Ülo Mattheus: Will Russian terror end the Putin era?

Ülo Mattheus.
Ülo Mattheus. Source: Ave Maria Mõistlik/Wikimedia Commons

Vladimir Putin has become the world's foremost terrorist, the most dangerous human being, and it is high time we consigned him to the trash heap of history, Ülo Mattheus writes in a comment originally published in Sirp magazine.

The successes of the Ukrainian armed forces and the frontline losses of the Putin regime have motivated the latter to resort to extensive terror and blackmail.

Roughly a third of Ukraine's power and heating infrastructure has been destroyed, the possibility of dirty bombs, blowing the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant dam and the carpet bombing of Kherson raised. Blowing the dam would result in a disaster of global proportions as it would flood a huge area on the left bank of the Dnieper, cause many human casualties and endanger the cooling system of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant that relies on the river's water level. This adds an extensive nuclear disaster to the list of risks.

The fear of Kherson being bombed has to do with the reputation of head of the occupying forces Sergei Surovikin. Tactics aimed against civilian populations in Chechnya and Syria have earned him the nicknames of the Butcher of Aleppo and Armageddon. Efforts to evacuate collaborators and pull some elite units out of the area would also suggest intent to level Kherson using bombs.

Iran has become Russia's greatest assistant in its destructive efforts, selling Russia drones with which to attack Ukrainian cities and infrastructure as they would be of little effect on the front. Iran has also dispatched its drone experts to Russia, and Iranian volunteers are active in the Russian armed forces. Buying short-range missiles from Iran is also being mulled.

Iran, designated a sponsor of terrorism by USA, appearing on the Ukrainian arena means that two terrorist states have pooled their resources to threaten the entire world. We still do not know what Iran stands to gain. Nuclear material or technology, military aircraft have been suggested as possibilities.

Even though Iranian drones do not directly affect the situation on the front, they tax Ukrainian air defenses, forcing the use of expensive missiles to counter them, which could cause shortages when the need arises to counter Russian cruise missiles or planes. Drones are cheap, missiles expensive.

Concentrating on drone defense necessitates the procurement of specialist systems and works to hinder other arms deliveries necessary for offensive operations. Regarding the latter, Western deliveries have been insufficient, with Russia still sporting a notable advantage in the number of howitzers.

Killer state

Over the first seven months of the year, Russia has fired around 4,000 cruise missiles and in the past month over 200 Shahed kamikaze drones at Ukraine in an attempt to paralyze heating and electricity generation and leave its cities without power and heat.

On the one hand, it is an attempt to intimidate Ukraine and force it to the negotiating table. On the other, it satisfies demand in Russia for victories and revenge. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights puts the number of civilian casualties in Ukraine since February 24 at 6,306, of whom 397 children, while 9,602 civilians, including 723 children, have been injured. Russian propagandists have made no attempt to mask the joy this brings them and are urging relevant efforts to be stepped up.

Even though the ruling regime in Russia has been declared terrorist by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia separately, the expectation is for the U.S. to follow suit as this would result in the most effective sanctions. Political, humanitarian and economic reasons have been given for why the White House has refrained from declaring Russia a state sponsor of terrorism as it has done with North Korea, Iran, Syria and Cuba.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre suggested that this would result in a situation where existing agreements could no longer be kept and that cornering Russia would negate any levers with which to apply pressure. Declaring Russia a pariah state could cause a global food crisis as it would jeopardize Russian and Ukrainian grain exports to Africa.

Analysts have listed other global factors behind Biden's refusal. For example, Russia provides a sizable chunk of India and China's energy needs and declaring it a state sponsor of terrorism would necessitate uncomfortable decisions from the Asian countries.

Considering its obligation to defend Taiwan, USA prefers stability in China relations, while it wants to increase its positive influence in India and lessen Russia's role, which purpose an ultimatum-like intervention in Russia-India economic relations and causing India economic difficulties would certainly not promote. As put by India's Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, cheap Russian oil helps curb inflation.

It is clear that USA wants Ukraine to win the war as it would also demonstrate to China that war is no way to solve territorial disputes, while the Americans are also trying to manage tensions in the Pacific. Additionally, what Russia will do depends on China and India to a notable degree. Both have effective levers for keeping Putin from resorting to nuclear weapons, which is another reason not to put pressure on them in terms of sanctions for Russia.

Intelligence in the service of terror

We still do not have credible information on who orchestrated the explosion on the Kerch Bridge or blew the Nord Stream pipelines. Concerning the latter, it has been suggested it was the work of the FSB, aimed at influencing processes in a way to benefit Russia or certain circles therein. The FSB and Putin became known for such terror acts before the Second Chechen War, including blowing up apartment buildings as a pretext for the war.

Russian special services blowing the pipeline to try and leave Western Europe in the cold and convince the West to stop arms deliveries to Ukraine and force it to the negotiating table does not come off too far-fetched. A somewhat more extreme version has also been suggested, according to which Putin wants to turn Russia into a closed state following the example of the Soviet Union and sever all ties with the West as it is the only way for him to remain in power.

Sanctions that have been imposed on Russia have already rendered it an economically closed state, and ending gas exports to the West would change little in this regard. The sale of oil is far more important for Russia, exports of which were many times that of gas in 2021. Data from the Austrian National Bank suggests that Russian oil imports made up 10 percent of its GDP, 36 percent of all exports and 72 percent of energy exports in 2021, while gas exports only counted for 2 percent of GDP, 8 percent of total exports and 16 percent of energy exports.

Processes inside Russia and setbacks In Ukraine point to growing tensions between groups – the Ministry of Defense, armed forces and military intelligence (GRU), FSB, the National Guard and Wagner mercenaries. All are taking action to try and increase their influence or divert negative attention. Broadly speaking, it could be suggested there is a standoff between the FSB and GRU.

Kerch explosion as part of the power struggle

Among recent speculations over the Kerch Bridge explosion is a version where the GRU organized the explosion in an attempt to discredit the FSB that is responsible for internal security and failed to prevent the blast. This animosity between the FSB and GRU has existed since the start of the war when Russia's blitzkrieg failing was blamed on the FSB that was tasked with preparing the invasion but rather pocketed the billions allocated for the purpose.

Next came the failure of the Russian armed forces and the war dragging on, blame for which in turn fell on the Russian general staff under which the GRU operates.

A key political figure for FSB is Russia's former Security Council Secretary and FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev who (or his son Dmitri Patrushev) has been seen as one potential candidate for president after the Putin regime collapses.

The GRU has highlighted Wagner founder Yevgeni Prigozhin whose actions have rather relied on the GRU and who seems to have the backing of Ramzan Kadyrov to whom Chechen National Guard members and the so-called Ahmad units active in Ukraine answer, considering there is no love lost between Kadyrov's people and the FSB.

FSB and GRU (Wagner) have also divided occupied territories into areas of influence, with the former in charge of the so-called Donetsk people's republic and the latter of Luhansk in which Wagner has built a line of defenses referred to as the Wagner Line.

At the same time, it is unclear who is in charge of Wagner as its chief, Admiral Igor Kostyukov seems to be a purely formal figure just like Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu who decides nothing at all. Head of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia), Gen. Viktor Zolotov, who served as head of the Russian president's security service in 2000-2013 and has been seen as part of the Prigozhin-Kadyrov camp, has also faded into the background.

Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that the Kerch Bridge explosion was organized by a GRU sabotage group and that it came as a surprise to the brass and Putin himself. It has also been suggested that a military junta is forming, ready to seize power in Russia should it prove necessary. Since both Prigozhin and Kadyrov are very close to Putin, this could suggest intricate powerplays are afoot.

Kadyrov has also been suggested as a contender for the top job, and while it is not very likely, his ambition and Russians' fear of Kadyrov's henchmen must not be underestimated. The group could also be led by deputy head of the Putin administration Sergey Kiriyenko who allegedly has the backing of media magnate and so-called Putin banker Yuri Kovaltchuk. It is too soon to predict who of them could rise to the top, but Putin's power is waning and someone will have to take over eventually.

Today, we can still talk of a standby period where no direct action is taken against Putin. On the one hand, he still has enough power to remove any rival, while he also relies on them as they form his close circle. And so, the wait continues for Putin to exhaust the last moves left to him.

In order to retake the initiative in the war, Putin has declared a mobilization and plans to attack Ukraine again from Belarus to sever Ukrainian supply routes from Poland. The mobilization has ensured enough cannon fodder to continue the war effort and slowed the Ukrainian advance, while the limits of the measure are now becoming visible.

Russia lacks the necessary resources for a comprehensive mobilization and the first casualty reports are in that will start to affect public opinion once they reach critical mass. Prigozhin and Kadyrov were allegedly opposed to the mobilization, while it was backed by Shoigu and Patrushev that also made visible the outlines of the camps.

Coming to a potential Russian offensive from Belarus, it remains unlikely in the near future. While a number of newly mobilized troops (around 9,000 presently) and military equipment have been sent there, it is not enough to open up a new front.

Putin has also failed to convince Lukashenko to take part in the war effort. Therefore, it is a threat to tie a certain amount of Ukrainian troops to the Belarusian border. But it has also been suggested that the Belarus formation could materialize in the coming months and Putin succeed in breaking Lukashenko as once the last act where everything is on the line rolls around, Lukashenko will either submit or be sent to a "Kobzon concert." Lukashenko will have no more value by then.

Speaking in favor of FSB staging the Kerch Bridge explosion, next to the desire to discredit the GRU, is the fact that FSB took over the security on the bridge from the National Guard along with the two billion rubles allocated for the purpose.

The question of why Putin is refraining from just executing the perpetrators in the Red Square suggests that his power has limits, more so as those responsible are in his close circle. Instead, the president has accepted FSB's hastily constructed official version according to which the blast was organized by Ukrainian special services, led by military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov. However, the "proof" that has been produced has been so unconvincing that even Putin is unlikely to put stock in it.

Making no effort to hide their joy, official Ukrainian channels have denied involvement in the Kerch Bridge attack. That said, there is no way to rule out Ukrainian involvement and several experts hold it to be probable, if not quite according to Russia's official version. It pays to emphasize that all of it is speculation and the truth might only be revealed in the Valhalla of intelligence operatives.

But whoever blew the Kerch Bridge, it gave Putin the pretext he needed to launch his premediated missile attack against Ukrainian cities on October 10. Russia fired 84 cruise missiles in a single day of which Ukraine managed to neutralize 43. Missile attacks have continued but not in the same volume.

The explosion also demonstrated that the bridge is not robust and could easily be destroyed. It is probable that another attack on it is just a matter of time and will come from the Ukrainian side that until recently believed it would be either difficult or impossible to do.

"Why don't they simply call the cops on Putin?"

How is it possible that despite accusations of terrorism and war crimes, Putin continues to take part in international communication? How is it possible that Putin, threatening the entire world with nuclear war, is traveling the globe and no one has shot down his plane?

How is it possible he has not met the fate of Osama Bin Laden, Qasem Soleimani (killed by a U.S. drone strike) and Ayman al-Zawahiri? Why are Putin and other Russian war criminals not arrested and put on trial at the International Criminal Court?

To only try and answer the latter question, while the ICC is free to investigate Ukraine war crimes, it has no mandate to bring war criminals to account. The UN General Assembly condemning the Russian annexation [of Ukraine] has a declarative meaning and comes with no powers for the UN as a mandate for an international tribunal would have to come from the UN Security Council of which Russia is a member.

A completely separate tribunal has been mulled, while the questions of mandate and how to bring the criminals in front of the court would remain. To draw a parallel with the Nurnberg process following WWII, it first required beating Nazi Germany and physically arresting the war criminals, which is to suggest any trial of Russian perpetrators of war crimes could only happen after the country capitulates and agrees to deliver those responsible.

Still, a G7 statement from November 11 gives hope that an international tribunal over Russian war criminals could eventually be held as it suggests, following Russia's missile attacks, that attacks on innocent civilians constitute a war crime and vows to hold Putin and other perpetrators accountable.

The same declaration states that Ukraine will continue to receive military and economic assistance for as long as it restores its territorial integrity and affirms willingness to participate in ensuring Ukrainian security after the war. While it is a strong declaration as these things go, statements of any kind are in the habit of being forgotten.

Even though most countries in the world avoid talking to Russia's head terrorist and have closed its doors to him, decisive steps have nevertheless not been taken. Putin continues to operate like a head of state, enjoys diplomatic immunity and even remains a legitimate partner for some states. Putin attending the mid-November G20 meeting in Indonesia begs the question of whether those organizing it sport an adequate understanding of global affairs. It has even been asked whether Putin and Zelenskyy could agree on something there.

It remains unclear whether Putin will attend the meeting, if only via video conference, but even just theoretically discussing the possibility makes one wonder why Hitler was not invited to the Yalta Conference or offered any deals there.

The conference took place on February 11, 1945, and making concessions to Nazi Germany would have avoided several months of fighting and spared many lives. True, it would also have seen Hitler and his National Socialist Party remain in power in Germany that comes off as an inappropriate speculation that cannot be taken seriously.

Why then is it not inappropriate in the case of war criminal Putin and his United Russia party? Vladimir Putin has become the world's foremost terrorist, the most dangerous human being, and it is high time we consigned him to the trash heap of history – whether in the footsteps of Bin Laden, Soleimani or Ayman al-Zawahiri or in some other way is a matter of technique.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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