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The turning of the tide ....?

A month into Putin’s bloody campaign, which morphed from lightning victory to war of attrition, yet another change could be in prospect – that his overwhelmingly larger army could actually be defeated. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, western leaders scarcely dare hope, but are starting to wonder.

At the height of World War Two, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, Stalin was trying to defend its capital, Kyiv, from the German advance.

When his State Security Commissar told him of high-grade intelligence that an attack was imminent he said: ‘You can tell your source he can go and f**k his mother.’

Stalin’s insistence he knew best resulted in calamitous defeat for the Red Army and the loss of more than half a million troops.

So far, Putin has lost no fewer than five of his generals. As well as many thousands of soldiers and huge quantities of equipment.

The parallel is self-evident. Both Russian leaders surrounded themselves not with the brightest and best but with toadies and yes-men.

It was one of that latter number who told Putin what he wanted to hear, that taking Ukraine would be a walk in the park.

As a result, the President’s deluded view of the world outside the Kremlin has held sway until it collided with the stark reality of heroic, and lethal, Ukrainian resistance.

And Eliot Cohen, a professor at the Washington-based Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, is convinced the Russians are losing their war.

The level of casualties, both in men and machinery, is enough, he argues to render most units combat ineffective.

What’s more, having already committed well over half their entire force to the fight, they haven’t got much to fall back on.

Then there’s the question of whether horrendous images of shattered hospitals, dead children and wrecked apartment blocks tell the true story in military terms.

They don’t, according Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at Scotland’s prestigious University of St Andrews.

‘To put it most starkly,’ he says, ‘if the Russians level a town and slaughter its civilians, they are unlikely to have killed off its defenders.

‘They will do extraordinary and effective things from the rubble to avenge themselves on the invaders.

‘That is, after all, what the Russians did in their cities to the Germans eighty years ago.’

And it may be this is why all of a sudden Russian officials started swearing blind they were only ever going for easy bits of the country, not major cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv.

Oh really? Wholesale destruction everywhere was just a bit of fun? And all that slaughter of defenceless women and children just their way of having a laugh?

Of course western analysts are sceptical, given Putin’s interesting relationship with words.

To ordinary, decent, folk they tend to be a useful mechanism for conveying accurate information.

For Putin they’re merely a dispassionate tool, like a hammer. You can use it to fix your furniture, or beat your neighbour’s brains out. It’s all one.

Anyone who’s ever watched a spy movie will know deception is what these guys do. In Putin’s case it runs through his veins.

You can take the man out of the KGB, but you can’t take the KGB out of the man.

As the decades have passed the James Bond character has become progressively less of an inhuman predator. But Putin’s started from a very low base point.

When his first wife suffered severe skull and spine injures in a car crash in the 90’s he did go to the hospital and did check with the doctors that she’d recover.

‘Are you sure?’ he asked. They said yes. ‘So I left,’ he told journalists. No softie then. Begs the question whether he’s fussed one way or the other about wrecking Ukraine.

He might get a little bit upset though about his own consiglieres turning on him. That might be wishful thinking, but could yet be a runner, thanks to western sanctions.

Of course Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky wishes there were more of them, but the package is still the biggest, boldest and most speedily assembled ever.

But it’s not just hitting the smallish bunch of kleptomaniacs, so admired by Putin, who’re inconvenienced by having their superyachts impounded.

Nor does it stop at the tech-savvy metropolitan Muscovites who aren’t taken in by the nonsense about denazifying Ukraine and are taking their leave in droves.

Far more importantly, the people Putin really needs are also feeling the pinch. And aren’t liking it at all.

Officers of the spy agency the FSB, basically the rebranded KGB, are often referred to as Russia’s ‘new nobility’ because of the panoply of perks that go with the job.

Or, rather, went.

They’ll keep their big fat salaries and extra nice apartments, but the sanctions have cost them their villas in Italy and trips to Disneyland in Paris. And the rest.

As a result, according to a whistleblower who’s at the heart of the action, there’s a growing possibility they’ll mount a coup.

This inside track info has been passed on to Vladimir Osechkin, who fled to France after he exposed abuse in Russian prisons and now runs a human rights group.

‘For twenty years Putin created stability in Russia,’ he says. ‘FSB officers, policemen, state prosecutors — those people inside the system — were able to live good lives.

‘But now that has all gone. They recognise that this war is a catastrophe for the economy, for humanity. They don’t want to go back to the Soviet Union.’ So, he adds:

‘For every week and every month that this war continues, the possibility of a rebellion by those in the security services increases.’

Mr Osechkin’s source material has been judged authentic by several Russian security experts, including the man who correctly identified the Salisbury poisoners.

Little wonder he not only says his informant took ‘a very big risk’ in sharing what he knows, he’s also drawing up plans to get him evacuated.

At the same time, pressure on Putin is intensifying.

There’s a theory he finds it handy that many people think he’s a bit crazy. Mad enough therefore to press the nuclear button and destroy all humanity, including himself.

But there are now signs that the US President is ready to go at least some way to calling his bluff.

After dropping plans to drastically scale down American overseas assertiveness, Joe Biden is now saying he’d use nukes first, in ‘extreme circumstances’.

This abrupt change of tone comes after allies at home and abroad have leant on him, hard and long.

It ups the stakes considerably, and scarily. But then again, Putin isn’t one to listen to what people say, only what he fears they might actually do.

And, what with his despondent soldiers, angry spies, and potentially unpredictable inner circle, he looks to be caught – just maybe – in a very nasty pincer movement.

Couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke, eh?

Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.


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