Is Putin running out of options in Ukraine?

The worse the war goes for Russia, ‘the angrier its architect becomes’

Russian citizens say goodbye to their relatives
Drafted Russian citizens say goodbye to their families
(Image credit: Anadolu Agency/Contributor)

Until last week, Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine had been “almost completely invisible to most Muscovites”, said The Daily Telegraph. The once prominent “Z” signs – symbols of support for the invasion – had started to disappear in April; supermarket shelves were well stocked; restaurants were full.

Even as Russian troops in Kharkiv were being forced into retreat in mid-September, Putin put on a show of normality by attending the opening of a Ferris wheel. But last Wednesday the illusion came crashing down, when he gave a speech in which he threatened to use “all the means at our disposal” to defend Russia’s territorial integrity – and announced the nation’s first mobilisation since the Second World War.

For the millions of Russians who had been either indifferent to it or pretending to be, the conflict suddenly became “urgent and personal”. Putin and his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, went to some lengths to stress that it was a “partial mobilisation”, and that only people with recent combat experience would be drafted – around 300,000 in total. But there were reports of men in their 50s getting their call-up papers, and many Russians were convinced that a far wider mobilisation was on the cards.

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Within minutes of Putin’s speech, men were scrambling to avoid the draft, said Pjotr Sauer in The Guardian. Flights to “no visa” destinations sold out; there were reports of cars streaming across the borders into Georgia, Kazakhstan and Finland; and on the Russian search engine Yandex, searches for “how to break your arm” rocketed.

Mobilisation has ‘breached unspoken pact’

The mobilisation has breached the unspoken pact that Putin had made with the Russian people, said The Washington Post: you stay out of politics, and turn a blind eye to our corruption, and we won’t interfere in your daily lives. And in towns and cities across the country, the people have been showing their anger: around 2,000 people have been arrested in protests against the draft; there have been arson attacks on recruitment offices in at least 16 regions; and in Irkutsk this week, a young man shot a recruitment officer. Russians are “snapping out” of their torpor, and making it clear that they don’t want to be cannon fodder in Putin’s war.

Belligerent as it was, Putin’s speech was the bluster of a politician who is feeling the pressure, said The Times. He isn’t only coming under attack from anti-war protesters – he has also been facing public criticism and even mockery from Russian nationalists, who have been enraged by the rout in Kharkiv. The military elite has long been calling for full mobilisation.

But drafting reservists, to bolster Russia’s depleted and morale-sapped forces, undermines two of the “conceits” that Moscow has relied on to keep the public onside, said the FT: that the war is a “special military operation” to “liberate” Ukraine, and that it is going to plan. It’s not even as if the call-up will achieve much in the short term. It will take months to get the reservists battle-ready, not least because so many instructors are already at the front.

Unlikely to compensate for losses

In any case, bringing in reluctant conscripts is unlikely to compensate for Russia’s staggering losses, said Edward Lucas in The Times. Since February, around 80,000 soldiers from an initial invading force of 120,000 have been killed, wounded or captured; in a single week of fighting near Kharkiv this month, the Russians lost 100 tanks. The Ukrainians, by contrast, are not only making good use of captured Russian hardware; thanks to the “extraordinary logistical capabilities of the US military”, their front-line troops can rely on a stream of new weapons and ammunition, and every week, “hundreds of soldiers arrive from Western-led training”.

The worse the war goes for Russia, “the angrier its architect becomes”, but he has few options, and none are good. His nominal allies, in China and India, have made no secret of their concern about his actions; he can’t risk attacking Nato states; and any use of nuclear weapons would be politically “suicidal”. His only real hope is that in the hard winter ahead, Western will crumbles.

Sham referendums part of plan B

The sham referendums in occupied Ukrainian territories are part of this plan B, said Alexander Gabuev in the FT. Putin reckons that by declaring them part of Russia, while also threatening to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia’s territorial integrity, he can scare EU and US leaders into reining in their support for Ukraine and lobbying Kyiv to abort its counter-offensive. The plan, however, is flawed, because Kyiv will not give up the fight.

And for Putin, it creates another self-made trap, said Mark Galeotti in The Times. If Russian troops are forced to retreat from these territories, he can’t spin it as a “regrouping”: he will have to escalate the conflict further to regain them, or “be the leader who surrendered ‘Russian soil’”.

Putin is backed into a corner, said Kim Sengupta on The Independent. He is lashing out, and another layer of uncertainty has been added to an already perilous situation.

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