Putin’s Escalation in Ukraine Is a Losing Strategy

On Wednesday morning, Vladimir Putin announced that the war in Ukraine is entering a new phase—or, at least, that was his intention. His televised address contained three central messages: the Kremlin plans to carry out referendums in its occupied Ukrainian territories in the south and east, so as to pave the way for their immediate

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On Wednesday morning, Vladimir Putin announced that the war in Ukraine is entering a new phase—or, at least, that was his intention. His televised address contained three central messages: the Kremlin plans to carry out referendums in its occupied Ukrainian territories in the south and east, so as to pave the way for their immediate annexation; those lands will then be considered within Russia’s national borders, meaning that Russia is ready to use nuclear weapons to defend them; and a “partial mobilization,” that is, a military draft, has been ordered to prop up the Russian war effort. Putin cast the war in Ukraine as a struggle for Russia’s very existence—at the hands of not the Ukrainian Army but, rather, the combined forces of the collective West. The goal of some in the West “is to weaken, divide, and ultimately destroy our country,” he said.

Earlier this spring, having effectively lost the battle for Kyiv, Putin switched to what he saw as the long game. To win, he wagered, he would merely have to wait until the West, facing spiking prices for energy and food, inflation, and unrest, softened its support, and Ukraine, exhausted by war and depleted of resources, gave up. Russia would emerge victorious in two campaigns at once: the subjugation of Ukraine and the dethroning of the Western-led security order.

It was possible for Putin to maintain faith in this vision for much of the summer, as Russia used its substantial artillery power to blast its way across the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine. The lines looked effectively frozen in other areas that Russia occupied, such as the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, buying Putin time for the status quo to take on the air of the inevitable. Russia wouldn’t win by outright knockout, but through a kind of slow-motion T.K.O. in the months and years to come. The war—or “special military operation,” as it is known, in increasingly flimsy official parlance—could be fought on the cheap and dirty, using mercenaries, Kadyrovtsy from Chechnya, men rounded up from the streets of occupied Donetsk and Luhansk, and prisoners who were promised pardons if they survive the front.

That plan came crashing down earlier this month, when a two-front Ukrainian counter-offensive, in the south and northeast, forced the Russian Army to abandon the entirety of the Kharkiv region, without much of a fight, in a matter of days. Across more than a thousand square miles, one line after another simply collapsed. According to a person familiar with Russian defense policy, the retreat from the Kharkiv region represented an “extremely serious operational loss for the Russian Army, which could turn into a strategic one.”

For months, this person told me, it had indeed looked as if the Ukrainian and Russian Armies suffered from the same problem: neither side had the strength to push forward and move the front strongly in one direction or another. But the Ukrainian military was constantly refreshed with new conscripts, and able to marshal significant deliveries of Western weapons—notably, the U.S.-made HIMARS rocket system, which is able to hit targets at around fifty miles. Ukraine began striking Russian ammunition depots, command posts, and logistics hubs far behind enemy lines, forcing the Russian Army to move its reserves even farther to the rear. “When their offensive started, we had nothing with which to sew up those holes,” this person told me, “and the Ukrainians went right through.”

On September 15th, the Biden Administration announced the latest U.S. arms package, which is worth up to six hundred million dollars and will include additional ammunition for HIMARS systems and artillery rounds. “Things were looking rather menacing, as if we were merely seeing the precursor to some further catastrophes,” the person familiar with Russian defense policy told me. “We are fighting alone, whereas Ukraine has many allies. And, as the fight goes on, we will have less and less modern weapons, but Ukraine will only receive more.”

At a certain point in the past two weeks, this reality must have dawned on Putin, who, like a gambler falling deeper into debt, set to overcome a losing run by doubling down. Every part of his new strategy contains risks—and uncertain benefits. It is all but guaranteed that Ukraine, seven months into a war that it has considered existential since the very first day, will not be deterred by Russia’s move to claim new territory. Even in the face of a nuclear threat, Ukrainian counter-offensives will likely continue apace. Nor does it seem likely that the Biden Administration and other Western governments will suddenly call off their effort to arm and aid Ukraine simply because Putin suddenly says, for example, that the city of Kherson now belongs to Russia.

Mobilization will not offer Putin much relief, either. In his televised address, he spoke of a “partial” call-up of reserves, limited to three hundred thousand people. But, according to Novaya Gazeta, a secret paragraph of the written order allows that number to reach a million. The first two days of mobilization have been marked by mass, almost indiscriminate roundups of men, especially in the far-flung provinces. As ever, the country’s rural poor and ethnic minorities will suffer the most. Yet, no matter how many bodies the Kremlin is able to muster, “mobilization in and of itself won’t fix anything,” the person familiar with Russian defense policy told me. “It may well only create new problems.”

Even if the Kremlin manages to add several hundred thousand people to the roster of the armed forces, the Army would have to house and train them, a mammoth effort. In the best-case scenario, that will take months, by which time it may be too late to affect the trajectory of the war—not least because these new draftees will not be particularly motivated or trained in advanced modern weaponry. “If they had announced mobilization in March, by now they could have had, let’s say, fifty thousand new troops prepared—but they didn’t do that,” the person told me.

When describing varying levels of support for the war in Russia, the political philosopher Greg Yudin splits the country into three groups: “dissenters,” “radicals,” and “laymen.” That is to say, those who openly oppose the war, those who cheer it on, and those who do their best not to pay attention, respectively. As Yudin argues, the laymen represent the majority of Russians, who have tried to maintain their private lives while avoiding the entire topic of Ukraine and the war. “It is obviously deplorable but the upside of it is that these people are completely unwilling to participate in war actively in any way,” Yudin tweeted, in mid-September. Putin’s strategy had been to muddle through the war, offering the laymen life as usual in Russia’s big cities, and the radicals a historic battle against Nazis and a Western machine hellbent on destroying Russia. Both angles were available depending on where you chose to look. (The dissenters got only ostracism and repression.)

Mobilization, though, will put the illusions of the laymen under pressure, if it doesn’t blow them apart entirely. But, as Yudin told me, that will be a process that happens over time, and it is likely to take place on a personal rather than collective level. In other words, expect individual discontent, perhaps even sabotage, but not yet a revolution. “For a Russian person with no experience with collective action, the instinctual reaction at the first appearance of any threat is to hide, save himself, bury his head in the sand,” Yudin said. That was the period from the invasion until now. “And if something even worse happens? Well, then bury your head even deeper.”

But even this process has its limits, especially if Russia’s mobilization proves to be more far-reaching than the “limited” nature which Putin announced. In a harrowing piece, Andrew Roth, at the Guardian, described the first day of the draft: “Summons delivered to eligible men at midnight. Schoolteachers pressed into handing out draft notices. Men given an hour to pack their things and appear at draft centres. Women sobbing as they sent their husbands and sons off to fight in Russia’s war in Ukraine.”

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