by Aris Roussinos
Friday, 28
October 2022
Spotted
14:30

Is Putin scaling down his war aims?

Targeting Ukraine's power infrastructure may be a tacit admission of defeat
by Aris Roussinos
Credit: Getty

As the seasons change, the war in Ukraine has entered a new phase. Following a series of major reverses the Russians are digging in, in the hope that the autumn rains will bog down any further Ukrainian counter-offensives, perhaps allowing time to train and equip their newly-mobilised conscript army for a second push next spring.

In the meantime, Russia’s attention has shifted towards knocking out Ukraine’s electrical grid from the air. Over the past three weeks, waves of cruise missile and Iranian Shahed drone strikes have battered Ukraine’s power infrastructure, damaging or destroying around 40% of its power network, leading to blackouts and outages across the country, including western cities hitherto barely affected by the war. In his nightly address last night from a blacked-out Kyiv, standing next to a downed Shahed UAV, Zelensky asserted: “We are not afraid of the dark. The darkest times for us are not without light, but without freedom.” 

But if the disruption of power supplies continues into winter, it will affect civilian morale, as is no doubt intended. Urging Ukrainians to limit their electricity consumption on Wednesday, Zelensky stated that “Russian terrorists have created such difficult conditions for our energy workers that no one in Europe has ever seen or encountered” but “we need victory over Russia in the energy sphere as well.”

The coinciding of the new bombing campaign with the appointment of the Russian Air Force general Sergey Surovikin, who oversaw much of the brutal and successful aerial bombardment of rebel-held Syrian cities following Russia’s 2015 intervention, has naturally led to speculation that his appointment is an attempt to apply the “Syrian playbook” to Ukraine.

Yet expert analysts urge caution: as the Institute for the Study of War observed, all the Russian commanders overseeing the Ukraine war so far have previously commanded operations in Syria, using much the same methods. In any case:

 Whoever was appointed as theatre commander would have overseen the October 10 cruise missile strikes, which Ukrainian intelligence reported had been planned as early as October 2 (and which Surovikin certainly did not plan, prepare for, and conduct on the day of his appointment).
- Institute for the Study of War

If anything, the surprise is that Russia did not pursue this aerial campaign at the beginning of the war. A “shock and awe” campaign against civilian and dual-use infrastructure, like American bombing of Iraq’s power nodes in 2003, would ordinarily precede a ground offensive. Perhaps the better analogy is with the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, in which the destruction of the electric grid only began after three months of limited success striking military targets. 

NATO spokesman Jamie Shea briefed then that “the fact that lights went out across 70% of the country shows that NATO has its finger on the light switch now… We can turn the power off whenever we need to and whenever we want.” No doubt Putin, who frequently cites NATO’s Kosovo intervention as a precedent, is aiming to send a similar message. But the takeaway lesson is surely that Russia has dialled back its war aims, even as the conflict’s hardships affect a broader swathe of Ukraine’s civilian population.

Back in February, Putin ordered lightly-armed troops to invade much of Ukraine, leaving the country’s infrastructure intact in the seeming belief the war would end in days with a puppet government installed. In destroying Ukraine’s power grid, Putin is signalling, perhaps unintentionally, acceptance that his broadest ambitions will not be realised. Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure is now a target precisely because the country will not become part of Russia’s sphere of influence. The escalation of the bombing is in its own way a quiet admission of defeat.

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Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
29 days ago

If this were any country other than Russia, I’d agree without hesitation, but this is a country that on many occasions has been known to destroy its own infrastructure in addition to its enemies in order to achieve victory. They practically invented scorched earth tactics and have won multiple wars in that manner. They’re more than willing to impoverish their own people, torch their own crops, and blow up their own bridges, so why should they spare anybody else’s. This is Russia being Russia. The better question is what took them so long?

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
29 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

This was when they were being invaded and it was an existential threat to Russia (or the USSR). The only existential threats now are to Ukraine and Mr Putin himself.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
29 days ago

You’re right, but Putin obviously doesn’t agree. He sees NATO expansion as an existential threat, and Ukraine trying to join was what prompted all this. Putin will not stop the war without a neutrality guarantee at the very minimum.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
29 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

No he used that NATO excuse to justify the pursuit of a new Russian empire in the east. Nothing to do with feeling insecure in Russia, just megalomania.

Last edited 29 days ago by Ian Stewart
George Venning
George Venning
25 days ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

He told you that personally did he?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
29 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

What took them so long to do scorched earth? Because they thought Ukrainians were oppressed and really wanted to be part of Russia, that’s why.
And now by using scorched earth tactics they’ve created an eternal enemy on their border and around their access to the Mediterranean; and allied them to the Eastern European countries who are now terrified of similar tactics being used against them. The writer is correct that such tactics, alienating populaces across Eastern Europe, signify an acceptance of defeat in achieving the new Russian empire.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
28 days ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Your assessment is quite correct in a real and strategic sense, but if Putin saw the strategic and political situation more accurately, he wouldn’t have invaded to begin with. Point being he IS a megalomaniac, and that character type rarely admit mistakes and are prone to taking extreme measures to get their way. I admit to playing armchair psychologist here, but it seems to me he’s playing true to his character and using more and more extreme tactics to get his way. It’s a sign of desperation, but hardly an admission of defeat.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
29 days ago

Huge deprivation for Ukrainians this Winter will surely test their morale and their resolve.
Europe must step up to the plate and ensure we are there to provide for their material needs, both civilian and military.

Aaron James
Aaron James
29 days ago

Like the article says – the Russian plan was to leave the infrastructure intact – kill or imprison the corrupt Oligarchs and replace them with other corrupt oligarchs who were not Pro Western, and leave Ukraine as it was, still working.

But no – the West had to get in with about $100 Billion so far, and total real time intelegence, and cause Ukraine to be leveled. The guess is to rebuilding of Ukraine, which the West enabled by turning this into a WWIII, will exceed $ 1,000,000,000,000 A $Trillion! No way will the West pay that.

‘You broke it, you Bought it’ was the policy of a store that sold China and glass things – you break it, you pay for it…

The Biden-Boris Neo-Con warmongers broke it – but their Nations are not going to be so eager to pay for it. You say step up to the plate? You first, dig deep in your savings.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
29 days ago
Reply to  Aaron James

The West hasn’t caused Ukraine to be levelled. The west hasn’t destroyed a single building in Ukraine, or killed a single Ukrainian (or Russian for that matter). All the damage, death and destruction on Ukrainian cities has come from Russian missiles, bullets and artillery. All the West has done is provide weapons to the Ukrainians to defend their land if they choose to, which they clearly do. Do you believe that if China invaded the US then the Americans shouldn’t fight back, as it would involve people being killed and buildings to be damaged?
To try and lay the blame on this conflict on anybody but Putins doorstep is absolute rubbish. It always amuses me that those that proclaim that the West has become weak, feminised, woke, degenerate etc. etc. are also those that are loudly castigating the Ukrainians for bravely fighting to repel an unprovoked invasion.

Last edited 29 days ago by Billy Bob
Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
28 days ago
Reply to  Aaron James

Utter nonsense

martin logan
martin logan
28 days ago
Reply to  Aaron James

You’ve learned the venerable Russian custom of blaming someone else for one’s own stupid decision.

But better stop thinking about Ukraine–and start thinking about Russia.

This is an unmitigated disaster for Russia. Moreover, if a state with many apparently strong institutions like the SU fell, a kleptocracy like Putin’s won’t last past 2023.

And once Putin goes, there’s nothing to hold the country together.

martin logan
martin logan
28 days ago

Nice to have a third of a trillion in frozen Russian assets to help rebuild Ukraine.

No other leader on the planet would have been so thoughtful.

Putin remains a genius!

martin logan
martin logan
28 days ago

It’s also an admission that Putin may not be in power soon. People are already jockeying to replace him..

But the only choice in Russia for eight hundred years has been a single absolute ruler–or absolute chaos.

Putin has ingeniously insured that Chaos will be his only possible successor.

martin logan
martin logan
26 days ago

Putin is a mediocre product of the substandard Soviet system. To expect him, or any of his close advisers to do anything smart, or even rational, is a real stretch.

This isn’t an intelligent change of strategy. Just using now-inadequate tools to achieve the same impossible objective.

As with the mindless, self-defeating attacks on Bakhmut, the robotic Russian state will continue to batter itself on Ukraine, until it shatters into a million pieces.

No other alternative.

Last edited 26 days ago by Martin Logan
steve nola
steve nola
28 days ago

How does anyone know Putin’s ambitions or strategies at all?

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
28 days ago
Reply to  steve nola

Have you not read his books?

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
28 days ago
Reply to  steve nola

These days, survival. The rat knows he’s toast as soon as he weakens

Steve White
Steve White
27 days ago

I believe that you are most probably dead on accurate in your analysis. The problem is that your statement about Putin’s lightly armed attempt at toppling doesn’t fit the Western narrative about Putin, what happened and why. That other official narrative is in control, and any of your thoughts and analysis, accurate or not, won’t be appreciated or accepted by most, even though you had the proper amount of “Putin bad” projection in what you said. We live in the era of the propagandized meat head, informed and thoughtful ideas that don’t feed the official narratives need not apply.

Last edited 27 days ago by Steve White
D Walsh
D Walsh
29 days ago

So the Ukraine still winning bigly then, thanks for the update
They will take back Crimea soon too, thanks
BTW the institute for the study of war is nothing more than a neocon BS operation, don’t believe their lies

Last edited 29 days ago by D Walsh
martin logan
martin logan
28 days ago
Reply to  D Walsh

I believe the maps they publish, which show the area of Russian control shrinking for the last 6 months.

And how about that attack on Sevastopol?

D Walsh
D Walsh
27 days ago
Reply to  martin logan

How about it, its pointless. Crimea is as Russian now as Moscow, Saint Petersburg, or the Donbass
My guess is the kopek will drop for the Ukrainians when Odessa falls, that might take a while, but it will happen
The sooner the war stops the better for the Ukraine, the longer it goes on the more they will lose. the neocons are happy to see Ukrainians die, and their country destroyed, if it means weakening Russia, but Russia will emerge in a stronger position. You just can’t see it yet because you believe the lies told to you by the neocon media, media control is nice

Last edited 27 days ago by D Walsh
martin logan
martin logan
26 days ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Right, Putin is withdrawing from Kherson–to take Odesa! The problem is, Russia never really developed the European way of evidence based analysis. So all they can really do is continue to make irrational apocalyptic prophesies. Look how well “we will bury you” turned out. Russians may eventually be cap able of genuine rational thought and analysis. But it will take a complete revolution in nearly every one’s thinking. For now they haven’t even made it into the 12th C. Pretty sad, really.

D Walsh
D Walsh
26 days ago
Reply to  martin logan

If you want to believe the Russians have withdrawn from Kherson thats fine, but its just not true
its people like you who are irrational

Cameron Sawyer
Cameron Sawyer
24 days ago
Reply to  martin logan

“European way of evidence based analysis”? Come again? Remember the press coverage of the Iraq War? We are living in the same dense fog of propaganda that we were living in back then. The West distorts reality just as well as the Russians do; we have no better a relationship with truth and facts than they do.
Let’s take the so-called Russian withdrawal from Kherson as an example. Where is the “evidence” for an “evidence-based analysis” of that? The press is full of reports of Russians running away from Kherson, but the facts are that, at least for the moment, the Russians are on the contrary pouring troops and equipment INTO, not out of Kherson, and building, not abandoning fortifications. I believe that the Ukrainians have the forces to take Kherson from the Russians at the moment, but the Russians are not indeed “running away” — that’s a meme, based on wishful thinking, which the press try to read into non-existent facts. And the window of opportunity for the Ukrainians to take Kherson, at least this season, may be closing. The Russians are advancing on Bakhmut and on Liman and the Ukrainians are transferring forces away from the fronts where they were previously advancing — the North of Luhansk Oblast’ and the Kherson front — to defend. The situation could change again, but at the moment the Russians, far from “running away”, “floundering” etc., as we read everywhere in our press, are actually regaining the initiative.
The main point is that what we read is vastly more optimistic than what the actual facts support, driven either by wishful thinking (readers want something upbeat; more monetized clicks) or intentional manipulation to keep up support for the war and to politically justify the tens of billions of spending on it. Ukraine is being destroyed, on an unimaginable scale, and there is no sign that this destruction is going to stop anytime soon. We bear a great deal of the responsibility for that.
As another example, how about: “Don’t worry; the Russians are running out of missiles/their missiles are all duds/the Ukrainians are shooting them all down” — remember that? We’ve been hearing that since almost the beginning of the war. More “evidence-based analysis”? No, yet more propagandistic and/or wishful thinking sludge which is contradicted by facts every single day these days. The Ukrainians themselves make fun of this nonsense — the other day, it was reported that the Russians launched 50 cruise missiles, 44 of which were shot down, but that 18 major electrical power infrastructure facilities were destroyed in the attack, which adds up, with the previous weeks of missile attacks, to cumulative destruction of 40% of Ukraine’s electrical power infrastructure — according to Zelensky. One Ukrainian soldier (93rd Brigade “Cold Yar”) wrote in his Telegram channel — “Wonder missiles the Russians have, eh? 6 missiles destroyed 18 objects?” The Ukrainians themselves don’t believe this ridiculous nonsense, but the Washington Post and the NYT does. We shouldn’t. The situation is much worse than it seems, from reading our press, and getting only worse.

Last edited 24 days ago by [email protected]