No one needs to convince me that Vladimir Putin is a criminal. I’ve maintained that opinion for decades. I had that belief reinforced after the actions of the Russian president catapulted the English village where I live into the international news by poisoning it with the lethal binary nerve agent known as “novichok.” So I am not at all surprised that he ordered a Ukrainian dam destroyed.
The damage to Ukraine’s Nova Kakhovka dam, which unleashed massive flooding in the Kherson region, could be a war crime, EU and Ukrainian leaders confirmed. “The destruction of the Kakhovka dam today put thousands of civilians at risk and causes severe environmental damage,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference from the Bucharest Nine (B9) summit in Slovakia on Tuesday. “This is an outrageous act which demonstrates once again the brutality of Russia’s war against Ukraine.”
Stoltenberg added that the destruction of the dam demonstrated that the war Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed on Ukraine is “totally unacceptable and a blatant violation of international law.” UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly called the dam attack “an abhorrent act,” pointing out that “Intentionally attacking [an] exclusively civilian infrastructure is a war crime.”
This latest outrage by Russia’s biggest monster since Josef Stalin is a consistent part of his larger policy. From the start of the war Putin has been dedicated to the notion that no war crime is beneath him. It is widely believed that the practice on the ground of torture, murder and rape of Ukrainian civilians comes directly from the top and as a matter of official policy. Indeed, as the war progresses and the news for Putin gets worse with each passing day, it’s almost as if he uses war crimes as a direct expression of his personal frustration and fury.
While this latest despicable act is deplorable and rightly criticised as a war crime internationally, it has done little to help Putin win the war. In fact the international backlash alone may end up proving it to be a tactically stupid move. Putin’s Russia can’t afford many more big mistakes. Enemies from without and within are gathering, and Putin is seen more and more as a liability to the rich and powerful oligarchs who view his war with open disdain. Cracks are appearing in his power structure, cracks that could lead to a collapse in Putin’s government.
If Putin doesn’t want to see his government go the way of the former Soviet Union he is going to have to get smarter. His best bet right now would be to find some pretext to pull out of Ukraine. The contributions that the Ukrainian war is making to worldwide inflation has rendered him one of the most hated people on the planet. Disgusting as it may seem, pulling out of this deeply unpopular war could rehabilitate his image both within and without Russia.
Friends and foes of Putin alike compare his incursion into Ukraine with the Soviet Union’s disastrous invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. It is widely thought that the Afghan debacle is one of the principal causes of the fall of the Soviet Union, second only to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. But there’s one important difference between then and now.
Most people thought Russia’s Afghan war was unwinnable, but no one ever entertained the possibility that Afghanistan might actually beat the Soviet Union. Putin could actually lose his war with Ukraine. Should that happen it will be interesting to see what terms of surrender Ukraine will demand. Vladimir Putin thought he was invading a nation of sheep. Instead he has awakened a pride of lions. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.