger with promises of ending the war in Ukraine and reform at home. 

Any truce, let alone a peace deal, will be painful — but at least Putin, out of office, will be a convenient scapegoat. 

The new guard will also seek to trade on western gullibility and good will. It is all too easy to imagine a new Russian leader telling the West that now is the time for a “reset” — the disastrous gambit pursued by the Obama administration in 2009.

Just drop the sanctions on Russia, arm-twist Ukraine into accepting the loss of territory, and the gas will start flowing again and life can get back to normal. Many pusillanimous European leaders would clutch at straws in the hope of returning to the comfortable world they once knew. 

That would be a terrible mistake. The truth is that our problems with Russia predated Putin. And they will outlast him. While imperialist delusions remain etched into the Russian public mind, the country will never be able to have normal relationships with its neighbours. Nor will it be able to treat its non-Russian linguistic and ethnic minorities with respect.

One thing in all this is certain — change will catch us flatfooted. Over the past 30 years I have watched in dismay and anger as our governments have systematically eviscerated this country’s once-great expertise in understanding Russia. 

Spies, diplomats and analysts with a lifetime’s experience in Kremlinology and other skills, honed by the terrifyingly high stakes of the cold war, were cast onto the scrap heap. Russia was now a friend, our pinstriped masters insisted. Focus on trade, investment and cultural ties if you like, but any attention to the dark side of Russia was a waste of taxpayers’ money.

How foolish that seems now. I can count on the fingers of one hand the experts in our government with serious, deep-rooted knowledge of Russia. I lecture to rooms in Whitehall where I am the oldest by 20 years or more. These bright youngsters with their rainbow lanyards do not lack enthusiasm. But without deep knowledge of Russia’s language, culture and history — and of the Soviet decades before 1991 – it is hard to makes sense of the twists and turns of politics in Moscow. 

And when it comes to dealing with the future of Russia post-Putin, the knowledge is even more threadbare. Who in our government understands the complex regional power dynamics outside Moscow? Who has taken the time and trouble to meet the upcoming generation of regional leaders? 

We need, but lack, a long-term strategy for dealing with a resentful Russia, traumatised by the loss of its empire and facing existential threats from China and domestic separatism.

I tremble when I think of Russia’s future. I tremble even more when I think of how badly we may mismanage it.

Alexander Bastrykin (69) — headstheState Investigative Committee, a blandly named supercharged law-enforcement body notorious for its corruption. A university classmate of Putin’s — and author of a plagiarised doctoral thesis. Hardline Russian nationalist, viscerally anti-Western. Spearheaded the illegal prosecution of Ukrainian prisoners of war. Survived a bomb attack in 2009. 

Alexander Bortnikov (70) — director of the Federal Security Service, the main heir to the Soviet-era KGB.. This sprawling agency has tentacles in every big business in Russia, with huge potential for corruption. Its main task is crushing dissent, and was responsible for the attempted murder of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and probably authorised the murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko. Colleague of Putin’s since the 1970s. Named as a potential assassin of the Russian leader in a Ukrainian intelligence agency analysis in March. Not seen in public since. Key partner for former Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich in a prisoner swap negotiated last month.

Arkady Dvorkovich — A token Western-educated liberal. Could be useful to give a new regime a veneer of reform

Alexei Dyumin Former bodyguard of Putin’s who claims to have saved the Russian leader from a bear attack, rewarded with plum post as regional governor.

Ramzan Kadyrov The thuggish Chechen warlord known for his grotesque cruelty and extravagance. Able propagandist for his crude nationalist views. Thought to have ordered assassinations of Kremlin critics such as journalist Anna Politkovskaya and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. His fearsome militias are among the few dependable fighting forces at Putin’s command. But the hirsute tribal chieftain with a hair-trigger temper has expressed public criticism of the war’s conduct, especially long-serving defence minister Sergei Shoigu.

Dmitry Medvedev Once seen as a reformer when he stood in for Putin as president from 2008-2012. Now a splenetic anti-Westerner who calls Ukrainians “bastards and degenerates”. Says he will do everything to make them “disappear. Widely ridiculed for his lightweight appearance. 

Mikhail Mishustin — low-key prime minister, former tax official.  Highly competent by dire standards of Russian public administration, constitution says he takes over if President is “incapable”, could help stabilise Russia after Putin’s downfall. Could be used to “reset” relations with the West. 

Sergey Naryshkin — Russia’s foreign intelligence service chief. Publicly humiliated by Putin at the start of the latest Ukraine invasion 

Nikolai Patrushev. Security chief, and most likely to succeed Putin if he steps down voluntarily. Known as the “hawk’s hawk” for his ultra hardline views. Ex-KGB colleague of Putin’s (originally rather more senior), steeped in the xenophobic nationalism of the old Soviet secret police. One of the few people the Russian leader listens to — chiefly because his views chime with the boss. Like him mourns the Soviet collapse, ferociously anti-Western, and believes in outlandish conspiracy theories — for example that the West is plotting to break up Russia and steal its natural resources. Long-standing power-broker, now edging into the public eye with lengthy interviews outlining his views. Closed down investigation into the 1999 apartment-block bombings that fuelled Putin’s rise to power. 

Evgeny Prigozhin – Putin’s personal chef and boss of the paramilitary mercenary Wagner Group, a major part of the Kremlin war machine, responsible for atrocities in Syria and African countries. Now allied with Kadyrov, feuding with Shoigu.  Recently posted carefully staged videos highlighting his decisive, capable approach. 

Sergey Sobyanin — popular and competent Moscow mayor, has distanced himself from the war. Could channel anti-Kremlin discontent in the Russian capital.


Edward Lucas writes a column for The Times of London

Troubled bridge over stolen waters

By Edward Lucas

(First Published in The Times of London)

The attack on the Kerch straits crossing is a gamechanger

Once a trophy, now a trap. The attack on the Kerch Straits Bridge this week makes every Russian living on the occupied Crimean peninsula feel uneasy. The pesky Ukrainian yokels are not so ridiculous. They have proved guileful, potent adversaries, able to strike at a distance and seemingly at will. With the half-ruined bridge an unattractive route, thousands of Russians are already leaving by land through occupied Melitopol, according to its displaced Ukrainian mayor, Ivan Fedorov. That vital transport hub is also under threat. With the Kremlin’s war machine already suffering from poor logistics, holding the city now becomes even more important. Russian forces deployed there cannot be used to prop up defences (or counter-attack) elsewhere.

Ukraine’s greatest success is hitting transport systems and depots that supply the invaders’ armies. Soldiers without food, spare parts and ammunition face a choice between surrender, mutiny, desertion or death. Further blows include new attacks on the Antonivsky bridge across the Dnipro — a vital supply line for the Russian forces on the north-west bank of that giant river — and on the railway hub of Ilovaisk in the occupied Donetsk region. Tokmak, the last east-west rail link in the Russian-occupied south, is in range of Ukrainian missiles. Russia’s woes (morale, logistics, numbers, leadership) compound. So do Ukraine’s advantages.

As the military squeeze tightens, watching Russian television has rarely been more enjoyable. The regime’s talking heads were already struggling to explain the loss of territory in recent weeks, the botched mobilisation and previously unheard-of, outspoken dissent. The strike on the Kerch crossing delivers another blow to the bloviators. Built for $7.5 billion (bribes and tax extra) in 2017 the bridge was not just a vital sinew of economic, political and military power. It epitomized Russia’s seizure of Crimea three years earlier, and the personal triumph of Vladimir Putin in restoring Russian greatness.

Not anymore. Putin’s flat-footed announcement of a commission to investigate the attack underlines the Kremlin chief’s impotence: a dangerous impression to give in the ruthless world of Russian politics. Frothing denunciations of “vandals” by the Russian stooge leader in Crimea and claims that a Ukrainian attack on “civilian infrastructure” is a human rights violation (unlike Russian attacks on Ukraine) only underline the Moscow authorities’ shaky grip on narratives around the war. So too does the extraordinary rumour that the attack on the bridge was carried out by elements inside the Russian power structures, perhaps seeking to create an excuse for upcoming defeat.

The mood on television has changed. (Follow Julia Davis on Twitter for English-language translations of these clips). Andrei Kartapolov, a member of Russia’s sham parliament, the Duma, and a retired general, said bluntly, “the lying has to stop”. He compared official reporting of the war to the delusional Stalin-era coverage of 1941.  The bombastic TV host Sergey Mardan conceded that the “amusing, satirical picture” of idiot Ukrainians and bumbling Biden was a mistake. Only true wartime mobilisation will help Russia escape humiliation at the hands of a powerful adversary. A guest on his show, Evgeny Norin, painted the specter of defeat: “Yugoslavia on steroids”, with the breakup of the Russian Federation into ten parts and forced deindustrialisation.

For now, the solution is clear: more strikes on infrastructure. The deputy speaker of the Duma, Piotr Tolstoy, suggests bombing Ukraine back into the 18th century. The promotion of Sergey Surovikin, mastermind of Russia’s massacres and chemical weapons attacks in Syria, to run the Ukraine campaign spells more horror in the coming days and weeks.

But defeat in Ukraine and regime change in Moscow look increasingly likely. The big question is which will come first.


Edward Lucas writes a column for the Times of London

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