Why Putin is Doubling Down in Ukraine
Russia is losing the war in Ukraine. Recent Ukrainian attacks in the east and south have driven Russian forces from substantial territories, inflicting demoralizing losses on an already shaken Russian military. And, with the successful attack on a bridge connecting Crimea with Russia, the Ukrainians have proven that they can strike far behind enemy lines.
Things have come a long way since last February, when Moscow thought it could defeat Ukraine with a single knockout blow to Kyiv. Today, Russian forces are clearly on the defensive. The likelihood of a quick turnaround in their fortunes is low. Russian troops are outnumbered and poorly led. They have sustained staggering losses in men and equipment. Moreover, they confront Ukrainian forces whose recent operations in the south and east reveal tactical expertise and high morale.
The war is not over by any means. There is more killing and dying to come. Moscow has launched a series of attacks on Ukrainian cities; these will inflict death and hardship on civilians but not alter the strategic balance. For Russia, outright victory has long since slipped away. Now Moscow is scrambling to avoid a costly and embarrassing defeat.
Faced with this ugly military truth, Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to double down. He has ordered a partial military mobilization, including the conscription of several hundred thousand new troops. It will be some time before most of these troops see action in Ukraine. Even then, their usefulness might be limited. They will be hastily trained, poorly armed and unenthusiastic. The conscripts’ utility in offensive operations is particularly doubtful; at best, they may be helpful in holding fixed positions. Many, one suspects, will end up as cannon fodder.
Putin has also moved to formally annex four Ukrainian districts, following rigged referenda showing overwhelming support for joining Russia. These results have been rightly rejected by Ukraine, the United States and European nations as illegal and illegitimate. Putin has apparently moved forward with annexation, in part, as an effort to rally public support for the defense of what is now, according to Moscow, Russian territory. It also makes it more difficult — if not impossible — for any compromise or peace agreement with Ukraine that includes the return of annexed territories.
In September, two undersea gas pipelines linking Russia to Germany (Nord Stream 1 and 2) started to leak. Suspicion immediately fell on sabotage, especially by Russia. Why Russia would sabotage pipelines that it possesses part ownership of is less than clear. It can simply stop pipeline gas shipments without damage to its own (very valuable) property; indeed, it has already done so. It is possible that Russia sabotaged the pipelines to signal to the Europeans the seriousness of its intent to stay in Ukraine. For now, the precise cause of the leaks and the identity of those responsible for it are unknown.
Most serious of all, however, has been Putin’s not-so-veiled reference to the possible use of nuclear weapons. This is a clear warning shot aimed at Ukraine and its Western allies, including the United States. Russia has no shortage of tactical nuclear weapons for use in battlefield situations. Estimates put their number at perhaps two thousand, and they can be launched by artillery or missile. While small in destructive power compared to the massive thermonuclear devices that can annihilate cities, tactical nuclear weapons are still extremely deadly weapons. Their deployment in hostilities would be the first such use of nuclear weapons since 1945, when the United States dropped two bombs that destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Russian use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine may still be a remote possibility. There are as yet no signs that Moscow is mobilizing its tactical nuclear arsenal. But Washington and other Western capitals are taking the threat seriously. Indeed, President Biden has evoked the possibility of a nuclear Armageddon. The United States has communicated, publicly and privately, that Russia would face “catastrophic” consequences were it to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. A U.S. nuclear response is not in the cards; it could rapidly escalate to general nuclear war. But an increase in the already draconian sanctions on Russia is possible, as is a limited conventional military response by the United States and NATO — though this too would bear escalatory risks.
Meanwhile, discontent is rising in Russia. Conscription has received some public pushback, and thousands of draft-aged men have already fled the country. Criticism of Russia’s military performance is also on the rise. All of this is occurring against a backdrop of rising economic hardship related to economic sanctions. Putin appears to be safe in his position, for now — but he cannot be happy with the prospect of rising discontent among the public or, perhaps more importantly, among the military and security services. At home and abroad, Putin has boxed himself into a corner over Ukraine. It is corner entirely of his own making — but a cornered bear is a dangerous beast.