We are now almost four days into Putin’s expanded war in Ukraine. There is still a lot of fighting ahead, and things are going to get worse before they get better, but cracks in Putin’s plans are already evident. On Thursday, elite Russian airborne forces captured the Hostomel airport, north of Kyiv. They were probably planning to fly in more paratroopers and use this for a lightning assault on Kyiv. Ukrainian defenders retook the airport and the remnants of Russia’s elite scattered into the woods. Russian forces from Belarus are still bearing down on Kyiv from the north and the battle for the city is not over yet, but now there will be no rapid victory for Putin, no decapitation. The Ukrainian army is fighting on elsewhere in Ukraine, and the Ukrainian government is still intact.
Putin took to the airwaves to try a different tactic: to try and encourage a Ukrainian military coup. In a TV address on Friday, he appealed to the Ukrainian army to “Take power into your own hands. It seems that it would be easier for us to agree with you than with this gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis, which settled in Kyiv and took the entire Ukrainian people hostage.”
Putin insisted that the Ukrainian units that were fighting back were not the Ukrainian army, but bloodthirsty, genocidal “nationalist formations.” He complained that these “neo-Nazi units” were putting heavy weapons right in the middle of large cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv at the recommendation of American advisers. This is an indirect threat that Putin is going to bomb civilian areas and blame the Americans.
Perhaps this address is just meant for Russian domestic consumption—boob bait for Boris—but what we know so far about Putin’s Ukraine strategy shows it’s possible that Putin may actually believe some of what he’s saying. The Russian army went for a quick decapitation strike, and simultaneously advanced on five, possibly six fronts, dividing and spreading out its forces and resupply capabilities. It looks more and more like Putin thought the Ukrainian government would collapse just like the Afghan one did, and his army could just walk through the rest of Ukraine and collect surrendering units.
Putin’s latest appeal is the propaganda of desperation. There won’t be a Ukrainian coup. In fact, more and more Ukrainian citizens are taking up arms in defense of their country. As Russian losses mount (certainly in the hundreds, though Ukraine claims that Russian deaths have already topped 1,000) it might not be in Putin’s interests to say out loud that armies who want peace should remove their leader and cut a deal with the other side.