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Could a concerned Vladimir Putin lash out after mass surrender of his troops asks David Patrikarakos

Two months ago, my work as a conflict journalist took me to Kharkov in northeastern Ukraine. More than a million people once called it their home, but today it is known as ‘the city of broken windows’.

Now largely abandoned, many of the buildings had been pulverized by the relentless Russian bombardment.

Despite Vladimir Putin’s inhumanity, the Ukrainians I spoke to remained optimistic that they would prevail. And yes, their courage was humble: yet few of them might have foreseen how quickly the events surrounding Kharkov would unfold.

In recent days, a daring and bravado Ukrainian counterattack has led to the massive surrender of Russian forces throughout the Kharkiv region.

In a Ukrainian lightning strike, his troops have liberated village after village and reclaimed what President Zelensky says is an astonishing 2,317 square miles of territory — an area roughly the size of Lincolnshire.

A Ukrainian soldier stands on a tank in the middle of the road in the Kharkiv region after troops took back a large swath of territory from Russia on Monday

A Ukrainian soldier stands on a tank in the middle of the road in the Kharkiv region after troops took back a large swath of territory from Russia on Monday

Governor Oleg Sinegubov speaks with journalists after Russian forces withdraw from Balakliya, Kharkiv

Governor Oleg Sinegubov speaks with journalists after Russian forces withdraw from Balakliya, Kharkiv

Governor Oleg Sinegubov speaks with journalists after Russian forces withdraw from Balakliya, Kharkiv

It unfolds just 20 miles from the Russian border and is a stunning blow to both Moscow’s prestige and military planning. So what to make of Russian troops simply fleeing, leaving behind their Soviet-era military hardware, evidence that they used Iran-provided drones and their charred and abandoned tanks?

And what about reports that so many Russian soldiers have been captured recently – including a large number of officers – that Ukraine is running out of space to hold them? Well, some of this may be propaganda. But there is no doubt that these latest developments in and around Kharkov are a disaster for Putin. Even his Kremlin lick beards struggle to turn the news into something positive.

Yesterday, Russian military leaders admitted that their troops had left three key cities – Balakliya, Izyum and Kupiansk, all in Kharkov province.

It was an acknowledgment that would have been unthinkable three months ago, as was a politician’s remarkable proclamation on Russian state television Monday night.

Ukraine would never be defeated, Boris Nadezhdin declared, and Putin had been misled by his officials. As such, he continued, peace talks were the only way forward.

As with anything spouted from Russia’s servile Putinitic media, we cannot just accept Nadezhdin’s comments. It’s possible they were a Kremlin-approved ploy to test public opinion.

Nevertheless, it is very important that peace talks are openly discussed in Russia. Even the Kremlin’s army of online trolls – typing regime propaganda into chat rooms and Internet forums – began whispering about withdrawal.

All of this suggests a real tipping point in this scorching conflict. Hidden in his bunker, Putin must be feeling the pressure. The dictator knows that the limited gains made by his army over the past six months have come at a terrible cost. He could hardly have imagined the magnitude of the losses suffered by his troops.

David Patrikarakos: 'The big question, however, is what Putin will do next.  None of his options are ideal.  His preferred tactic just ignoring information he doesn't like will no longer do'

David Patrikarakos: 'The big question, however, is what Putin will do next.  None of his options are ideal.  His preferred tactic just ignoring information he doesn't like will no longer do'

David Patrikarakos: ‘The big question, however, is what Putin will do next. None of his options are ideal. His favorite tactic – simply ignoring information he doesn’t like – will no longer work.”

Of the original 200,000-strong force assembled by the Kremlin for the February invasion, the Pentagon estimates that up to 80,000 were killed or wounded.

That is tens of thousands of soldiers who are sent home in body bags or on stretchers, instead of parading through Kiev in a victory parade. To this grim toll the Russian propaganda machine must now add desertion and withdrawal.

The big question, however, is what Putin will do next. None of his options are ideal. His favorite tactic – simply ignoring information he doesn’t like – will no longer work.

Putin’s second option has continued to lie, claiming that his withdrawal from the Kharkiv region is a “regroupment” aimed at concentrating troops in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine. That might suffice as an excuse, but not for long.

David Patrikarakos: 'Of course Putin retains one last chilling threat: the use of nuclear weapons, whose deployment he has threatened from the start of the conflict'

David Patrikarakos: 'Of course Putin retains one last chilling threat: the use of nuclear weapons, whose deployment he has threatened from the start of the conflict'

David Patrikarakos: ‘Of course Putin retains one last chilling threat: the use of nuclear weapons, whose deployment he has threatened from the start of the conflict’

Third, he will do what the Russian military always does when it finds itself in a tight corner: take it out on the civilian population. This was the tactic Putin used so devastatingly in Syria, when Russian forces almost forgot the city of Aleppo.

The ‘Aleppoization’ of Ukrainian cities in the south and east is already in full swing. Russian missiles have crushed infrastructure in Kharkiv so relentlessly that large parts of the remaining civilian population are now without water and electricity.

Putin does not blush at such brutal war crimes, and there is already a mountain of evidence of mass graves and torture in areas of Ukraine liberated from the Russians. I have no doubt that more atrocities will surface in Kharkov.

President Zelensky has said that if his people had the choice of living under Putin’s boot or having no water and electricity, they would choose the latter.

Of course, Putin retains one last chilling threat: the use of nuclear weapons, the deployment of which he has threatened from the start of the conflict.

The White House takes this possibility seriously, noting that every Russian military exercise of an invasion of the Baltic states involved a nuclear scenario.

But I think this is the least likely course of action. Putin may be a despot, but he is a pragmatic one. He knows that firing the world’s first nuclear missiles since 1945 would cross a terrible line. If he did, even Germany, which is so dependent on Russian gas, would refuse to accept it. That would plunge the Russian economy into bankruptcy: a collapse as total as that of the Soviet Union in 1990, a moment Putin considers to be the greatest catastrophe in Russian history.

David Patrikarakos: The liberation of much of Kharkov is also a timely response to the siren voices of the Corbynista Left, who warned that the West's decision to arm Ukrainian fighters would only prolong the war and lead to more civilian deaths

David Patrikarakos: The liberation of much of Kharkov is also a timely response to the siren voices of the Corbynista Left, who warned that the West's decision to arm Ukrainian fighters would only prolong the war and lead to more civilian deaths

David Patrikarakos: The liberation of much of Kharkov is also a timely response to the siren voices of the Corbynista Left, who warned that the West’s decision to arm Ukrainian fighters would only prolong the war and lead to more civilian deaths

And even a small “tactical battlefield” atomic bomb would likely affect neighboring countries, possibly including Poland or the Baltic states, all NATO members.

In that case, the alliance would have no choice but to respond militarily, effectively marking the start of World War III.

Putin doesn’t want Armageddon — and neither do his generals. We have to hope they would intervene if he ever tried to lash out with nuclear weapons.

So let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There have been many false dawns marking the end of this sordid war, and the fighting is still raging.

Nevertheless, recent days have provided us with the most encouraging news to emerge from the conflict in months.

The liberation of much of Kharkov is also a timely response to the siren voices of the Corbynista Left, who warned that the West’s decision to arm Ukrainian fighters would only prolong the war and lead to more civilian deaths.

These appeasers have been with us since the early days of the war, urging Ukraine – and us – to surrender.

Thank goodness we ignored them. Today they look like the fools they are.

  • David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at UnHerd and the author of War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century