Make no mistake: Vladimir Putin is losing the war in Ukraine. The menacing speech, broadcasted mysteriously on Wednesday morning instead of the originally scheduled Tuesday night, might be the closest the Russian dictator will ever get to admitting defeat before his hold begins to crumble.
The address had several audiences. For one, it aimed to deter the West from supporting Ukraine by raising the specter of nuclear escalation in defense of annexed territories that will soon become part of the “Motherland.” At home, Putin tried to keep hardline nationalist critics of the conduct of Russia’s military operation at bay by showing that the Kremlin is doubling down on its efforts in the Donbas — while also scrupulously seeking to avoid alienating wider swathes of Russia’s population by pursuing only a “partial” mobilization.
On all of those fronts, the measures will likely fail.
If the special military operation was going according to plan, as the Russian officialdom was assuring Russians until today, why has it suddenly become “necessary to support the proposal of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff” to mobilize?
Mobilizing the wider population carries political risks, which is why the Kremlin hesitated until now and why only around 300,000 men will be called to serve, according to the government. Already on Wednesday night, Russian cities saw sizeable protests — at least as measured by standards of a country where public expressions of discontent with the war may land one in jail for 10 or more years. Meanwhile, prices of one-way tickets out of Russia skyrocketed (until 18- to 34-year-old men were banned from leaving the country) and “how to break an arm at home” became a top search term on Russian search engines.
Militarily, calling on the reservists is a desperate move, though congruent with reports of extraordinarily high attrition that Russia is suffering in Ukraine. Normally, months of specialized training would be needed for reservists to fight effectively. Even then, an army needs weapons, equipment, and supplies — all of which are in short supply in Russia. Inevitably, thousands of the undertrained, undermotivated, and undersupplied reservists are bound to die tragic deaths at their first contact with Ukraine’s experienced and well-equipped fighting force — a fact that is a matter of indifference to Putin and his circle, as long as the elite’s children remain exempt from service.
Even in Russia, the idea of organizing anything resembling a referendum in a war zone does not pass the laugh test. The fact that the plebiscites — which will including voting “online” — are being organized in a rush on territories that Russia happens to be currently occupying signifies only one thing: the regime has no expectation of being able to expand further into Ukraine and is instead seeking to consolidate its gains before they dissipate.
The logic is simple. By claiming the occupied territories in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, or Zaporizhzhia as parts of Russia, the regime will see itself justified in climbing the escalatory ladder up to the use of nuclear weapons, should its control of those areas come under threat.
The problem is, as the news of “partial mobilization” shows, Russia is not in a position to escalate through conventional means. Every day, its exhausted military is being degraded and pushed back in Ukraine. A non-conventional escalation, using chemical or nuclear weapons for instance, would indeed be a game changer. Yet it would not bring the Kremlin any closer to victory.
The risk of a nuclear strike on Ukraine must be taken seriously of course. But it would be a mistake for Ukrainians or the West to let ourselves be deterred by the latest round of Putin’s unhinged rhetoric. Russia had nuclear weapons all through this conflict. Putin’s past allusions to Russia’s nuclear arsenal — when faced with the prospect of Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO accession, for example — proved hollow.
Putin might have embarked on an ill-planned war of genocide, unsuccessfully seeking to erase Ukraine from the map, but he is not suicidal. A nuclear attack on Ukraine would bring in the West into the war in a decisive way. It would be guaranteed to alienate all fence-sitters, most prominently China — and arguably would be a bridge too much for Russia’s elites themselves.
The next weeks will show what repercussions, if any, Putin’s latest gamble will have on his domestic position. Autocratic regimes, like his own, always look stable and impervious to change until they crumble suddenly and unexpectedly. It is unlikely that Putin will prove to be an exception from the historical regularity. For the United States and our allies, however, our answer should be simple: to keep calm and carry on with our support to Ukraine, which has demonstrated time and time again that it can win this war.
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.