Philip Blood on Putin’s War

Philip Blood

A new book looks at the Russo-Ukrainian War from social media to Putin's genocidal tendencies.
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Philip Blood, many congratulations on this fascinating collection of essays. Why did you want to embark on this project?

Thank you. The impetus to write the book originally followed from posting an open access paper on academic websites. The paper postulated that Putin’s strategy reflected an Anaconda Plan. A leading British publisher suggested a book, which unfortunately we could not actualise. Chris Schoen, Ibidem (Stuttgart) advised he could publish the book before year end.

The group of authors came from our common experience of working or being supervised by the late Professor Richard Holmes. In addition, Chris Bellamy is an expert of Russo-Soviet military culture and operations. Roger Cirillo served in the US Army, had experience of working in NATO, and is an historian of Cold War military operations and. Dustin Du Cane is a Polish lawyer based in Warsaw but with strong cultural links with Ukraine.

The authors collectively decided to focus upon Putin’s first year of war as a serious credible threat to Europe and western security. We followed two themes in the plan – firstly, to ensure the details of the first year were not lost to history; secondly, we wanted to synchronize real-time events to analysis.

Your contributors are challenging orthodoxies, with social media a particular target for ire. What has been the problem with social media, and what are the orthodoxies that you believe are unhelpful?

Social media is a wonderful creation for mass communication and most people engage on one platform or more. Access to social media has allowed me to engage with several global communities, was influential in shaping this book, and instrumental in the publication of a previous manuscript in 2021.

However, social media is overtly influenced by propaganda, politics, and extremism. The platforms function through algorithms that have no ethical limits and no moral compass. In theory, extremes and norms can co-exist, and all content is equalised. In practice, social media is not neutral. Additionally, the owners of platforms cast a powerful influence in the arenas, and they manipulate algorithms for interest groups.

Consequently, in the war, both Russian and Ukrainian propagandists have flooded the platforms with content, pushing false narratives and manipulated images. The depiction of the war in social media has become diffused, or overstated, or diminished, as further content rapidly shifts trajectories and quickly alters attitudes.

Alarmingly, in the early days of the war, the seemingly professional reporting by ‘experts’ on social media informed public broadcast media. A significant part of this content proved false or fake, and broadcast media began to push back the war from the headlines. Scholars posting hasty opinions, predicting victories, and questioning the truth of the genocide has also cooled the general public’s interest. In an age marked by a deep loss of credibility for experts and politicians alike, the war is being forced to compete for public attention – which largely suits Putin.

Collectively soldiers and scholars were caught betwixt n’ between in endorsing content in their engagements on social media about the war. Some have used the platforms to build a personal following to promote themselves and self-monetise the war. Others have become lost in the heady rhetoric that comes with war as a ‘socialising’ process. While yet more have dismissed the discourse and now completely avoid any comment on the war.

The authors of the book took different standpoints during the writing of their essays. As editor, I thought it wise to withdraw from public engagement to avoid word salad writing. I continued to monitor Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Academia. Chris Bellamy is fully engaged with broadcast media but shuns social media. Roger Cirillo engages with the regular social forums of American academics and the military, but also shuns social media. Dustin du Cane is a regular surfer across many social media platforms and was the go-to person for the book’s web content.

In February 2024 the war will have been raging for two years, where are we now?

Confusion continues to define the war ‘s narrative. Arguments in favour of extending support for Ukraine are countered by arguments for removing support and forcing a settlement on Ukraine. Additionally, history teaches how uncertain second and third years of a war can turn. Belligerents dig in for the long haul, while the wastage of national reserves begins to force more aggressive operations leading to more losses. Desperation mounts, as uncertainty increases. Presently, Putin has talked publicly of a settlement, but has never settled for anything less than total victory. He is an unreliable actor in foreign affairs and peace treaties. Putin has frequently frozen conflicts to impose isolation on warzones to wear down foreign interest. We must accept Ukraine is locked in an existential war and has no choice but to continue military operations but is fast losing reserves and impetus. If the west is to retain its sovereignty and security, the west is forced to encourage Ukraine to continue fighting and dying, regardless of the depleted condition of the NATO forces. Long term this situation lacks credibility and viability for everyone except Putin.

Chris Bellamy is reminded of September 1916, two years into WW1 and at the tail end of the Battle of the Somme. Massive British and French casualties – substitute Britain and France for Russia. There is still a stalemate. Massive casualties on both sides and minimal gains. New technologies have come in to try to circumvent the land stalemate including Zeppelins, aeroplanes, and submarines. Fast forward 107 years: drones.

Many countries in the West have provided military and financial backing to Ukraine in their struggle with Russia, but do you think that backing will endure for another two years, particularly now the Israel/Gaza conflict is attracting attention?

In February 2022, against the social media collective, I argued the war would be hard and long.

Chris believes it’s debatable and mindful of media focus on Israel/Hamas possibly not. Unless, of course, there is a massive shift of power in Russia.

There are enormous internal pressures on western governments to slow down or cut financial support or military aid to Ukraine. Depending upon the outcome of elections in UK and USA, they represent threats to Ukraine’s continuing support. The economic costs of the war in Europe include the mass refugees, which is boiling into an humanitarian crisis, the massive impact on energy costs and supply, and the ongoing shortages in certain foodstuffs.

The general public in Europe have continued to express disinterest in the war or its outcome. Those who care for Ukraine are concerned about the prospect of a Trump victory and the prospect of enforced settlement.

Ukrainians quite rightly want a return to pre-2014 borders, but is that achievable militarily?

History informs that it’s almost impossible to restore old borders after an extreme conflict and where the violence has turned genocidal. In discussions with authors the consensus has been that Ukraine ‘s frontiers are no longer sovereign and that undermines the national will to continue the war.

The Russians don’t like losing. Overall, probably not. Unless, like November 1918, the Russians rise against their leadership. The best solution, assuming that does not happen, is probably to strive for a ceasefire and negotiations for a solution that might be ( the Bellamy peace plan) that would let Russia keep Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine would keep the rest but with a Demilitarized Zone on the right bank (S and W) of the Dnipro and maybe along the Belarusian border.

In two years, the Russians have lost more than 100,000 troops killed (this is an estimate), as opposed to approx. 15,000 in the ten-year Soviet-Afghan conflict. As we know the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, so will it be longevity or losses, or neither or both, that could see a Russian retreat?

Compared with Afghanistan, Russian casualties are indeed staggering. Important to differentiate between recoverable (wounded) and irrecoverable (dead, prisoners, missing) losses. In Afghanistan the soldatskiye materi (soldiers’ mums) movement was important. But wider liberalisation and imminent dissolution in USSR also played a role. Plus ca change?

Russian losses have been a cause of speculation since the war started. The national demographics have been in a downward trajectory since the 1980s. In this regard, Russia needs a pacified Ukrainian population to restore its domestic population. It also needs to acquire lands and peoples to counter its declining birthdate. That renders predicting Putin’s war aims extremely difficult because they can shift or pivot as his strategic paradigms change. Even if Russia was forced into a defeat, it won’t remove the eternal threat of a superpower in a constant birth-rate meltdown.

There are both academics and veterans contributing to your collection – is there a consensus on what Ukraine’s strategy for 2024 should be?

The ‘veterans’ among us have been concerned about the longevity of the war-fighting future of Ukraine. The reports from the visits to Ukraine by the lawyer in the team have focused upon the precarious situation in Ukraine ‘s rear areas. The veterans talk about mass, even in regard to Russia’s losses. The losses push greater sacrifices. Having surveyed a number of friends and colleagues serving in European defence academies, there is a general opinion that Russia retains the strategic initiative. Most also argue that Ukraine is shifting from an operational to a strategic war stance, giving it a greater opportunity to inflict serious defeats on Russia at a relatively cheap cost in material and personnel. It’s a difficult decision and high-risk foray opponent to shift stance while locked in a fight. Perhaps, Ukraine has finally begun to learn to win, and Russia has become temporarily spooked by the horrifying spectre of looming defeat.

Most powerfully the book addresses the genocide inflicted on Ukraine by Russia. Is this driven by historical animosities or de-humanising of the Ukrainian people by Russian elites?

We, the authors, eventually reached a consensus. Chris thought, that, whereas a concatenation of multiple and individual war crimes did not in itself amount to genocide, genocide is a deliberate, over-arching attempt to erase a people/race/nation from history. This appears to be Putin’s aim. Among all the atrocities and crimes against humanity the deportation of Ukrainian kids to be brought up as good little Russians is, perhaps counterintuitively, what tips the verdict from war crimes and crimes against humanity to full-blown genocide.

The problem people face, in regard to genocide, is its meaning. Contemporary genocide is a lot more sophisticated, as a political weapon, as perpetrators have learned best to practice for maximum effectiveness. The methods wielded by the Nazis or the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia were clumsy and cost too many resources. Putin pointed the artillery at the cities and pounded the civilians. That caused the internal refugee problem on Ukraine’s interior lines and drove the fear factor that the ‘barbarians’ are coming.

Trashing the national identity of the ‘other’ has been a peculiarly Russian trait of political violence. The old Red Army could be made to commit sexual violence or atrocities at the switch of Stalin’s button. The Russian army positioning artillery forces to de-house masses of population, depopulating cities, represented exploiting collateral damage for Putin’s political ends.

Putin is a KGB officer; his MO is terror biased. Defeating the enemy with terror, recalling the Red Army’s history, or unleashing his troops to commit atrocities are his MO. But Putin is not a Stalin. His inner circle has no ideology, he holds court like a mafia boss. His repeated failures and failings would have led him to the Lubyanka in Stalin’s day. He’s a serial failure but the bloodshed and destruction are giving him the identity of an untouchable dictator. Either he will be assassinated or will pass with age, the greater problem for the world is the eventual successor.

Philip Blood is a historian and editor of the Putin’s War, Russian Genocide: Essays about the First Year of the War in Ukraine.