The slow progress of Putin’s invasion forces in Ukraine is no cause for celebration. Nor are reports of blunders, even major strategic errors, or a “depressed” mood in Moscow.
Nor should the unassailable win Ukraine and President Zelensky have in the courtroom of world opinion, or the scorn that has fallen on the Russian leader, be mistaken for real victory.
Putin will not accept failure in Ukraine. He is all in. There will be some terrible victory, of a kind, or this will be his downfall.
Putin knows that the fulcrum nation of Ukraine is increasingly looking towards Europe and away from his glare. Russian influence still bears down, but it has been felt with less menace as time has gone on, and he knows it.
There were early warnings that rejection could be costly, even lethal: the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko in 2004, as he ran the presidential race against Putin’s man, for one.
There was Crimea, then Donbas – both interventions launched with expediency in reaction to popular protest movements within Ukraine demanding greater ties with the EU.
And now this. End-game.
Like an enraged abuser in the blind fury of rejection, Putin is proving the more lethal the more the victim tries to move on.
Like all victims, Ukraine is at its most mortally vulnerable trying to escape. The more she has tried to wrestle herself loose the more brutal the punishment has been.
Glowering into the camera, hyena-like, hours before his tanks rolled in, Putin had a cold message for the people of Ukraine.
Submit and come back, or be destroyed.
Submission, so that we can “move forward together, without allowing anyone to interfere in our affairs and our relations”.
And “for those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside,” he threatened, with Lear-like nihilism, “such consequences that you have never experienced in your history“.
“I hope I will be heard.”
This assault is really a message to Ukraine: no more talk of trying to get away. Don’t make me do this to you again.
Putin has his goons, bag men, and dupes – all abusers need their enablers.
He has even found useful idiots in the West. Volunteer ventriloquist dummies, from the far fringes of the so-called anti-war left in Britain, and in the US, the Trump-loyalist wing of the Republican Party.
They were there for him when he ordered the murder of the Skripals on UK soil – even from the high office of Leader of the Opposition.
They kept usefully mute for years while the Kremlin carried out political assassinations and arrests of opponents within Russian territory and here in Britain.
They shrugged at a regime of hostility to Russia’s LGBT community, its free press, and the very concept of democracy.
They conveyed the line that if ever Mr Putin was forced to attack Ukraine, we in the West would be to blame.
Even in the days leading up to the invasion, many on the anti-war left still smugly insisted that Putin had no aggressive intentions, only justified defensive claims.
Thirteen days before, Jeremy Corbyn told an online meeting of the Stop the War Coalition that it was “the US with British support that is leading the way on this”, concurring with Diane Abbott’s previous assessment that “claims that Russia is the aggressor should be treated sceptically”.
But rather than admit being wrong now, or revise the world view even a degree, the same people simply shrug, offer the most grudging noises of ‘support’, always equivocally, and never without the qualification that NATO – in effect, we – are ultimately to blame.
Thankfully most people are not so ignorant, or so credulous about anyone at all, however vile, ‘standing up to the West’.
Russia is facing crushing criticism abroad and, though it is heavily suppressed, domestically as well. Politically and economically one sure outcome of this is a generation of total isolation for the nation Putin claims to be reviving.
Even on the ground the invasion has been a morass in places. His own troops – many led unknowingly to the front line believing these were merely exercises – are surrendering, shattered and undersupplied.
The absence of a shock-and-awe rout has resulted in an eerie sense of semi-reality to western observers, a sort of dragged out death for Ukraine, and the humiliation for Putin of seeming at times to be the failing invader.
The grimly inevitable course now is to become more deadly, as so many abusers do when they are rejected. Putin wants absolute control over a body he considers his own property, and would rather kill than let go.
She is bloodied and bruised. Weak, and isolated. Exhausted and afraid. As vulnerable as it is possible to be: the long-battered victim, half prisoner, half free.