“The truth is with us,” thus President Putin closed his State of the Nation address to the Federal Assembly on February 21. A twisted truth that, in a year of war, atrocities and massacres committed in Ukraine by Russia after the invasion of February 24th, 2022, has upset Russian society forced to deal, in a repressive and totalitarian context, with a parallel reality in which “invasion” now equals “liberation”. And in this twisted storytelling, it was Nato and Ukraine that “unleashed the war,” while Russia “used and continues to use force to stop it”. “We are not at war with the people of Ukraine,” Putin reiterated in his speech. He has also accused Kyiv and its Western allies of “politically, militarily, and economically occupying the country,” claiming that the Ukrainian regime is “holding its people hostage.”
As the writer Gianni Rodari recalls, if “in the land of lies, truth is a disease,” it is crucial not only to understand the dynamics of the conflict and its real political goals, but also the process of militarisation that is affecting Russian society and the young generation.
We will discuss this topic with Nicola Cristadoro, military analyst, intelligence and information operations expert, essayist and contributor to Limes magazine. In 2022, an updated version of his essay “The Gerasimov Doctrine. The philosophy of unconventional warfare in contemporary Russian strategy” (Il Maglio Edizioni) has been published.
One year has passed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Is it possible to provide a realistic assessment of the conflict, from the initial three-day blitzkrieg objective, which included the fall of Kyiv, to the escalation of hostilities affecting specific regions of the country?
Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago. The Russian military campaign has essentially unfolded on two fronts. The southern front aimed at cutting off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea. The northern front focused on the capital Kyiv and other strategic spots. The operations displayed massive flaws and difficulties in command, control, and, above all, coordination from the start, because of the ill-advised decision to deploy an extremely thinned-out device on an excessively wide front and with too long lines for logistical support.
In April 2022, Moscow had to relocate its units on closer lines that would serve more concretely achievable objectives after futile attempts to “bring home the result”, also due to an unexpected, persistent and effective Ukrainian resistance supported by the West.
Russia had to focus its efforts solely on the Donbas, as well as the oblast of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. After the September 2022 Ukrainian counteroffensive on Kharkiv, Moscow lost a significant portion of the previously occupied territories, and the fighting continued as “positional warfare” along a stretch connecting the northern area of the Luhansk oblast – north of Svatove, close to the Russian border – to the settlement of Kherson.
Moscow was forced to reconsider the initial end-state as a result of this scenario. The attempt to destabilise the pro-Western Ukrainian government to install a Kremlin-aligned government that envisaged a militarily neutral Ukraine that was potentially open to integration into the Eurasian economic union (EAEU) had failed. The strategic objectives of the premises for the invasion were thus recognition of annexation of Crimea by Ukraine; certainty that Ukraine would not join Nato in the future; “demilitarisation” of Ukrainian armed forces; and recognition of Russian sovereignty over the Donetsk and Luhansk oblast.
A year after the war began, the question of what remains of the Kremlin’s original intent and its current ambitions arises. Beyond Putin’s rhetoric of the 21st of February address, the new end-state envisions a liberated Ukraine presenting itself as a politically and militarily neutral state, open to relations with Russia but with no plans to join the Atlantic Alliance. The collapse of the Zelensky regime and the destruction of Ukrainian military capabilities are no longer top priorities. The primary goal is now to significantly reduce their ability to operate on a large scale.
What remains are demands for the Donbas areas to be recognised as Russian territory and for full control of the territories surrounding Crimea, which ensure their accessibility and, above all, drinking water supplies. It is little known, in fact, that Crimea is a dry territory and that, until 2014, it depended on water conveyed by the Dnieper River through the North Crimean Canal, a hydraulic engineering work for the supply of aqueducts and irrigation canals that starts in the Kherson oblast in southern Ukraine and arrives in Kerch, in the easternmost part of the peninsula. Following Russia’s annexation, Ukraine gradually cut off the flow of water and, in 2017, built a dam in Kherson oblast, permanently cutting it off.
Kyiv, for its part, has not changed its goal of achieving independence and territorial integrity that includes all of Russia’s occupied territories, including Crimea and the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as the freedom to join the European union and have war crimes committed on its territory prosecuted. Furthermore, the possibility of future Nato membership is not ruled out.
Let us examine the invasion dynamics and the ongoing conflict. The media and experts frequently focus on Putin’s neo-imperialist and neo-Czarist approach, reconstructing the political and philosophical background that inspires his actions, particularly in foreign policy. Other factors, as we all know, are also at play. Ukraine has always played an extremely important geopolitical and economic role, from the tsarist to the Soviet era. Consider the country’ southern region, which has access to the Black Sea and, to the south-east, to the Sea of Azov or the Donbas, one of the richest region in coal, gas, oil, iron, manganese, titanium, and uranium and, at the same time, it’s the location of the largest European-level reserves of metals and rare earths elements, which are critical for the high-tech sector and the green economy. Is it possible to define a mapping of the country that highlights, on the one hand, the “symbolic” political outposts required for Russian propaganda and popular consensus (e.g., Kyiv), and, on the other hand, the areas that actually could guarantee additional value for the Kremlin in economic and productive terms, in light of the strategies adopted in the sphere of military operations?
To answer the question on “symbolic outposts for propaganda”, I take my cue from President Putin’ speech to the Federal Assembly on February 21. In particular, I am referring to his emphasis on the importance of student training. Putin spoke about robotics, defence, construction, agriculture, stating that we need good teachers adapted to changes, but oriented towards Russian history. Master’s degrees, Ph.D., new university programmes fall within the school education model conceived by the Russian president, who stressed that, however, the transition to the new education system must be gradual. Probably to avoid the mistake of the too sudden and traumatic transformations that hit Russia in the economic sector after the collapse of the “Wall”.
What emerges is that Russia is currently plagued by a low level of higher education, which is undoubtedly a problem for Putin if the country wishes to compete with the despised West.
In reference to Ukraine, he emphasized the importance of local authorities in occupied areas participating actively in the educational process by developing appropriate tools to strengthen the teaching of Russian values. The development of the occupied areas’ cultural sphere is critical for instilling a sense of belonging to a single cultural space: the Russian space. Russian culture must be taught to the next generation. The creation of new competitions aimed at spreading Russian culture through the “school of military action” is peculiar.
As a result, recruitment propaganda is becoming more intrusive among young people. Classes have been set up at schools in the Skadovsk district (Kherson oblast) to train military personnel with advanced military training. Graduates of these classes have been promised induction into military units with the rank of sergeant. The Russian authorities then forced children as young as six years old and onwards to attend “patriotic education courses” set up at the so-called “Cossack Cadet Corps” in Starobilsk (Luhansk oblast). Parents who refuse to send their children to these courses risk having their parental authority revoked. Another example: in Tokmak (Zaporizhzhia oblast), students are required to sing the Russian national anthem before the start of class.
Younger children are also required to create postcards commemorating the invasion anniversary, on which they express their support and gratitude to the Russian soldiers who invaded the country. Still on the propaganda front, let’s stay in Tokmak, where we have heard of a mobile crematorium set up by Russians close to the Prydniprovska Biotes company. The goal would be twofold: disposing of a large number of corpses that would be impossible to clear or bury and making it difficult to count the dead. Even in Krasna Zorka (Simferopol), the dead were cremated to conceal the number of casualties.
It is reported that a dozen or so lorries are constantly moving to transport the corpses of regular soldiers and mercenaries to the crematorium set up there. No civilian corpses are cremated at the crematorium, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The high number of casualties among Russian military personnel is a major issue for the Kremlin, which Putin conveniently avoided mentioning in his speech. As a result, I would refer to “thematic areas” rather than “symbolic outposts” for Moscow’s political and military propaganda.
Regarding the second purely economic topic, I only want to emphasize the importance of lithium for Russia, especially for its military applications, by providing a specific explanation of the reasons for the invasion of Ukraine, as well as Russia’s obstinate determination to occupy the Donbas at any cost. In this case, Russia’s motivation is not related to the defence of the area’s Russian-speaking population, but rather to the fact that this mineral, which is abundant in this region, is critical for the energy transition, not only for the production of batteries for electric vehicles and aluminum alloys for aeronautical use, but also as a fluxing and fluidifying agent for slag from melting baths and in welds, and for compounds for pharmaceutical use.
Following Canada’s refusal to supply Russia with raw materials for lithium mining, Moscow is urgently looking for alternative sources of this mineral. The region subsoil also contains deposits of uranium, thorium, cesium, niobium and tantalum.
The reservoir that feeds the Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant on the Dnieper River is another k-terrain with high tactical value due to its economic peculiarities. Nova Kakhovka is a port town on the reservoir southern bank. The dam’s primary functions are hydroelectric power generation, irrigation, and navigation. It’s the sixth and final dam within the Dnieper basin. The river can be navigated through the channel, which has deep water.
At the dam, the P47 road and a railway cross the Dnieper River. On February 24th, 2022, right from the beginning of the invasion, the power plant was captured by Russian forces. Following that, during weeks of artillery attacks by Ukraine in August and September, Ukrainian and Russian officials reported that the facility’s ability to transport vehicles had been reduced, but the dam itself remained intact. In mid-October 2022, the Russians apparently planned to blow up the dam in mid-October 2022 to slow down the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the region.
On November 11, a large dam explosion occurred, destroying road and railway structures but leaving the dam largely intact. The dam’ spillways have been opened since early November 2022, and the Kakhovka reservoir has dropped to its lowest level in three decades, threatening irrigation and drinking water resources as well as the cooling systems of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The water level dropped by two meters between December 1st, 2022, and February 6th, 2023. Infrastructure destruction provides no respite. It’s wartime.
As you pointed out in your recent analyses, President Putin, considering the complex evolution of the conflict, has reportedly decided to undertake “a radical shift”, assigning, among other things, General Valery Gerasimov (former chief of staff of the Armed Forces) the role of “Commander of the Joint Russian Forces in Ukraine”. What will this change entail? How has Russia’ strategic-military plan been evolving since February 24th, 2022, particularly in light of the revised lines of command?
On January 10, 2023, nearly a year after Russian invasion of Ukraine, Colonel-General Alexander Lapin was appointed chief of staff of the Russian Armed Forces. Of the “ground forces”, and thus of the Army. Within a few dozen minutes, the vast majority of media pundits declared that this officer had replaced General Valery Gerasimov.
Unfortunately, these hasty journalists fail to recognise the distinction between a chief of staff of the Armed Forces and a chief of staff of the Army, which is one of the Armed Forces. Gerasimov kept his position. Lapin was the commander of the “forces of the Centre” deployed in the Ukrainian conflict until October 2022. He was fired from his position in October. Shortly before this occurred, he was heavily criticized by the “hard wing” of Russia-backed fighters in Ukraine, including PMC “Wagner” founder Yevgeny Prigozhin and, most notably, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Both blamed Lapin for the loss of Lyman (October 2022), an important logistical center, and the Ukrainian armed forces’ breakthrough in the Terny, Torskoy, and Yampolovka areas in the Donetsk oblast.
A portrait that could become even more infamous, if it were true, that General Lapin didn’t hesitate to point a gun on Russian soldiers’ head, among the newly-mobilised soldiers who, following heavy shelling by Ukrainian forces, were seeking refuge near the village of Svatove, accusing them of cowardice, insulting them and threatening to kill them if they hadn’t returned to the battlefield. It is worth noting that these soldiers would be part of that wave of unwary soldiers sent to the front ill-equipped and without any training following the partial mobilisation ordered by Putin in the autumn of 2022. This wave of misfortunates, in fact, represents the “fresh forces” fielded by Moscow as a back-up to the regular units subjected to heavy combat attrition over the months.
As a result of their inability to cope with the pace and horrors of war, “Wagner” units appeared on a regular basis to support field combat. Not without a hint of acrimony towards Gerasimov. Twenty-four hours after Lapin’s appointment, Putin decided to appoint Gerasimov as “Commander of the Joint Russian Forces in Ukraine” on the sidelines of his main assignment, as the conflict had become significantly more complicated in its evolution and required a radical shift on the Russian side.
Directly reporting to Gerasimov on the field, as well as his “deputies”, Army General Sergey Surovikin, who was previously commander of operations in Ukraine and commander of the ground forces involved in the invasion, Army General Oleg Salyukov, who is taking over from Surovikin in this latter position, and Colonel-General Alexey Kim, deputy chief of staff of the Russian Armed Forces, have been assigned to the aerospace forces.
Given the aforementioned “radical shift” implemented by the Kremlin because of the operational impasse, Gerasimov’s appointment is open to several interpretations. As a result, the supreme commander of the armed forces (Putin) has charged the chief of Defence Staff, a contemporary Russian war doctrine theorist, with personally coordinating and issuing orders to the fighting forces. Let’s not forget Kadyrov and PMC “Wagner”, who have been openly against Gerasimov’s political and strategic choices.
I continue to believe that, until he accepted his new position and the responsibilities that come with it, he was always a figure in the shadow of an overbearing and inappropriate Putin in his decision to conduct operations himself. Obviously, at this point, the prestige of General Gerasimov is at stake, who, unlike many other high-ranking Russian officers, can boast a crystal-clear career, apparently without any “skeletons in the closet”.
Or, if he has them, they are well hidden. It is also clear that Putin’s decision sends a strong message to the “hawks” that any victory in this war, regardless of who is fighting it, should go to the “regular” forces, Russian units fighting for the honor of the fatherland with their flags. The discussion of the conflict phase in the Donbas from 2014 to February 2022, or the campaign in Syria, in which it made little difference who was called upon to protect the image of an internationally competitive Russia with arms, no longer applies. This is about medals and ceremonies for national heroes and fallen soldiers wearing Army, Navy, and Aerospace Forces uniforms. If it is the sons of nobodies who die in battle rather than the sons of Mother Russia, so be it.
Let’s now focus on the evolution of the security hierarchy since February 24th, 2022. At the beginning of the invasion, there had been numerous clashes between the military and intelligence apparatus. Initially, the FSB was not entrusted with the management of operations in Ukraine, which resulted in several critical issues in the service departments. Throughout the campaign, the Russian departments suffered several military defeats, reinforcing the FSB role. What is the current balance of power among the different entities involved, especially in light of the presence of Prigozhin, whose relations with the presidential administration, the FSB, the Ministry of Defence, and the FSIN, to name a few, have been profoundly disturbed also because of his “political agenda” and approach to institutions?
The FSB role in the current scenario is limited to its functions as a counter-intelligence agency, both at home and in the Donbas, where sabotage and counter-propaganda activities against Russian forces are particularly intense in certain areas. I refer, for example, to what is happening in the aforementioned town of Tokmak, where partisan activity is particularly intense. There are significant logistical assets in this area supporting Russian forces engaged in Orikhiv and their reserve, which consists of units of the 11th Guards Airborne Assault Brigade. In Tokmak, the expropriation of the houses of Ukrainian citizens considered hostile is taking place, in order to provide housing for the collaborationists operating within what the Russians have named “Law Enforcement Agencies”. The role of the GU (former GRU), the military secret service on which several Spetsnaz units deployed in combat areas, particularly in the Bakhmut and Kherson sectors, is crucial. Furthermore, the GU acts as a link between regular forces and PMC operating in the Ukrainian scenario, just as it did in Syria.
As is well known, Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilisation in September last year sparked a wave of protests, albeit limited in comparison to previous rallies, not only among activists, soldiers’ wives and mothers, but also among citizens who are typically uninterested in politics. In fact, not only reservists were sent to the battlefield, but also conscripts who lacked experience and knowledge of the mission’s true purpose, were poorly equipped, and frequently came from remote areas of the Federation. Not to mention Prigozhin involvement with inmates, many of whom were granted pardons. Despite Putin’s reassurances, the mobilisation will continue, with a second wave expected. What forces have been deployed in the conflict, and how have they been deployed? What role is being played by the “National Reserve of Combat Forces” (BARS), a project started long before the invasion began?
I’ll start with the last question. An influx of reservists recruited during the September “partial mobilisation” was observed at the Kadamovskiy training area (Rostov-on-Don region) in the second half of January 2023, for a period of training before being sent to the front. These reservists would primarily be used to replenish the ranks of the “National Combat Forces Reserve” (Boyevoy Armeyskiy Rezerv Strany – BARS) and “Wagner” Group units that had suffered significant losses. Much has been written about the “Wagner” Group, but little is known about the BARS units. These are the forces established under a program launched in 2021 and developed in accordance with the President of the Russian Federation’s decree “On the establishment of a mobilisation personnel reserve of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation,” by which the Federation’s Ministry of Defence decided to increase the reserve of personnel to be activated in case of national mobilisation for specific war requirements.
According to the country’s military leadership, this was a planned activity to improve the country’s defence capabilities and keep the Armed Forces ready to perform their assigned tasks, not war preparation. However, with the benefit of hindsight, some doubts arise as to whether the reasons for this provision of fresh and readily available forces were truly as stated. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, units with reservists have joined all major exercises from Kamchatka to Kaliningrad, from the Arctic Circle to Crimea, every year since 2016.
Consistently and systematically training reservists implies high costs for an armed force and, if one does not have clear objectives, is one of the items urgently needed when it comes to “defence cuts.” In short, the “National Combat Force Reserve” is made up of tens of thousands of reservists who volunteered, went through a strict screening process at military enlistment offices, and signed a contract with the Defence Department. Priority is given to those who have recently been discharged from the military and have not yet lost their military skills in the most in-demand military occupational specialties.
The candidate must be eligible for military service (1st category) or have minor limitations (2nd category) and have completed at least the “9 general education classes”, which corresponds to our “middle school-leaving certificate” in the Russian education system. Following that, he or she is judged to be suitable or unsuitable for placement in the chosen specialty based on the results of a psycho-aptitude selection. The Ministry of Defence has been promising financial incentives to those who volunteer to serve in the “active reserve,” and that’s not all.
To begin with, joining projects benefits those who have already completed their military service and wish to enlist as “contract” soldiers – the volunteers on extended service (kontratniki) – with career opportunities, including officer positions, on the recommendation of their commanders and superiors. It is also guaranteed that training in driving military vehicles and shooting with different types of weapons will be provided. The facilities for admission to 35 Russian Ministry of Defence universities for training, retraining, or improvement in 159 civil specialties and professions, as well as the chance of receiving qualified medical care, are particularly appealing.
As to the “mobilisation” and the recruitment process on the Russian side, we are at a breaking point, in order to avoid having to justify to public opinion the “waste of human lives” among members of society whose loss, in case of defeat, would be unacceptable, but whose loss, even in case of victory, would result in a very high blood toll. As a result, after the Wagner, Kadirovtsy, and pro-Russian Ukrainian paramilitaries have been deployed, the enlistment looks to the “undesirables”, and thus expendable, for the right-minded people.
The Russians’ control of the Bakhmut sector is critical to the prosecution of the ongoing offensive in the heart of the Donbas. Along with the VDV, the “Wagner” personnel require several reinstatements; it appears that the PMC is also suffering losses due to widespread infections, particularly pneumonia, caused by the cold and poor sanitary conditions in their own camps. Prisoner recruitment to make up for losses continues unabated.
Around a thousand men from the Novosibirsk region’s prisons were enlisted as mercenaries in the first week of February, including a large number of people convicted of serious crimes. The same thing happened to inmates in Krasnodar region’s prisons. In the same week, there was a shift in the pace of sending women to the battlefield: 50 female prisoners were recruited and sent to Russia for training at the correctional institution in Snizhne (Donetsk oblast). On the other hand, it appears that 600 soldiers recruited as part of Putin’s “partial mobilisation” refused to fight and were repatriated.
Also in the Donetsk province, reservists sent to the 1st CAA of the Southern Military District refuse to fight and, as a result, local mobilised personnel are taken from units in the 2nd Echelons/Reserves and sent to training areas, where they receive a two-week training period before being placed in units fighting on the Avdiivka-Bakhmut route.
Recruitment is also carried out among Ukrainian citizens who have been imprisoned and forcibly transferred to Russian prisons. In particular, they are recruited in the PMC “Wagner”. Preferably, those who have been convicted of serious crimes are pushed to enlist also because they are more drawn to the promise of amnesty and more accustomed to killing. Dissatisfaction among Ukrainian prisoners is high, due to the treatment of Russian nationals.
As to the different kind of mobilisation chosen by Russians, the initiative launched in Mariupol is unique, as recruitment has begun to call for homeless people, drug addicts, and alcoholics to be sent to the front lines. Once again, the choice is made between expendable fighters who can still inflict losses on Ukrainian forces and, if killed in battle, leave few regrets.
Another type of loss-making recruitment targets foreign migrant workers. One of these soldiers recently surrendered to the armed forces in the Donetsk region’s Volnovakha district.
Finally, there was uproar in Moscow over rumors of scientists’ mobilisation. Staff members of the research institute “Polyus”, a leading center for laser technology, in particular, were required to explain guarantees and social benefits for mobilised personnel. Not only the “scum”, but also the “minds”, must be sacrificed for the greater good.
A shift occurred from the cult of victory over the Nazis and the Great Patriotic War to the cult of martyrdom and sacrifice. In recent months, the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch compared the “sacrificial” death of Ukrainian soldiers to that of Jesus.
The militarisation of society affects not only grown-ups, but also children and young people. As previously stated, “patriotic education”, which has been popular in the Kremlin since 2005, has grown significantly in recent years, particularly since the conflict. Third-and fourth-grade children are taught that the happiness of the homeland is worth more than life during the “Conversations on important things”, i.e. the mandatory weekly lessons introduced in Russian schools by the Ministry of Education. What will happen to civil society if such “ideals” imposed from above become dominant?
Please consider my answer related to the propaganda issue. Education in Russia has always been oriented towards extreme patriotic values: this was true under the Soviet regime and remains true today. It is not easy justifying an aggressive war. It is an inherent issue of dictatorships; it applied to Hitler, Mussolini, and Putin today. That’s why the propaganda machine must create the Hitlerjugend, the “Balilla” and the “Cossack Cadets.”
You are also a China expert. You analysed its political and military dynamics in one of your essays published in 2021, “The Dragon’s Move. China’s politico-military strategy and intelligence warfare in the twenty-first century”. Despite its support for the Russian Federation in the aftermath of the invasion, China maintains an ambivalent position, given its economic and trade exchange with the West. What role, in your opinion, can the country play in any negotiations? How will relations between China and the United States affect the conflict?
When discussing China today, one cannot overlook an aspect far from minor: the Covid impact on its socioeconomic system. It shows internal issues and devaluing its image globally due to a lack of transparency in the crisis management. The rise of infections has forced Beijing to choose between lockdowns and a laxer policy that would not have a significant impact on economic growth, with GDP remaining at 3.9% versus the 5.5% target for 2022. The prestige of the Party, and thus of Xi Jinping, is at stake, as he deals with growing internal discontent, particularly among the young generation. Choosing to contain the health emergency benefits the economic slowdown and fuels social unease and, consequently, dissent.
Clearly, this scenario benefits Washington, which is always ready to exploit any cracks that appear on China’s monolithic surface. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict reveals China’s usual duplicity in international relations. On the one hand, Zhongnanhai secretly supports Kremlin operations. Despite sanctions and export controls imposed on Russia, the Wall Street Journal reports that China is supplying Moscow with technologies required to carry on the war. According to customs data, Chinese state-owned defence companies are sending navigation equipment, technology, and fighter jet components to sanctioned Russian state companies.
On the other hand, it appears that Beijing has decided to use its influence to engage in war-ending mediation. The prospect of a Chinese initiative in Ukraine, however, has increased U.S. skepticism about the deepening of China-Russia ties since the start of the Russian invasion. It is true that low-cost natural gas would be appealing to anyone. In any case, the Chinese government, in an outraged display, has quickly denied supplying weapons to Russia to support its offensive. If the Chinese mediation was successful, Beijing would undoubtedly emerge stronger, possibly towards Washington. China is feeling harmed by the prosecution of a war that has only weakened its bulky Russian partner so far. However, not everyone in the United States considers China to be the number-one enemy: it applies to Republicans, and Trump’s openings to Russia should be seen in this context. For the Democrats, on the other hand, Russia is the ultimate evil, as proven by Biden’s meeting with Zelensky in Kyiv on February 21.
So far predicting the outcome of the conflict is difficult. In your advice, which valid scenarios can be outlined in the short or medium term?
The prosecution of the conflict for a long time as a “war of position” typical of the First World War is the most likely course of action, according to the military intelligence lexicon.
Neither Russia, nor Ukraine is willing or have the chance to back down from its stance: for Zelensky, territorial unity is at stake, and for the Ukrainians, vengeance for the bloodshed and destruction. Putin understands that defeat, in the best czarist tradition, would result in his “defenestration,” probably even physical.
In Russia, the worst betrayal brings shame to one’s homeland rather than oneself. Military doctrine, on the other hand, must always account for the most dangerous course of action, and, as of the end of February this year, the nuclear option, while unlikely, remains a possibility. Everything will depend on how long the conflict will be perceived as an agony for the Russian Federation’s forces, in particular for its ruling élite.