From the moment Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, launched his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, there has been a distinct feeling of unease among some Western leaders at the prospect of Ukrainian forces attacking targets on Russian soil. While the Russians have shown no qualms about targeting Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure, the Ukrainians have been actively discouraged from responding in kind for fear of provoking a wider escalation in the conflict.
This twisted logic has meant that, even though Russia has maintained its relentless assault on the Ukrainian people, Western allies have been reluctant to provide weaponry that would enable Ukraine to take the fight to Russia.
The provision of long-range Western missile systems is a case in point. After some hesitancy, the US, Britain and other allies eventually agreed to give Kyiv missiles, such as the American HIMARS, but on condition that they were only used to target Russian military operations in Ukraine. The imposition of such restrictions on these and other weapons has placed the Ukrainians at a distinct disadvantage compared with their Russian foes.
No one is advocating that the Ukrainians resort to committing war crimes, as the Russians have done repeatedly during the past year, by targeting Russian civilians. But a number of recent incidents suggest that Ukrainian commanders are no longer prepared to tolerate the constraints placed on them by their Western allies, and are seeking to take the fight well beyond their borders.
At the weekend, Moscow suffered the humiliation of having a £274 million spy plane blown up in Belarus, supposedly by pro-Ukrainian Belarusian partisans. Then there was this week’s reported Ukrainian drone attack against a gas facility on the outskirts of Moscow, hundreds of miles behind Russian lines.
Such acts of sabotage are modest compared with the constant bombardment the Russian’s have carried out against Ukraine’s infrastructure. But with the war at a critical juncture, Ukraine is clearly seeking to extend its operations, a development its Western allies should encourage, not hinder.
For all Putin’s attempts to portray the conflict as a great national struggle, the reality is that the war continues to go very badly for the Russian leader. With the number of Russian deaths and casualties said to have reached the 200,000 mark, it is estimated that Moscow has suffered more combat fatalities than it experienced in all the wars it has fought since the Second World War.
That figure, moreover, is likely to rise significantly if Putin continues to sacrifice the lives of tens of thousands of raw conscripts by resorting to tactics last seen on the blood-soaked battlefields of the First World War. In recent weeks, as Russian forces have launched a counter-offensive to capture key cities in eastern Ukraine such as Bakhmut, they are believed to have lost a staggering 40,000 soldiers.
This time last year, a combination of poorly trained and ill-equipped Russian forces, combined with the inhospitable Ukrainian terrain, meant that the much-vaunted military offensive suffered an ignominious defeat. And there is every likelihood the Russians will suffer a similar fate this year as, despite the constant changes in military command and the recruitment of hundreds of thousands of conscripts, they seem determined to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Yet, with the state-controlled Russian media making no mention of the true scale of the losses, the Russian public are unaware of the true extent of the disaster that is befalling their country. Instead they are treated to the grotesque spectacle of pro-Putin supporters seeking to romanticise Russia’s role in invading Ukraine, as was evident from the carefully choreographed rally held at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium to mark the first anniversary of the war.
Another concern must be the increasingly erratic behaviour of Putin himself who, when not travelling around the country in a special armoured train on secret railway tracks, reportedly spends his time at his palatial mansion on the outskirts of Moscow, cavorting with his long-term lover, a former Olympic rhythmic gymnastics champion.
If the Russian people truly understood the scale of the calamity facing their country, it is unlikely that they would tolerate the antics of their president, nor the incompetence of his military commanders.
By taking the war deep within Russia’s borders, the Ukrainians are demonstrating to the Russian people in graphic terms that Putin’s so-called “special military operation” is not going as well as he would like them to believe.
Such a strategy is not without risk. Russian efforts to demoralise the Ukrainian people by constantly attacking the country’s infrastructure have ultimately proved counterproductive, as they have only served to strengthen the Ukrainians’ resolve. But if Ukraine is ultimately to prevail in the conflict, the Russian people need to understand that, despite Putin’s claims to the contrary, they are fighting a war they have no chance of winning.