Hard numbers: the refugee crisis in Ukraine, Germany could keep nuclear power plants, Guatemala rejects Sputnik V, Australia hit by a “rain bomb”

The first is that the Ukrainians, cornered by the fifth largest army in the world, are fighting a surprisingly tenacious fight from their end of the corridor.

Ukrainian determination and a botched start to the Russian campaign helped Kyiv hold off the Kremlin armies longer than many had expected. This created a big problem for the Russian president. He needed this invasion to be, as the Russian proverb says, “a short and victorious war”. A quick strike in Kiev, and beyond with the work of installing a pro-Russian puppet regime and mending fences with the West.

A quick win like that would have done three important things. This would have minimized civilian casualties and physical destruction, making it easier to capture, control and co-opt Ukraine later.

It could also have blunted Western resolve on sanctions. After a rapid collapse in Kyiv, Europe and the United States might simply have sought to manage a cold peace rather than punish Russia for a hot war.

And above all, it would have made it easier to hide a conflict that may not be popular with the Russian population.

To be fair, aside from the scattered protests, it’s hard to gauge popular Russian sentiment about the conflict so far. But it is telling that the government and state television have gone to such lengths to conceal the extent of what is happening. Official channels focus mainly on Donbass, even as Russian artillery now pound Kiev and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. News programs in Russia do not refer to it as a “war”, which has given rise to a new Russian meme: Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel is now called “Special Operation and Peace”.

Putin now faces a rabid and highly motivated Ukrainian resistance, crippling Western sanctions and the prospect of a conflict far longer than the Russians can tolerate. It’s hard to imagine Putin’s next approval ratings will show a 20-point jump like the one he enjoyed after he bloodlessly annexed Crimea in 2014.

All of this brings us down the hall to the second interpretation of the rat story: in which Putin himself is now locked in a situation that he must escalate in order to survive. After all, to back down now – with Kiev still standing and the internet swooning over Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – would be a humiliation on the world stage. It would also raise uncomfortable questions about Putin’s judgment at home.

The worrying part of it all is that Putin can still escalate this war to terrifying heights. His recent move to put nuclear forces on alert was meant to send a message about the scope for escalation, but experts say Putin still has plenty more conventional firepower to throw at it.

“Most of the Russian military capabilities did not go into this fight,” CNA’s Michael Kofman, one of the leading military analysts of this conflict, told the War on the Rocks podcast recently. “And if that happens, it’s going to get a whole lot uglier than anything we’ve seen.”

As things get worse, the West will come under increasing pressure to enter the conflict more directly. Meanwhile, Russian retaliation with cyberweapons or energy could hurt Western populations in ways they are not fully prepared for.

Putin – cornered and desperate – can inflict immense pain both inside Ukraine and beyond.

How should the world react?

About Charles Holmes

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