Vladimir Putin was already licking his wounds when he turned up in Samarkand last week for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit. Just days earlier, Russian occupying forces in the Kharkiv region had suffered a significant rout when a Ukrainian offensive took them by surprise.
That, in turn, prompted some of the fiercest, ultra-nationalist supporters of the invasion to openly question the Russian high command’s tactics and strategy. That, in fact, has been fairly disastrous from the inception of Putin’s ill-conceived enterprise. Nor are the demands for a military escalation and a national mobilisation novel. What’s new is fears in cities like Belgorod on the Russian side of the volatile border about Ukrainian incursions.
That’s a measure of how poorly the Russian forces have performed over nearly seven months, beginning with a ludicrous attempt to take control of Kyiv. There have also been territorial gains for Russia in that period, and it is far from clear how many of those can militarily be reversed by Ukrainian troops equipped with extraordinary amounts of Western weaponry and, presumably, tactical advice and intelligence. Still, it’s fairly clear that the invaders are on the back foot at the moment.
But if Putin travelled to Uzbekistan expecting some kind of restorative balm for his injuries, he must have been sorely taken aback by Xi Jinping’s private rebuke and Narendra Modi’s public reproach. The words exchanged between Putin and Xi have not been publicised, but the encounter was sufficiently sobering for the Russian president to acknowledge the Chinese leader’s “concerns and questions” about the war. The two had last met in Beijing on the eve of the war, and declared a ‘forever’ friendship. But, contrary to some expectations, that has not involved any supply of weapons from China or assistance from Beijing in defying Western sanctions.
India, on the other hand, has capitalised on discounted Russian oil supplies in the face of pressure on New Delhi from its Western allies to downgrade its long-standing ties with Moscow. At Samarkand, however, Modi bluntly told Putin at a joint press conference: “Today’s era is not an era of war, and I have spoken to you on the phone about this.” Putin responded by saying: “We will do our best to stop this as soon as possible.
Only, unfortunately, the opposing side, the leadership of Ukraine, announced its abandonment of the negotiation process, declared that it wants to achieve its goals by military means, as they say, ‘on the battlefield’.” The obvious irony here is that the battlefield was Putin’s choice. Furthermore, it has also proved to be his comeuppance. Russia’s disastrous military performance has come as a relief to its ex-Soviet neighbours in Central Asia, and facilitated China’s goal to exercise greater influence in that region. Xi visited Kazakhstan before arriving in Uzbekistan and must have been pleased with his reception.
It should hardly be surprising that those Asian republics see Beijing as a far more promising economic ally than Moscow. Back in Moscow, meanwhile, the backlash against the invasion continues to gather force. Some of the most vocal opponents of the war have already moved to the West, and the general public prefers not to broadcast its opinions, given the prospect of massive fines, imprisonment, or worse.
That makes it all the more intriguing that one of the brightest stars in the Soviet and subsequently Russian pop firmament has denounced the “illusory goals” of the aggression, saying it was “turning our country into a pariah and worsening the lives of our citizens”. Alla Pugacheva has been a megastar for decades, and the recipient of numerous accolades from both the USSR and its main successor state. State TV described her a “prima donna of the national stage” on her 70th birthday three years ago. Now, she’s willing to be “added to the ranks of foreign agents of my beloved country”, after her husband was declared as such because of his opposition to the war.
In Russia today, pleas for peace are far more patriotic than the neofascistic demands for escalation, amid fears that a cornered Putin might eventually resort to tactical weapons from his nation’s formidable nuclear arsenal. That would truly be madness, but then, the invasion of Ukraine in the first place was hardly a demonstration of sanity.
The Western role in wooing Ukraine over the years raises innumerable questions, but naked aggression was hardly a reasonable response. It was bound to backfire in various ways, some of them unpredictable. If Putin really wanted to end the war, he could do so tomorrow. The alternative for him is further domestic and international humiliation.
Pugacheva, meanwhile, might draw comfort from the Soviet-era verses of her late compatriot Yevgeny Yevtushenko: “How sharply our children will be ashamed/ taking at last their vengeance for these horrors/ remembering how in so strange a time/ common integrity could look like courage.