Russia’s war in Ukraine is at a dangerous juncture

Kramatorsk, Ukraine

Last week’s chaos could be incorrectly comforting. Despite Russia’s continued disastrous handling of the war of its choice in Ukraine, perhaps the most dangerous moment in the conflict is approaching.

At some point this week, the Kremlin will likely declare that « mock » referendums in four partially occupied regions of Ukraine have issued a mandate for their rapid assimilation into what Moscow calls Russian territory.

Referendums are illegal under international law, and Ukraine, the United States and the rest of NATO have already made it clear that this decision will have no legal value and will result in sanctions.

But it will happen nonetheless, and Russia will likely use this moment to amplify the central threat behind this charade, declared openly by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over the weekend: that Moscow reserves the right to “fully protect” areas which officially became its territory.

The threat from Moscow is clearly nuclear. Putin presented his belligerent rhetoric – warning last week that Russia would « use all available weapon systems » if necessary – as a response to NATO’s non-existent nuclear threats.

But its officials have been surprisingly clear: they want the use of nuclear weapons to be seen as a real possibility and, as Putin put it, “not a bluff.”

This has led to a chilling shift in messaging from Washington.

For months, Western officials dismissed any suggestion that a nuclear conflict was even a consideration. Today, US President Joe Biden and members of his cabinet are compelled to publicly send messages of deterrence and preparedness to reassure their allies – and just about everyone on planet Earth.

It is truly uncomfortable to live in a time when the US government feels compelled to publicly warn a wartime Russia – a Russia that is losing heavily and unexpectedly to a neighbor it always thought it could subdue at will – that the use of nuclear weapons is a bad thing. idea. The principles of mutual assured destruction that brought a dark calm to the Cold War seem to have fallen into disuse.

We are faced with a Russia that wants to project a crazy image ready to lose everything – for everyone – if faced with losing in this war.

It’s a binary moment for Putin, with no downhill or soft exit ramp available.

The partial mobilization of Russian civilians has been as disastrous as anyone who has observed conscription in Russia over the decades would have expected: the « wrong » people recruited, as the rich flee and the poor outnumber the others.

Rusting guns, buses full of drunken recruits and still no answer to the key question of how these tens of thousands of untrained and perhaps reluctant soldiers will be supplied and equipped on the front line, if Moscow cannot adequately equip his regular army for the past six years. month?

And the crisis in Putin’s Russia did not wait for the freshly mobilized to return to the coffins. The chaos of mobilization already has Kremlin propaganda moguls like Margarita Simonian, the head of state-controlled network RT, acting as a Twitter agony aunt for Russians whose fathers, sons or husbands have been incorrectly sent to the front.

They argue that overzealous local officials are to blame for conscription mistakes, but beyond all that, it’s the war and its gruesome pursuits that have brought Russia here. The Moscow elite’s recognition of the catastrophe of the mobilization stinks a bit of criticism from the leader himself, and that’s rare.

All of this leaves Putin much weaker than when he had just lost the war. To add to his woes, he now faces internal dissent that is perhaps unprecedented. His position depends on the force, and he now lacks it, almost completely. Forced mobilization of aging men and reluctant youth is unlikely to change the calculus of the battlefield, where Ukrainian morale is high and their equipment is slowly improving.

Don’t look to Putin’s inner circle for change. They are all covered in the same blood from this war and behind the slow drumbeat of repression that has turned Russia into a dystopian autocracy for the past 22 years. Putin has no obvious successor; don’t expect whoever replaces him to eventually back down and demand peace and economic recovery. Any successor can try to prove their mettle with an even more reckless exercise than the initial invasion of Ukraine.

So we end up with a losing Putin, who cannot afford to lose. Without too much conventional force, he could turn to other tools to reverse this disastrous position.

Strategic planes could carpet-bomb parts of Ukraine, though so many of its cities seem to have happened already. He could also turn to chemical or biological weapons, although these are too close to his own border for his common sense or comfort, and would draw an intense international response.

And then there’s the nuclear option – an option once so unthinkable that it seems crazy to commit to printing. But that, too, carries risks for Putin, beyond likely NATO military retaliation. An army that can’t fly its planes enough or fuel its tanks enough is in trouble. He might worry about not being able to pull off a precise, limited, and effective tactical nuclear strike.

Putin himself might fear that his fraying grip on power could not maintain a chain of command strong enough to actually obey the order to launch a nuclear weapon. This might even be the time when the best Russian nature angels show up. In the five years I have lived there, I have met brilliant, warm and bubbly people, marred mostly by centuries of mismanagement.

Yet in the days to come, it will be tempting to dismiss Moscow’s expanded claims of sovereignty and saber slashes as the agony of an empire that forgot to look under the hood before riding into a storm. It’s a win or lose moment for Putin, and he doesn’t see a future in which he loses.

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