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MARK ALMOND: The sudden advance of the Ukrainian troops is a military earthquake

In recent months in Vladimir Putin’s grim and bloody war, we have become accustomed to an exhausting brawl between the two sides.

But as Lenin himself once said: ‘There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

The sudden advance of Ukrainian troops into Russian-occupied territory is not just a brilliant tactical move; it could be a decisive turning point in the war.

The capture by Ukrainian troops of two key cities – Izyum and Kupiansk – means an area the size of Lancashire has been liberated from the Russian invader. And Kiev’s troops are still going.

The last time Russian troops had to retreat this close to Moscow was in 1941 – when they were driven back by the German attack.

Russia has also lost hundreds of armored vehicles and key command posts.

In recent months in Vladimir Putin's grim and bloody war, we have become accustomed to an exhausting brawl between the two sides

In recent months in Vladimir Putin’s grim and bloody war, we have become accustomed to an exhausting brawl between the two sides

This is a military earthquake and the quakes should – at least metaphorically speaking – shake the walls of the Kremlin itself.

So what is responsible for this sudden shift in fortunes?

Ukraine’s sensational counter-offensive would not have been possible without weapons from friendly countries. Britain has supplied the bulk of any western country in terms of its defense budget.

And US HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) missiles have destroyed Russian headquarters, as well as the weapons depots that Putin’s generals so foolishly believed were safe behind the lines.

US and British radar weapons have also prevented the Russian air force from playing a major role in the conflict. Germany’s recent – albeit belated – decision to send mobile anti-aircraft systems has had another major impact. But perhaps more than weapons and ammunition, it is the fighting spirit of the brave Ukrainians and the low morale of Putin’s soldiers that seem to be decisively changing the war.

In his great novel War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy outlined how battles are often won for no other reason than that one side wants victory more than the other.

Ukrainians have shown that they are willing to die to keep their country free. Few Russian soldiers see any glory in wasting their lives for Putin’s arrogant misadventures.

During the ‘Great Patriotic War’ – the Russian term for Hitler’s heroic repulsion during World War II – millions of Russian conscripts were mowed down on the steppes by German machine guns, tanks and artillery.

The last time Russian troops had to retreat this close to Moscow was in 1941 - when they were driven back by the German attack.  Russia has also lost hundreds of armored vehicles and key command posts

The last time Russian troops had to retreat this close to Moscow was in 1941 - when they were driven back by the German attack.  Russia has also lost hundreds of armored vehicles and key command posts

The last time Russian troops had to retreat this close to Moscow was in 1941 – when they were driven back by the German attack. Russia has also lost hundreds of armored vehicles and key command posts

By contrast, Putin has only been able to mobilize about 750,000 troops. Of this we know, thanks to leaks from the Russian Ministry of Finance, that “death benefits” were paid to the families of 48,000 soldiers.

This represents Russia’s largest loss of life since 1945, and includes some of their best trained and equipped armed forces. By some counts, Russia has lost 14 generals – a level of losses unprecedented for nearly 80 years.

Corruption, poorly maintained equipment and widespread intoxication among the troops also spoil any chance for serious progress.

Even Russia’s servile Putini media is increasingly questioning the health of the invasion.

In the depths of his black heart, Putin must know for sure that he can lose this war – and sooner than he imagined. Good news? Yes, but not quite.

Putin owes his persistent position to a perception of absolute power and invincibility. However, Ukraine shows that resistance to the dictator is possible.

Russian dissidents and the regime’s most powerful internal enemies will watch closely, bidding their time to strike.

When the invasion was launched, thousands of Russian riot police were mobilized to sign up to fight, believing that Kiev would fall within days and the “special military operation” would become a police matter.

Unless Moscow now sees a dramatic change of fortune, it's not hard to imagine Putin's generals and spy heads deciding to make him the scapegoat for the war — and pull out the rumpled remaining troops.  Above is a woman in front of a destroyed church

Unless Moscow now sees a dramatic change of fortune, it's not hard to imagine Putin's generals and spy heads deciding to make him the scapegoat for the war — and pull out the rumpled remaining troops.  Above is a woman in front of a destroyed church

Unless Moscow now sees a dramatic change of fortune, it’s not hard to imagine Putin’s generals and spy heads deciding to make him the scapegoat for the war — and pull out the rumpled remaining troops. Above is a woman in front of a destroyed church

How wrong they were. The Ukrainian resistance unpacked many of these units – meaning they are no longer available to stamp out any upcoming protests on the streets of Russia.

Putin also bet skyrocketing energy prices would split the West, eroding NATO’s unity, as public opinion in Europe turned mostly against helping Ukraine. But he is losing the war too quickly and rising fuel prices are not undermining Western solidarity with Ukraine as he imagined.

Unless Moscow now sees a dramatic change of fortune, it’s not hard to imagine Putin’s generals and spy heads deciding to make him the scapegoat for the war — and pull out the rumpled remaining troops.

He will never retire – or retire. A deposed Putin would be more likely to suffer a nasty ‘fall’ or a sudden fatal ‘illness’ – like so many of his own critics during the ugly years of his presidency.

And that, conversely, is why we are approaching perhaps the most dangerous moment in the war. Schooled in Russia’s history and the ignominious end of so many of its leaders, Putin could be willing to do anything to prevent his assassination — even go nuclear to save his own skin.

‘Tactical’ nuclear weapons could be fired at Ukrainian troops to block the advance – with devastating results. Even a “battlefield” use of weapons of mass destruction—not that the consequences would differentiate between soldier and civilian—would take the world past a threshold not crossed since 1945.

And if the nuclear taboo is broken in Ukraine, what then?

Could the US perhaps stay on the sidelines? Shouldn’t President Joe Biden instead threaten US intervention to try to stop the further use of nuclear weapons? Would China support its Russian ally?

These are questions with potentially hair-raising answers.

So this counter-offensive is hugely important – and we should applaud that Ukraine has been given a crucial military initiative. However, the risk is that it will provoke a much more terrible reaction.

Mark Almond is Director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford

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