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Earth to Vladimir Putin: You’re in a hole — stop digging

Earth to Vladimir Putin: You’re in a hole — stop digging
From left: Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mikhail Metzel / Sputnik / Kremlin / Pool) | US President Joe Biden. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Michael Reynolds)

Russia’s sabre-rattling is unnerving people, even as Vladimir Putin calls up military reserves and threatens shambolic referendums in four Ukrainian provinces partially controlled by his military.

There is a truth universally acknowledged among management gurus that when you are in a deep hole of your own making, the most important thing to do is to stop digging.

Right now, the maintenance staff of the Kremlin should be carrying out a furious search for every pickaxe and shovel in the building to hide them from their current capo di tutti capi, Vladimir Putin.

Unfortunately, Putin has apparently never been given that particular bit of advice, let alone taken it to heart. Instead, he has engaged in a furious round of yet deeper excavations to dig out from the mess he has already made — in engaging in a war of choice — with his invasion of Ukraine.

Let’s put aside the question of why Putin decided to invade in the first place. It has been thoroughly reviewed elsewhere (see below) as a decision rooted in a deeply skewed version of Russia and Ukraine’s history, as well as his assertion of the illegitimacy of any actual Ukrainian nationality.

Inside Vladimir Putin’s head — what it may mean for Ukraine and everybody else

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a far cry from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis

He has repeatedly labelled that nation’s government to be nothing more than a band of thugs, drug dealers and Nazis. Moreover, there have been yet other delusions about how the West would react if he actually ordered an invasion of Ukraine. Simultaneously, if such misapprehensions were not enough, the strategic choices and tactical decisions for this invasion were also deeply flawed.

But in response to the largely unexpected success (at least by the denizens of the Kremlin’s carpeted offices) of a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the northeastern part of the country, reclaiming thousands of square kilometres of territory, and with advances in smaller areas in the south, Putin’s decisions now seem to be that he will keep digging and digging, deeper and deeper into the pit he has already made, rather than effect any kind of course correction.

So far, at least, none of his close associates appears prepared to engage in a serious public disagreement with him over this, even if a small number of lower-level officials and the country’s most popular folk singer have now done so.

Putin’s statement

On Wednesday, Putin’s pre-recorded statement was released, containing the nervously awaited response by him to this recent military setback. Rather than beginning to step back from increasing his commitment to an invasion that could have given the world some respite as the crisis was receding, or unleashing a full barrage of missile-laden destruction on the Ukrainian capital to cow that nation into surrender — an action that would have provoked yet further global isolation — Russia’s leader chose to entrench himself deeper with his current path.

He announced a limited mobilisation of about 300,000 inactive military reserves who would be called up for active duty, presumably to reinforce troops already engaged in the invasion. As he said in that pre-recorded speech, “in such a situation, I consider it necessary to make the following decision, which is fully appropriate to threats we face. Namely, in order to protect our motherland, its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to ensure the safety of our people and people in the liberated territories, I consider it necessary to support the proposal of the defence ministry and the General Staff to conduct a partial mobilisation in the Russian Federation.

“We are talking about partial mobilisation. That is, only citizens who are currently in the reserves and, above all, those who have served in the armed forces, have military skills and relevant experience. Only they will be subject to conscription.”

Further, he asserted that the fighting he had unleashed is really a battle for the survival of Russia, saying “today our armed forces are operating across a frontline that exceeds 1,000km, opposing not only neo-Nazi formations but the entire military machine of the collective West.”

The man does have a way with poetic exaggeration, doesn’t he?

Moreover, his administration would actively support a set of hastily convened referendums in the parts of four provinces his forces now control, to ask the question of whether the inhabitants there wish to be incorporated directly into the Russian Federation. That would magically make any further counter-offensives by Ukraine to recover lost ground effectively an attack on Mother Russia instead.

Nuclear sabre-rattling

Further, he and his acolytes have engaged in some seriously unsettling nuclear sabre-rattling. In his speech, Putin went on to say, “nuclear blackmail has also been used. We are talking not only about the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant — encouraged by the West — which threatens to cause a nuclear catastrophe, but also about statements from senior representatives of Nato countries about the possibility and permissibility of using weapons of mass destruction against Russia: nuclear weapons.

“I would like to remind those who make such statements about Russia that our country also possesses various means of destruction, and in some cases, they are more modern than those of Nato countries. When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we, of course, will use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them.”

Russian leaders seem to be saying that the whole sorry mess is someone else’s fault. Through that accounting, the Western response of a sustained and increasing economic and financial sanctions regimen and supplying military materiel to Ukraine (and thus providing for Ukraine’s battlefield successes) threatens the very existence of Russia. 

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

From that line of argument, Russia’s leadership would be perfectly within their rights — indeed it would be Vladimir Putin’s sacred duty — to make use of Russia’s nuclear arsenal to defend their nation.

One of Putin’s supporters, Sergey Markov, in a BBC interview effectively even threatened Britain’s capital with nuclear weapons if the West continued its aid to Ukraine. 

As The Independent and many others reported it, “Markov claimed UK cities could be a nuclear target for the Russian president and blamed the Ukraine war on the West as he launched into a bizarre rant on British radio. Sergey Markov made a host of unsubstantiated claims — including that Western countries are using Ukrainian soldiers ‘as slaves’ — before shouting down the phone line during his interview.”

Biden’s UN speech

While all this was taking place, US President Joe Biden was attending the traditional opening plenary of the UN General Assembly, where world leaders put their respective two cents’ worth about the state of the world and their governments’ policies. 

biden putin

US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the US-Russia summit in Geneva, Switzerland, 16 June 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Peter Klaunzer)

In his speech, Biden said, “let us speak plainly. A permanent member of the United Nations Security Council invaded its neighbour, attempted to erase a sovereign state from the map. Russia has shamelessly violated the core tenets of the United Nations Charter — no more important than the clear prohibition against countries taking the territory of their neighbour by force. 

“Again, just today, President Putin has made overt nuclear threats against Europe and a reckless disregard for the responsibilities of the non-proliferation regime. Now Russia is calling up more soldiers to join the fight. And the Kremlin is organising sham referenda to try to annex parts of Ukraine; an extremely significant violation of the UN Charter. 

“This world should see these outrageous acts for what they are. Putin claims he had to act because Russia was threatened. But no one threatened Russia, and no one other than Russia sought conflict… Putin’s own words make his true purpose unmistakable. Just before he invaded, Putin asserted — and I quote — Ukraine was ‘created by Russia’ and never had, quote, ‘real statehood’…

“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 make your blood run cold.”

Scramble to leave Russia

Following the announcement of the limited call-up of Russian reserves, in Russia there was a sudden scramble to book seats on every plane, train and bus leaving the country — one way — to any nearby country that allowed Russians to enter without a visa. Presumably this was a pool of young men eager to avoid this call-up or to dodge any further possibilities of a more extensive mobilisation in the future that would include them.

There were even small demonstrations and protests against the war in various cities across Russia, limited efforts to be sure, since direct protests against the war would and have provoked arrests and carried criminal penalties.

What is not clear is whether any new influx of military personnel will make much difference to Russia’s military circumstances in the proximate future. Those called up will need to be trained (or retrained) in current weaponry and tactics, and experts agree this could well take upwards of three months or so — well into the Ukrainian winter where conditions mean active military campaigning becomes that much more difficult.

In the meantime, the West continues to make further commitments of military supplies to the Ukrainian forces, including an increasing number of hi-tech weapons that are allowing Ukrainian defenders to zero in on Russian communications and control centres, logistics and supplies hubs, and infrastructure like bridges needed to transport that materiel to the troops doing the actual fighting.

New level of concern

This barely veiled threat of the possible use by Russia of tactical theatre nuclear weapons (or other, larger nuclear devices aimed at Western cities), however, raises a new level of concern about whether this conflict will — or can — spin even further out of control. And it has raised yet again the question of whether Vladimir Putin is fully in control of his own emotions and decision-making faculties.

This kind of nuclear chest-thumping is almost certainly sending Western policymakers and their strategic specialists to review the thinking about the nuclear escalatory ladder; those analyses set out by strategists such as Herman Kahn in 1960 in his influential study, On Thermonuclear War. It was widely read in the wake of the Cuban Missile and Berlin crises on both sides of the Cold War divide. That volume and others like it are being dusted off right now, no doubt.

Besides the first axiom we cited at the beginning of this article, there is another bit of wisdom that must also be considered in thinking about this Ukraine invasion. That is: all wars end — every one of them. Eventually. The two world wars ended, the Korean conflict reached a durable ceasefire that has lasted for more than half a century. The Vietnam conflict — French and American versions, both — ended. Even the Hundred Years’ War and the Thirty Years’ War eventually ended.


It is important, therefore, to begin thinking through the more likely scenarios of how this war in Ukraine, too, will come to an end. The other day, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman set out three potential scenarios.

Friedman wrote, “yes, it is great that Ukraine is pushing the Russians back some, but can you answer me the question that has been hanging out there since the fighting started: How does this war end with a stable result?

“We still don’t know. As I probed that question in my conversations, I discerned three possible outcomes, some totally new, some familiar, but all coming with complicated and unpredictable side effects:

“Outcome 1 is a total Ukrainian victory, which risks Putin doing something crazy as defeat and humiliation stare him in the face.

“Outcome 2 is a dirty deal with Putin that secures a ceasefire and stops the destruction, but it risks splintering the Western allies and enraging many Ukrainians.

“Outcome 3 is a less dirty deal — we go back to the lines where everyone was before Putin invaded in February. Ukraine might be ready to live with that, and maybe even the Russian people would, too, but Putin would have to be ousted first, because he would never abide the undeniable implication that his war was completely for naught.

“The variance among these outcomes is profound, and few of us will not be affected by which way it goes. You may not be interested in the Ukraine war, but the Ukraine war will be interested in you, in your energy and food prices, and, most important, in your humanity, as even the ‘neutrals’ — China and India — have discovered.”

South Africans should add that it matters to their nation and the rest of the continent as well, and for the same reasons.

We should all be watching closely how well Ukrainians can manage to leverage their current tactical advantage on the battlefield in the next several months before winter sets in, and before any advantage from a new infusion of Russian personnel can alter the balance.

And, of course, we must all be concerned about how, if, and in what way Vladimir Putin chooses to enlarge or close up the hole he is still excavating will affect all the rest of us. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rg Bolleurs says:

    Putin has now dug himself a hole that he can scarcely emerge from without using unclear weapons.

    He has bet the farm on his military operation and this war (I suspect) doesn’t end until Putin is removed from power in Russia

  • David Mark says:

    “our country also possesses various means of destruction” – so not just nuclear then? I wouldn’t be surprised if they had an arsenal of bio weapons as well. It is Russia after all, worth a lower moral or ethical threshold on biological testing, and genetics had come a long way since we’ve learned to splice and dice DNA. Hmmm.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Excellent piece, thank you. Meanwhile, SA scratches its Phala Phala scrotum!

  • Chris 123 says:

    I suspect the only way this ends is when Putin is fed some of his own poison by his military chiefs fed up with losing.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    I suspect that this is not a popular war for most Russians. It might have appeared so to start with but the call-up of conscripts is a game changer for Putin. Those who have not got across the border will not be keen to fight and will not be worth much against motivated Ukranians.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    A very interesting discourse as international politics are not a zero sum game. However, the dynamics within the Baltic states and within Ukraine are not to give an inch to Putin because that would be an incentive to him for more adventurism. The best deterrent according to them is to hand him a defeat in Ukraine whilst diplomatically isolating him internationally. He has come to realise that Indian neutrality as well Chinese support are not guaranteed during the Shangai Cooperation meeting. The US, UK and Europeans are keeping a very hardline and pumping weapons to the much more sophisticated military of Ukraine. They are also providing training and listening to the US, UK and France, there is little room for negotiations. Turkey is the way out for Putin but certain battlefront realities have to exist for Turkey to play a mediator and those
    are very far.
    A ceasefire is impossible without certain conditions precedent in this war. Russia has to accept that they are aggressors and withdraw to certain lines with a solution on Donbass and Luhansk of autonomy within Ukraine not incorporation into Russia or independence. Ukraine may require reparations from Russia and get the foreign reserves in Europe and Us to rebuild its country.
    That is the only possible way out for Russia and they can have sanctions lifted with guarantees of behaviour.
    The threat of nuclear weapons has alway been there as Dmitry Peskov called them in 2014 an equalizer and are not a surprise.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    How is it that one ( insane) man can wield so much power? The US should be learning a lesson from this!

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