Three claims have emerged during the past week on which Vladimir Putin would want his troops and the people of Russia to focus. First, that Moscow’s forces, leaning heavily on the Wagner mercenary group, have taken control of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Second, that a raid on Russian territory by anti-Kremlin militias was forced back and the fighters were “liquidated”. Third, that tactical nuclear weapons have been deployed to Russia’s neighbour and ally Belarus.
All of these elements are aimed at projecting a sense of strength – the idea that Putin, together with those around him, including his military chiefs, is in control of the invasion he launched 15 months ago seemingly with the intention that it would last for a matter of weeks. Scratch the surface, though, and the facade that the Russian president is trying to uphold begins to fall away.
Let’s start with the last – and simplest – of those events: the transfer of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus. Putin announced the move in March; the papers formally authorising it were signed on Thursday; and the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, said later the same day that the weapons had already begun to be moved. The deployment, Russia says, is in response to “Nato aggression” – that is to say, the military support the alliance has provided to Ukraine.