The week Vladimir Putin lost control - by Justin Huggler in Berlin for the Telegraph - 04.03.22

As Ukraine continues to defy Russian troops, the disasters are mounting for Russia's president militarily, economically and diplomatically


A week ago, Vladimir Putin seemed unstoppable. Russian troops had crossed into Ukraine in overwhelming numbers, and it seemed that it was a matter of days until resistance was crushed.


The West looked powerless to do anything about it. The US and its allies failed to agree the unprecedented sanctions they had threatened, instead delivering a few limited measures against individual oligarchs and banks.


The courage of Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainians was already clear, but they looked doomed to a hopeless last stand.


Putin was the master manipulator who had outplayed the West. The enduring image of him was the swaggering figure who bullied his National Security Council in front of the cameras in a vast marble Kremlin hall.


However, a week can be a long time in war. The Russian president cut a diminished figure as he met with the same National Security Council by video link from an undisclosed location on Thursday.


There were dark patches beneath his eyes and he seemed to falter as he stood to honour the Russian dead.


Away from the cameras, according to US intelligence claims, there have been uncharacteristic bouts of fury. The usually ice-cold Putin has been feeling the heat and taking out his frustrations on his inner circle.


The claims, which would suggest that the West has an extraordinarily well-placed source, are impossible to verify, but they make sense in the context of how quickly Putin’s war has unravelled.


“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen,” Vladimir Lenin, a former occupant of the Kremlin, once said.


The West unites against Putin


Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK, was given a standing ovation by MPs in the House of Commons on Wednesday.


This was the week in which Putin lost control on multiple fronts: militarily, on the battlefield in Ukraine; economically, at home in Russia; and diplomatically, as the West united against him.


“Putin has achieved in one week the exact opposite of what he wanted: i.e. the Europeanisation of Ukraine, revitalisation of the Transatlantic relationship, the rejuvenation of Nato, unity of the EU and a radical shift in support for Nato membership in Finland and Sweden,” said Alexander Stubb, a former Finnish prime minister.


On the second day of the invasion last Friday, the situation looked bleak, but there were already small signs of what was to come. The Pentagon noted that Russia had failed to take control of Ukrainian airspace and that Russian troops were advancing more slowly than expected.


Thousands of Russians had taken to the street in spontaneous protests against the war, despite threats of arrest.


Photos tweeted by Ilya Yashin, a Russian opposition politician, showed children protesting the invasion being bundled into a police van.


Initial Western sanctions were limited. However, Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, had surprised everyone with a decisive announcement to suspend the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.


Stories of courage were beginning to come out of Ukraine. A recording was doing the rounds on social media in which Ukrainian troops refused to surrender with the words: “Russian warship, go f--- yourself.”


Olena Zelenska, the first lady of Ukraine, told her people: “I will not have panic and tears. I will be calm and confident. My children are looking at me. I will be next to them. And next to my husband. And with you.”


Mr Zelensky scotched rumours that he had fled with a self-filmed video standing shoulder to shoulder with ministers in the heart of the capital: “The president is here. We are all here.”

‘I need ammunition, not a ride’


The following day, it emerged that the US had offered to exfiltrate him from Ukraine to safety to lead a government in exile.


His response? “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”


As video emerged of abandoned Russian tanks, Ukrainian resilience began to have an effect on the West.


Germany and Hungary had held out against expelling Russia from the Swift international banking system. However, last Saturday they agreed and the sanctions started to become meaningful.


That same day, Germany dropped its opposition to arming Ukraine and announced it would send anti-tank rockets and Stinger missiles.


However, a bigger blow was to come for Putin on Sunday, when Mr Scholz announced that Germany was overturning its entire defence policy and rearming with an immediate €100 billion (£83 billion) of new military spending.


Putin had achieved what Donald Trump, the former US president, could not: he had made Germany meet its Nato commitments.


Russia spent years courting Germany in an attempt to divide Nato and the EU, offering it cheap and plentiful gas and hiring Gerhard Schroeder, a former chancellor, as a lobbyist.


In stark contrast to Vladimir Putin's image of Russian forces being tough, two young Russian soldiers weep as they talk to their mothers on the phone.


Now that had all disappeared in a matter of days. The £8 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was a write-off and Germany was back at the heart of Nato.


The word in Berlin is that it was Mr Zelensky who changed Mr Scholz’s mind. A video conference between the Ukrainian president and EU leaders is said to have had a profound effect on Mr Scholz.


“This may be the last time you see me alive,” Mr Zelensky told them, according to people who were present.


Putin had lost control of the narrative to Mr Zelensky, and it was starting to have an impact.

That same Sunday, in the first clear sign that Moscow was rattled, Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear defences to be put on alert in a televised meeting with General Sergey Shoygu, his defence minister.


The look of unguarded fear on Gen Shoygu’s face said it all. Russia’s invasion was going wrong and the stakes were getting higher.


By now it was clear that the war was not going according to plan. Putin appeared to have banked on a swift race to Kyiv, the killing or capture of Mr Zelenksy, and the decapitation of the Ukrainian regime.


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The Russian onslaught on Ukraine’s citizens continued as this block of flats in the outskirts of Kyiv was destroyed Credit: Reuters/Maksim Levin

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