Politics Analysis

Ukraine war: Putin takes losses, vows to make a comeback

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Chinese President Xi Jinping has bonded with Russia's Vladimir Putin over their mutual disdain for Western governments (Screenshot via YouTube)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been met with heavy resistance in his assault on Ukraine while insisting his forces are regrouping, writes Dr Lee Duffield.

SEVEN MONTHS into the Ukraine war, reverses suffered by the invading Russians have come at a bad moment for their President, Vladimir Putin, and might be stirring some historical nightmares.

From the past, there is the ghost of General Alexander Samsonov, the Russian army commander who blundered into Eastern Germany in 1914 to meet a tremendous and tragic defeat.

In 2022, meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping at a regional summit in Uzbekistan on Thursday 15 September, President Putin was reportedly answering “questions” about Ukraine. Xi has staked quite a lot on an economic development scheme, the “Belt and Road”, that would see trade links going through Central Asia to Russia.

But what kind of client state would start a war of conquest then be set back by the invaded country, while staggering under economic sanctions imposed by the hated “West”? What kind of liability?

Pressures on Xi and Putin

While Putin and Xi have been declared “best friends” and work as a veto team on the United Nations Security Council, the Chinese gave no indication of changing their policy on the war, which has been to support it mostly with just words. Putin did reiterate support for China’s objective to take over Taiwan by 2029.

Certainly, Western diplomacy with China has concentrated on getting it to withhold material assistance to Russia, whether with money or restocking of its dwindling arsenal. Infrastructure in the pre-“Belt and Road” era would not be enough to permit an overnight change-over of Russia’s massive oil trade from Western Europe to China.

It would be made clear that the NATO allies are determined to block Putin as much as they can, demonstrated by the support already given to Ukraine and taken up well with superior heavy weapons and ammunition, general supplies, large-scale financial aid and support with logistics and communications.

Xi Jinping, whose own national economy has been slowing, would understand growing awareness in the “West” of over-dependence on one country – his – as the chief manufacturing centre of the world. How many industries are already thinking of getting out and looking for alternative bases of production? Would this be working in a way that puts pressure on him?

China’s threat to its own “miracle”

The Chinese economic “miracle” has produced astounding results in volume of production, reliability and also quality under licence — competent replication of designs. The cheap prices make up for glitches in the quality. Problems with manufacturers of all kinds – from farm machinery that should get new bearings before use, to badly sewn little once-only dresses – can be forgiven so far.

Not so much though, where it comes with poor international citizenship: breaches by China of International Law over the South China Sea; the blockade of Taiwan in August and other demonstrations of military bravado; bad faith under international trade agreements, including selective embargoes, such as Australian barley or wine; intrusive cyber attacks; and spyware concerns with communications products.

There are grievances on both sides, such as China’s objection to the unilateral proposal by former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison for an outside investigation of the birth of COVID-19 in that country. As said, the message is that it might be better for all, even while very damaging for all, if the parties disengaged and once again reset the global economy; though for now, President Xi probably would not want to provoke an out-and-out Western pull-out, the possible incentive factor for him to hold back on saving Putin.

Moscow “gangsters” take some losses

That Russian partner in the meantime, demonstrating for some time what the world might be like if all countries were run by gangsters, is excluded from such diplomatic tussles. On the record to date, from the war diary, undiplomatic options that might be taken up by the regime run to hostage-taking and extortion over occupied nuclear plants or nuclear weapons; until now, it has been a bombardment of civilian areas in revenge for defeats in battle.

While in Uzbekistan, Putin suffered the embarrassment – should he be so sensitive – of a fresh outbreak of warfare between two other former Soviet Republics, Azerbaijan and Armenia. On better terms with the Armenian side, he has peacekeeping forces in the area and now is being tested by Azerbaijan — probing to get territorial concessions while the Russian President is distracted by his losses.

What losses?

Accounts from the war front in Ukraine indicate the Ukrainian forces were continuing to make gains, up to the weekend of 17 and 18 September, following the re-taking of a wide area of territory in the country’s northeast — for comparison, a little less than the size of the island of Crete.

Russian forces that have declared an intention to regroup, despite some rapid retreats and abandonment of much heavy equipment, might come back, but notions of invincibility or “shock and awe” in this conflict have gone.

Happened before?

The Ukrainian counter-offensive in fact will have haunting hallmarks of a previous defeat for the Russians, if they have read their history books.

The Ukrainian generals this year were able to conceal the actual location of some main forces and then deploy them, after deceiving the Russians that they were going to attack far to the south of where that happened. They made use of good intelligence, much of it their own, some assuredly got from the Western allies.

Some of their commanders were commenting on “outmoded” communication and command systems used by the Russians. It has transpired that the Ukrainians prepared well during the period between the Russian occupation of Crimea and the Donbas region in 2014 and the attack which began last February.

For the seen-it-before history moment: Samsonov, in World War I, was hampered by moving his very large army into Eastern Prussia with less preparation than the Germans on their home territory. The scene of the battle would be in modern-day Poland, about 200 kilometres north-northeast of the Ukrainian city of Lviv.

The German commanders covertly moved forces across from a neighbouring front to confront Samsonov. His communications and intelligence were poor, while theirs, through listening in to his radio transmissions, were excellent. The Russians advanced with some confidence, taking a swath of territory, before the Germans struck, forcing a retreat through the Tannenberg area. Most of the Russian army was then caught in heavily-timbered forest country, unable to manoeuvre or get away, eventually surrounded.

General Samsonov took his own life in the field. That costly Russian defeat did hold up forces that the German high command needed for their offensive against France, but on the Russian side, it started the series of collapses that propelled the country into a “revolutionary situation” and the Bolshevik revolution that followed.

Amongst his vast journalistic experience, Dr Lee Duffield has served as the ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic.

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