(CNN) — It was a moment of two completely incompatible events. One, of a staging in Moscow, of pen on paper, theater and imperialist expansion. The other, the slow and methodical advance of Ukrainian forces through poorly supplied and commanded Russian positions.
The gulf between Russia’s ambitions and its reality was exposed on Friday. As President Vladimir Putin staged a conspicuous fake ceremony in the Kremlin’s St. George’s Hall and orchestrated crowds to support a rally outside, his military forces were defeated in a strategic city in the same area as him. intends to annex.
Decrees signed Thursday night annexing the Kherson and Zaporizhia areas began Potemkin’s farce. Part of Zaporizhia is still in Ukrainian hands, and parts of Kherson are gradually being taken away. However, Moscow claims that at the time the decree was published, these occupied areas suddenly became part of Russia. Indeed, Ukrainian authorities say 23 civilians were killed when a suspected S300 missile attack hit a car convoy outside Zaporizhia that was planning to enter occupied territory to deliver aid and evacuate those who could get out. An act of savagery on the first day that the area is under what Russia considers its protective umbrella.
For its part, Ukraine’s progress is accelerating. His focus is on the Lyman railway hub, which has taken on great importance due to Russia’s tenacious defense and the strategic role it can play in controlling the entire Luhansk region. Putin signed documents on Friday, falsely claiming that this region is now part of Russia against a background of extremely bad news.
A Ukrainian soldier on Friday posted a video in front of the administration building in Yampil, a small settlement east of Lyman, showing that Russia had apparently withdrawn, suggesting that Lyman is isolated from the rest of the Russian military. Regular forces of the Russian Army, National Guard and some volunteer units are said to remain in the city in significant numbers. Isolated, their decision to fight or surrender makes little difference to Ukraine’s continued advance.
The Ukrainian moves may again highlight one of Russia’s strategic flaws: it fights hard for a spot in the belief that its defense will hold, and then fights to regroup when the “impossible” happens. The Ukrainian encirclement of the Izium supply center was instrumental in the recent defeat of Russian forces throughout the Kharkiv region. The next few days will tell whether Lyman’s fate is equally key to the Luhansk region.
In fact, the central political conclusion of Putin’s Friday rant against the West – a direct call for a ceasefire and a return to the negotiating table – reflected how the annexation ceremony was taking place in the context of news. extremely bad from a military point of view. Calls for talks are unlikely to be heeded: Ukraine and its Western allies have rejected Russian calls for diplomacy, pointing to Moscow’s history of seizing the opportunity of negotiations to regroup on the battlefield.
Back on the ground, Ukraine’s methodical and deliberate progress is a cold dose of reality for a Kremlin that still seems to think it can shape reality by force of its own will. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that the parts of Luhansk and Donetsk that Russia does not control will have to be “liberated,” a statement that completely fails to acknowledge that what is happening on the battlefield is going in another direction.
So what is to be done? Moscow still seems to have the idea that “partial mobilization” will eventually improve its lot. But again he seems to be exposing the gap between fact and fiction, between modern warfare and his belief in volume and persistence. Russia continues to attack targets head-on, with as much force as possible, hoping that tens of thousands of ill-equipped and ill-trained conscripts can hold the positions they have so far struggled to take. But they face a modernizing Ukrainian army, with precise Western weapons and helpful tactical advice, that simply outmaneuvers them. Why attack a city from the front, when you can go around it from behind and through it?
The fissures in Putin’s Potemkin world are starting to ring. His public appearance admonishing his own officials for the appalling execution of the partial mobilization is rare: it was a policy that he himself had announced, and therefore the families whose fathers and husbands have been torn away from the war will want things to change quickly. , before the body bags start coming home. They are unlikely to be appeased by the fact that the “benevolent tsar”, as Putin is known, admits that things should have been handled better. Some 200,000 Russians have fled the country since the mobilization was announced, a number probably higher than those who have since been forced to wear military uniforms.
In his speech on Friday, Putin spoke of using “all” means at his disposal to defend the newly annexed regions of Ukraine, but did not threaten to use nuclear force. However, he said the use of such weapons by the United States against Japan created a precedent. It is a threat—veiled but not direct—where every word is carefully chosen.
Once again we are at a point where we have to ask ourselves what a nuclear power will do when its conventional forces are shown to be incapable of achieving its military objectives. It is important to remember that a nuclear power usually becomes such because it has a strong conventional force base.
With the exception of Pakistan and North Korea, most nuclear powers could probably achieve their military objectives without resorting to the Bomb. But Russia has been showing that its royal army is not up to the tasks entrusted to it. And that failure is likely reflected in the readiness of its nuclear forces: How can the Kremlin be sure its nuclear arsenal is up to the task if its tanks can’t get diesel within 40 miles of its own border?
The days ahead will be feverish enough that this is a question no one wants to answer. But little by little we are seeing the abyss between what Russia wants, what it can do and what is actually happening; an abyss that is usually filled with fear and threatening rhetoric, and exposed on the world stage. Moscow’s reaction will decide the world we live in for decades to come.