In the Ukraine-Russia war, something sinister or stupid is happening - Patrick Mercer

There’s something either hugely sinister going on – or something astonishingly stupid: I just can’t work out which.

Just a few weeks ago President Zelensky broadcast his deep concern about the casualties his forces were taking and the steady progress that Russia was making in the Donbas. He pleaded for further weapons and help from the West suggesting that if more were not forthcoming Ukraine would go under.

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As a result, extra hardware has certainly been despatched, most notably long range rocket systems which have been scuppering some Russian depots behind the front lines. But only a handful have been sent of which, Kiev tells us, about a third have already been destroyed or damaged and only a few replacements have been promised.

Ukrainian tanks in the Donbas region. The predicted counter-offensive against Russian forces in the south is still awaited. Picture: ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images

In parallel, the much vaunted Ukrainian counter-offensive in the south has yet to leave the blocks and all the time President Putin’s men nibble bloodily and remorselessly away at settlements and towns in the East.

Now, President Zelensky’s message may have been deliberately exaggerated, but seemed clear to me: “Help me now or we’re sunk”.

I would have said exactly the same in his circumstances recognising that the West had to be kept tweaked up if political fatigue were to be avoided. But, just over a week ago Admiral Radakin, our Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), told the media that Russia had already, strategically, lost the war while the head of MI6 (who’s still, rather theatrically, known as ‘C’) followed on stating that Moscow’s “running out of steam”.

But, why in the name of all that’s holy, have our spooks and military bosses been saying what they’ve said? It’s true, Russia’s blood and thunder advances may have slowed, but no-one seems to have told the Kremlin that all is lost or that they have run themselves to a standstill!

In an information age a consistent message is vital, isn’t it?

Similarly, there’s little doubt that Olena and Volodymyr Zelensky’s photo shoot for Vogue was designed to keep them and their plight right in the eye of Western decision makers.

More tangibly, Kiev worries that the very modest promises of extra weapons made at the Nato conference at Ramstein in Germany in June suggests that the armourers’ shelves are starting to look as bare as Western headlines about the war.

Then there was the oddest pronouncement by Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Advisor, at the same conference in Colorado where ‘C’ spoke.

He told the audience how worried he was about President Zelensky’s personal safety, implying that assassination is a real possibility. But by whom?

The Russian media sites responded stridently, suggesting that Moscow most profoundly wants President Zelensky to stay fit and well enough to sign capitulation papers, cynically reasoning that he is the only man in Ukraine with the kudos to make such a move stick.

Whether you agree or not that surrender is on the cards, the Russians may have a point: so who else is a threat to the President?

Kiev’s hard right enraged by any suggestion of surrender, maybe? Or perhaps Mssrs Sullivan and ‘C’ are pointing to something much more devious.

I can’t easily think of any other, modern campaign where so much has depended on a single leader. President Zelensky walks a tightrope everyday between Nato and Russia with aggressive giants on his borders such as Belarus and Poland and huge rivalries within his own ranks – just look at the way he’s had to sack some of his closest ministers recently.

It’s no exaggeration to say that he’s the lynchpin around which Ukrainian resistance revolves. His death would bring chaos and preclude the orderly surrender Moscow both craves and needs.

The backdrop to all this is the energy crisis which is beginning to bite Europe hard even before the chills of autumn. Earlier in the week the EU “…reached a political agreement on a voluntary reduction of natural gas demand by 15 per cent this winter”, but emphasised that this was discretionary and then listed a series of members who were wholly or partially exempt.

It’s flaccid stuff in the face of Russia having now shown her hand with the Nordstream pipelines, clearly intending to switch supplies on or off at will.

Now, forget bombs and bullets and grapple with “hybrid” warfare where nations’ economies are attacked via lack of energy and raw materials – this is clearly what Russia’s doing.

As a result, many forecasts for Europe’s and the US’s economies are dire.

Some believe that Germany – Europe’s largest economy and the one most dependent on Russian gas – is already in recession with hyperinflation inevitable. But, will the Germans and others watch their societies collapse in order to underwrite Ukraine and maintain solidarity with their Nato and EU partners?

This is an extremely bleak view, but it’s exactly the one that Russia is trying to achieve.

Now, ‘C’ and CDS aren’t daft, nor do they utter a syllable without weighing its political impact: so why are they talking about an already defeated, exhausted Russia when this is patently untrue? They’re not trying to settle nerves and drive this catastrophe from the public’s eye, are they?

As the price of supporting Kiev becomes unbearable there’s not some fable being prepared that Russia has been fought to a stalemate and a ‘‘sensible’’ accommodation reached which just involves the Donbas being given away – a bit like Crimea in 2014? We’re not about to pull the rug from under the Ukrainians as we did with the Afghans last year – or are we?

- Patrick Mercer is a former MP for Newark and Army colonel.