Raising the stakes in the war. Why Putin is sending in his old tanks and how his strategy differs from China’s – Ilya Shablinsky on the important events of the past week
Photo by Sergei Chugunov

27 March 2023

by Ilya Shablinsky

Source: Spektr.Press

The Russian dictator has decided once again to raise the stakes. Either for the morale of his generals, or for his mass audience – the consumers of propaganda shows. He said – in an interview with the Rossiya-24 TV channel – that he would be basing tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory at the request of the Belarusian dictator. Putin said specifically that he was talking about nuclear-capable Iskander missile systems and missiles or bombs for Belarusian strategic bombers. And furthermore, the construction of a storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus will be completed in July.

It is clear that this is a new form of nuclear blackmail. Although, in essence, nothing particularly changes. The same Iskanders and strategic missile-carriers have long been deployed in Kaliningrad region. But they think this news will cheer up the residents of Belarus. Their leader regularly promises that the country will not be drawn into war. And now it turns out that the country is destined to play the role of a nuclear storage facility and be the first line of defence in a global war. That is, as it was in the war long past.

Putin’s threat has been made in the context of news that has been hotly debated on Russian propaganda shows that Britain has promised to supply Ukraine with armour-piercing shells with depleted uranium cores. Generally speaking, these are anti-tank weapons. Uranium is a very dense metal, and such shells are capable of penetrating any armour. Such ammunition is in the arsenals of various armies, including the Russian army. But this is not the point at the moment. It’s just that this was chosen as the pretext for a new threat.

At the same time the Russian dictator promised 1,500 tanks, both ‘produced and modernised.’ He should have clarified: Obviously, he has in mind the old T-62 and T-55 tanks that have been standing outdoors for about 50 years, which have already been spotted at railway stations, crawling towards Ukraine.

Putin promised to throw it all these into the fray and called Ukraine’s allies ‘warmongers.’ It should be recalled that a year ago, when he announced that Russian troops were being sent into Ukraine, the start of a war of aggression, he did not mention any other warmongers. Of course, back then, as we all remember, he was in a different mood.

Why did Putin need to raise the stakes again and threaten with everything he has at his disposal?  Apparently, for the reason that the Russian army’s offensive in the Donbass has stalled. And this has become obvious.   

The fact is that the Russian army has achieved no successes in recent weeks, despite its advantage in manpower and numbers of artillery. Tough battles have been taking place around and inside Bakhmut, the shelling of Avdiivka and Marinka continues. The head of the Wagner PMC, Evgeny Prigozhin, commenting once again on the situation on the battlefields, recently expressed assurance that his units control either 50 per cent or 70 per cent of Bakhmut. The Russian Ministry of Defence continues to report rather monotonously how much military equipment belonging to the Ukrainian armed forces has been put out of action (in total, it turns out, this equipment would be enough for a couple of American armies, no kidding). These reports say nothing at all about the successes of the Wagner units. In the history of Russian wars this is almost for the first time. In addition to the regular units, to the regular army under the command of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, there is also ‘another army’ at the front line which has its own command structure, but which is really a private individuals who take it upon themselves to speak out aggressively about the General Staff and the Ministry of Defence. The head of this ‘other army,’ it has to be said however, is very close to the head of state – I should like to write ‘socially close.’

Of course, the so-called ‘private military campaign’ is in no way private and is financed, at least in part, from the state budget. But the management of this structure has indeed been given over to a group of individuals outside the structures of the Ministry of Defence and practicing their own specific managerial methods. In some circumstances, such as during the continuous assault of defensive fortifications on narrow sections of the front, these methods might have seemed quite effective.  But now it seems that the ‘other army’ is just as stalled as the regular army. And still one of the recurring themes is the great offensive of one of the armies in April-May. We certainly condemn with all our hearts and minds this criminal move by the criminal regime.

In some circumstances, for example, during the continuous assaults on defensive fortifications on narrow sections of the front, these methods could probably have seemed quite effective.  But now it seems that the ‘other army’ is just as stalled as the regular army. But one of the recurring themes remains as before that of a major offensive by one of the armies in April and May.

To offset the lack of success in the Donbas, Russian missiles are once again striking civilian infrastructure in Zaporizhzhia, Оdеsa, Kyiv Oblast (the town of Rzhyshchiv). It appears that video cameras have for the first time caught the actual moment an “incoming” missile hit a 12-storey residential block. The blast destroyed several flats and caused a fire in that block and a neighbouring one. The number of casualties is still being verified. In Odesa, an explosion ripped through buildings in the grounds of a monastery belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). In Rzhyshchiv, a military drone attacked the student hostel of the local vocational school. Nine people are so far known to have died.

On now to the event that must be the most important of the past week. From 20-22 March, President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping was Putin’s guest in Moscow. One of the first questions that arises in this regard is why did Xi, who was clearly aware of Putin’s weakened and vulnerable position, agree to accept the Kremlin’s invitation and come to Moscow? Possibly, Xi had resolved to draw maximum benefit from both the Russian leader’s weakness and his own courtesy. The visit took place at the precise moment the Russian host most needed his Chinese guest. And that was the very time that guest could seek maximum concessions. On what? Let’s say the price of the Russian oil and gas that are already being supplied to Chinese firms at a discount. It’s not known which ones exactly. The sides are currently engaged in discussions over construction of a second gas pipeline, Power of Siberia 2. It’s true that China’s precise contribution to the construction and the route of the pipeline remain undecided. There might also have been talk about other important aspects of expanding the presence of Chinese firms on Russian markets.

But, of course, the issue is not only, nor even primarily, the fact that this is a clearly convenient moment for economic trade. Not everything should be boiled down to this. I think the political significance of the visit should be in pride of place. Xi undoubtedly realises a certain commonality of political and life principles – his own and those of the Russian leader. Yes, yes, life principles as well. Xi Jinping has rejected the 30-year-old tradition whereby Chinese leaders left their office every 10 years. Putin discarded the constitutional rule that bans presidential office being held for more than two consecutive terms. There’s a reason why Xi wished him success in the 2024 elections. They both see themselves as omnipotently in charge of their countries, they could each impart a monarchical character to their authority. For both, the main aim is to satisfy their own vanity, the basis of propaganda being adjusted to fit. Two dictators of two immense countries, reflecting on their historical probity. Xi probably likes Putin. A liking with perhaps a touch of condescension but that doesn’t matter just now. Pundits are saying that Putin is becoming a Chinese vassal. Of course, it’s not quite like that. Although there is something of a vassalage relationship in it. And wishing Putin victory in next year’s election smacks somewhat of the ancient letters that granted permission to rule a princedom… Xi is probably thinking that it will be very convenient to have Putin to hand in the process of confronting the arrogant Americans. It will strengthen Xi’s negotiating position.

It’s true that here lies a substantive difference in the strategies of the two dictatorships. China is not in any way seeking confrontation with the USA but more advantageous conditions for economic expansion onto the American market. A more or less clear and precise recognition of its rights to Taiwan as, naturally, an inalienable part of China. And the visit by Nancy Pelosi is by no means forgotten. True, to achieve these goals, there is absolutely no need to pound ground targets in the vicinity, say, of Taipei, with missiles. Whereas Putin has got himself into a mess. He’s gone in and is in a mess. And Xi is perfectly well aware of this. He might have recalled, but of course he didn’t, that way back in 1979 China too went into a wilful neighbouring country, also regarded as practically fraternal: Vietnam. But having fought for just over three months and making little real headway into the provinces of North Vietnam through fierce fighting, China decided enough was enough. It stopped while it was ahead. The operation’s objective was considered to be the punishment of Vietnam’s leaders for seizing Kampuchea. But it wasn’t entirely clear. And now barely anyone talks about an aggressive China. Everyone has already forgotten that distant historical event.

Xi, of course, did not confidentially share with Putin the lessons of that somewhat inglorious war. But, nevertheless, there was a certain secret side to their talks. Putin really needs supplies of arms and ammunition from China and to date there has been no answer as to what position Xi took on this. And that was, probably, the crucial issue at these talks. One way or another, when some time has passed, it will become clear. Large-scale supplies of hardware and missiles in today’s world cannot go unnoticed. 

But let us try at least to guess what Xi might have said here. More than likely, he gave some evasive answer. And more than likely, he would be prepared to offer some moderate, measured support. Drones, maybe. To make the United States a little nervous but not quarrel with them.

After this visit, Russia and China did not become allies in the full sense of the word. Being allies assumes a readiness to bear responsibility for one’s ally’s actions and to defend them should it be necessary. We see this in the example of the NATO countries and Ukraine. No, China has not supported Putin’s adventure. Although it has not condemned it either, as we see. In any case, for Putin this was a definite diplomatic success, shall we say. Yes, we have to admit that much.

China is not going to be any kind of peacemaker in the ongoing war, of course. Having the war smolder is even to its advantage. But not actually burst into flames. China’s position on the matter of settling the crisis is, to be honest, an array of empty commonplaces. A copout. Diplomats and presidents can’t say that, but we can.

In the domestic politics of the dictatorial regimes everything remains as before, and malicious violence has perhaps even increased.

On 21 March, searches were conducted in the apartments of more than 10 associates of the formally liquidated Memorial society, including in the homes of Yan Rachinsky, Oleg Orlov, and Nikita Petrov. The police acted intentionally crudely, would not let the lawyers in, and confiscated all electronic gadgets and data storage devices. After the searches, everyone was taken away for questioning. Criminal charges were brought against the organization’s director, Oleg Orlov, under Article 280.3, Part 1, of the Russian Criminal Code: ”Public actions aimed at discrediting the use of the Armed Forces.” The formal pretext for the new attack on the organization was a case opened under Article 354.1 of the Russian Criminal Code: “Rehabilitation of nazism.” Truly, they could not have found more insane grounds if they tried, but this is exactly what was needed for propaganda.

The case was opened supposedly on the basis of a statement by a veterans organization that fished out of the list of victims of Stalinist repressions compiled by Memorial the names of a few people who were convicted not only of ‘counterrevolutionary crimes’ under Article 58 but also as individuals who collaborated with Hitler’s Germany during World War II. There is no way to verify the biographies of these people or the details of the acts they’ve been incriminated for, inasmuch as the FSB [Federal Security Service] long ago closed the archives and denied Memorial access to them. And in the scheme of things, this is not about verifying biographies. What the regime is now undertaking against the organization and its leaders, Orlov and Rachinsky, is an act of vengeance postponed. I think what irritated the president’s administration most was Yan Rachinsky’s Nobel speech, which he delivered in Stockholm on 10 December 2022. I think very few are familiar with that speech. In it, there is a very important section: “Indeed, in order to pass off aggression against a neighbouring country as ‘fighting fascism,’ it was necessary to twist the minds of Russian citizens by swapping the concepts of ‘fascism’ and ‘anti-fascism.’ Now, the Russian mass media refer to the unprovoked armed invasion of a neighbouring country, the annexation of territories, terror against civilians in the occupied areas, and war crimes as justified by the need to fight fascism. Hatred is incited against Ukraine, its culture and language are publicly declared ‘inferior,’ and the Ukrainian people are deemed not to have a separate identity from Russians. Resistance to Russia is called ‘fascism.’ Such propaganda absolutely contradicts the historical experience of Russia and devalues and distorts the memory of the truly anti-fascist war of 1941-1945….”

Only very brave people can speak this way in December 2022 and remain in the country.

I think the answer to the question of why they attacked Memorial again is clear. They held 64-year-old Yan Rachinsky in the paddy wagon for several hours before his questioning. Yes, they decided to postpone vengeance for three months. 

Aleksei Navalny was sent to a punishment cell for the twelfth time. Do you know what a punishment cell is? I had occasion to inspect one — no, not to spend a day or a night, but nonetheless. It’s a tiny room with concrete walls. There’s a narrow bench and a narrow table. Reveille is at five in the morning, and over the course of the day you are only allowed to sit on this metal bench, which is extremely uncomfortable to sit on. You can’t even drop your head into your hands — that’s a violation of discipline and another term in the punishment cell. In the winter and spring it’s usually dark and dank there, and in the summer stuffy and sweltering. In general, we know what these endless punishments mean, we know what their goal is.

But Aleksei Navalny is holding on and sometimes through his lawyers gets his opinion out to the gloomy country. His single combat with the regime continues.

In Minsk, the court sentenced Gennady Mozheiko, a journalist for Komsomolskaya Pravda, to three years’ prison for a publication about the attempt to arrest programmer Andrei Zeltser, who met the KGB officers with gunfire, killed one of them, and was himself killed. The short item quoted the opinion of his classmate Andrei, who spoke positively of him. The item was on the newspaper’s site for seven minutes before the editor deleted it, but that was enough for a criminal case. Komsomolskaya Pravda is a pro-regime newspaper, but even for its employees, deviating by a millimeter from the propaganda directives in shedding light on a fact of open resistance to the secret police is guaranteed prison. 

Many details remained unclarified in this case. Nonetheless, though, I think they are installing some kind of memorial plaque on the building where Andrei lived, in memory of someone who dared stand up to the dictatorship.

Events have led us to a new stage in the war and a new stage in the existence of aggressive authoritarian regimes. A good case can be made for a strong correlation.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove, Melanie Moore and Marian Schwartz

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