An uprising in Kherson

Putin’s theory of how Russia would pacify a conquered Ukraine appears to have been that Ukrainians would … just sort of pacify themselves. Russia can’t mount an effective long-term occupation of a country this large but it wouldn’t need to, provided that Ukrainians placidly accepted their fate and welcomed their integration into Russia.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Russia’s entire war strategy rested on that dubious assumption bearing out. If Ukrainians resisted and forced Russia to commit to a lengthy pacification effort, there’s no telling how long Moscow would be able to sustain it. Especially with western sanctions taking a wrecking ball to their economy.

To put it another way, Putin really, truly seems to have believed his own bullsh*t about Ukrainians greeting Russian troops as liberators. In a worst-case scenario, he may have imagined that Ukrainians would resist initially but then would roll over once their cities were occupied and all hope of expelling the invader was lost.

That theory was tested today in the southern city of Kherson, the site of Russia’s most significant victory to date. The Russian military seized it days ago and moved in to occupy it. If Putin is right that Ukrainians will reconcile themselves to their fate once they fall under Russian control, the first evidence should emerge in Kherson.

His theory looked shaky yesterday. Today it looks shakier:

Some were willing to do more than protest:

Russia’s army may “control” the city but it doesn’t really control it. This remarkable video was apparently shot in Melitopol, not Kherson, yet it’s in the same spirit:

How will Russia ever defeat these people?

No one doubts that Putin is sadistic enough to kill every last resister in order to assert his dominance over Ukraine. A ceasefire agreement between the two sides to allow civilians to evacuate from besieged Mariupol has already fallen apart, in fact, with Ukraine accusing the Russian military of attacking residential areas. No matter how ruthless Putin is willing to be, though, many observers increasingly doubt whether he has the ability to impose his will on Ukrainians:

As the money runs out and Russian troops grow more demoralized, it’s anyone’s guess how long the offensive can endure. Take a minute to read Trent Telenko’s assessment of the now-famous Russian military convoy that’s stalled outside of Kiev. There’s no complicated explanation for why it isn’t moving, he argues. It’s as simple as the front of the convoy being out of fuel and stuck in the mud as spring temperatures in Ukraine thaw the ground. Russia has been trying to resupply it, but in order to do that they need to seize the Hostomel airfield. And despite numerous attempts to do so, the Ukrainians keep fending them off.

The convoy can’t gas up so it can’t move, and meanwhile the Russian troops who are part of it are running out of food. Telenko’s assessment:

If Russia had air superiority in Ukraine, members of the convoy could at least feel reassured that they won’t be attacked from the air. But we all know how that’s going. The clock is ticking on them.

Meanwhile, this curious scene played out in Moscow today:

Images of Putin seated 30 feet away from his advisors, ostensibly as a COVID precaution, have become commonplace. Yet here he is cheek by jowl with Russian flight attendants, all of them unmasked. (Although no doubt vaccinated and tested before being granted an audience with the tsar.) If Putin is willing to tolerate close quarters with them, why isn’t he willing to tolerate it with his own deputies?

One popular theory on social media today is that he’s keeping his distance from men not because he fears COVID but because he fears they might murder him. That’s a comforting thought but I don’t buy it. He kept his distance from foreign leaders like Macron and Scholz too when they visited last month. Surely he’s not worried about an assassination attempt by the president of France.

It’s more likely that Putin resents the flattering coverage Zelensky has received for his wartime leadership. Zelensky refused to leave Kiev, he’s visited his troops in the field, and he’s frequently pictured side by side with his advisors. He’s a hands-on executive who consistently communicates solidarity with his people, suffering alongside them. Putin is the opposite, fantastically wealthy, aloof from Russian society, and physically distanced even from his own aides. Today’s photo op highlighting his proximity to Russian flight attendants — whose industry has been devastated by western sanctions, by the way — is likely a PR stunt aimed at improving his image domestically.

I’ll leave you with this. Things will get worse before they get better.

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