War Stories

What the West Should Do About Putin’s Increasingly Dangerous Desperation

A photo of Russian president Vladimir Putin looking down at his hands. Thousands of young Russian men fled the country after he ordered reservists into the fight with Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin this week; thousands of young Russian men fled the country after he ordered reservists into the fight with Ukraine. GAVRIIL GRIGOROV/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin is clearly desperate. The question is whether this is good news or bad news. Another way of putting the question is whether it warrants a U.S. policy of exuberance or caution. The answer, in each case, is probably “a bit of both.” But the proper mix—how much exuberance, how much caution—is hard to calibrate.

The Russian President revealed his desperation all too clearly in his Sept. 21 speech (which he’d originally scheduled for Sept. 20). He played it as a proud, nation-boosting, war-whooping address to the Russian people, but it came off as anything but.

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He made three main points:

First, he announced a “partial mobilization” of reservists to “defend our Motherland” against “the neo-Nazi regime” in Ukraine and its NATO overlords.

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Second, he called for referendums in the Donbas, Kherson, and Zaprizhzhia regions of Ukraine—where many Russian ethnics live—to see if they want to be annexed into Russia.

Finally, he warned that, in response to any attack on Russian territory, he would “certainly make use of all weapons systems available to us,” presumably including nuclear weapons, adding, “This is not a bluff.”

As for the partial mobilization, this in itself was an admission that the war with Ukraine is not going well—something that Putin has never admitted publicly (and didn’t do explicitly even in this speech). Just six months ago, he promised Russia’s mothers that he wouldn’t call up their boys to fight. Now he has to do so, just to stay in the fight.

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To keep riots from breaking out, he did everything he could to play down this necessity, noting that he would call “only” those whose military specialties would be useful in the current war. He also noted that before being sent to the front, these reservists—most of whom have never fought in battle—will receive “additional military training.”

In announcing the partial mobilization, Putin said he was supporting “the proposal of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff.” Yet Russia’s military leaders told the public, just after Putin’s announcement, that the mobilization was hardly “partial.” Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the order would call up 300,000 reservists. The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta quoted a Kremlin source as saying that a “hidden article” in Putin’s order—“Article 7,” which is omitted from the publicly released version—allows as many as 1 million Russian men to be called up.

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Mobilization orders went out immediately, giving reservists just 24 hours to pack up and report for duty. The notices were distributed disproportionately to reservists in Russia’s ethnic-minority republics, who might feel less empathy for Ukrainians.

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As for the “additional military training” they were promised, it turns out to be a two-week rush course, barely enough time for the reservists—some of them in their 50s—to serve as anything other than cannon fodder. Given Russia’s shortages in such basic material as ammunition, it is unclear whether many of them will receive enough supplies to put up a fight.

Demonstrations are breaking out all over Russia—from massive peace marches in Moscow’s Arbat, a mile from the Kremlin (with protesters shouting “No to war!” and “Send Putin to the Trenches!”), to protests even in Dagestan, in the northern Caucuses, where, in response to a recruiter saying that they have to fight for their future, one citizen replied, “We don’t even have a present, what future are you talking about?”

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In a dramatic display of “voting with your feet,” tens of thousands of young Russian men fled the country—by foot, car, train, or plane—above and beyond the tens of thousands who had already gone into exile after Putin’s crackdown on all dissent since the war began in February.

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One other aspect of the mobilization is an indefinite extension of the many contracts signed by soldiers for six months or a year, some just for the money. Those soldiers have now been told they could be fighting in Ukraine forever. This is not going to help the morale of an already demoralized Russian army.

The proposed referendums on annexation of territory in Ukraine is a slightly more complex matter. In a free, fair, and properly supervised referendum, a large percentage of people living in those three regions might vote to join Russia; probably a majority would have before the invasion. But these referendums, if they’re pulled off, are not going to be fair or free. Under the best of intentions, there’s no way to run a free and fair election in a war zone from which hundreds of thousands of residents have fled—and Putin hardly has the best of intentions. It will be phony by the standards of the phoniest elections.

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However, this is where Putin’s threat—to use nuclear weapons, if Russian territory is attacked—takes on a new dimension. If the pro-Russia voters “win” the “referendum” in Donbass region, where the fighting is most intense, Putin will regard all Ukrainian fighting in that region as an attack on Russian territory—and, possibly, he will respond accordingly.

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Is this worth taken seriously? In one sense, no. The Ukrainians have launched plenty of attacks on Crimea, which Putin annexed eight years ago and which he deeply regards as Russian territory—yet he has not responded with any particularly outlandish escalation. Is he bluffing when it comes to Donbas? He said, “This is not a bluff”—and, though it’s true that leaders (or ordinary people) who say such things usually are bluffing, it’s worth italicizing usually and noting that Putin is not your usual world leader. By all accounts, he’s egomaniacal, in the pocket (intellectually and spiritually) of ultra-nationalist kooks, and facing the possibility of defeat in the present war—which he’d thought would spawn his legacy as the rebuilder of the Great Russian Empire.

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So this is why the West needs to be a little bit cautious in its words and deeds in Ukraine. Then again, I say “a little bit cautious,” because there is no upside to shirking support for Ukraine in what could be a pivotal moment. There is absolutely no evidence that any restraint would move Putin to the negotiating tables for serious diplomacy. In fact, neither Russia nor Ukraine has any incentive at the moment to do anything but keep fighting. And so President Biden continues to send weapons (another $1 billion worth, with heavier and heavier armaments, seems to be announced every week); the other NATO nations are pulling their weight; and the European countries most heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas are taking significant steps toward finding alternative sources before the winter sets in.

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This is at least as important as the military assistance; Putin hopes that shivering Europeans will pressure their governments to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into making a deal to stop the war. If they can withstand the winter and avoid the pressure, Putin’s hold on Ukraine is likely to weaken further in the spring—as a result of which his own hold on power might weaken as well.

Putin is portraying this war as a fight not only with Ukraine but also with NATO. Biden and the other Western leaders should avoid turning it into that explicitly; i.e., they should continue to resist the temptation to send in their own troops and pilots, lest Putin feel justified in mounting an extreme escalation. (This is what I mean when I say the West needs to be “a little bit cautious.”) But the scope of the war is nonetheless becoming the West vs. Russia. Some U.S. military leaders have pretty much been saying that for months: The survival of Western values in Europe is certainly at stake. So the West should make the most of it—without taking “the most” too far.

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