The chaos of the past week might be incorrectly comforting. Despite Russia’s continued disastrous handling of its war of choice in Ukraine, the conflict’s most dangerous moment may be nearing.
At some point this week, the Kremlin will likely declare that “sham” referendums in four partially occupied areas of Ukraine have delivered a mandate for their swift assimilation into what Moscow calls Russian territory.
The referendums are illegal under international law, and Ukraine, the United States and the rest of NATO have already made it clear this move will have no legal standing and will lead to sanctions.
But it will happen nonetheless, and Russia will likely use the moment to amplify the central threat behind this charade, stated openly by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the weekend: that Moscow reserves the right to “fully protect” areas that have formally become its territory.
Moscow’s threat is clearly nuclear. Putin has presented his bellicose rhetoric – warning last week that Russia would “make use of all weapon systems available” if needed – as a response to non-existent NATO nuclear threats.
But his officials have been startlingly clear: they want the use of nuclear weapons to be considered a real possibility and, as Putin said, “not a bluff.”
This has led to a chilling change in Washington’s messaging.
For months, Western officials waved away any suggestions that nuclear conflict was even a consideration. Now US President Joe Biden and his cabinet officials are forced to publicly send messages of deterrence and readiness to reassure their allies – and just about everyone else on Planet Earth.
It is truly discomforting to be living in a time when the US government feels it has to publicly warn a wartime Russia – one that is losing heavily and unexpectedly against a neighbor they always thought they could subdue at will – that using nuclear weapons is a bad idea. The principles of mutual assured destruction that brought a dark calm to the Cold War seems to have lapsed.
We are faced with a Russia that wants to project a madman image ready to lose everything – for everyone – if faced with losing in this war.
Putin is far weaker now
This is a binary moment for Putin, who has no climbdown or gentle off-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 drafted, as the rich flee and the poor outnumber everyone else.
Rusty rifles, drunken busloads of recruits, and still no answer to the key question of how these tens of thousands of untrained and perhaps unwilling soldiers will get supplied and equipped on the frontline, if Moscow could not adequately outfit its regular army over the past six months?
And crisis in Putin’s Russia has not had to wait for the freshly mobilized to come back in 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 frontline.
They argue over-zealous local officials are to blame for conscription errors, but beneath it all, it is the war, and its appalling prosecution, that have led Russia here. The Moscow elite’s recognition of the mobilization catastrophe reeks a little of criticism of the chief himself, and that is rare.
All of this leaves Putin far weaker than when he was just losing the war. To add to his woes, he now faces internal dissent that is perhaps unprecedented. His position is dependent on strength, and he lacks that now, almost completely. The forced mobilization of ageing men and unwilling youngsters is unlikely to change the battlefield calculus, where Ukrainian morale is sky-high and their equipment slowly improving.
Do not look to Putin’s inner circle for change. They are all covered in the same blood of this war, and behind the slow drumbeat of repression that has turned Russia into a dystopian autocracy over the past 22 years. Putin has no obvious successor; do not expect anyone who finally replaces him to reverse tack and sue for peace and economic recovery. Any successor may try to prove their mettle with an even more foolhardy exercise than the original invasion of Ukraine.
So we are left with a losing Putin, who cannot afford to lose. Without much conventional force left, he could turn to other tools to reverse this disastrous position.
Strategic aircraft might carpet bomb parts of Ukraine, though so many of its towns and cities look like this has already happened. He might also turn to chemical or biological weapons, although these would be too close to his own border for sanity or comfort, and would elicit an intense international response
And then there is the nuclear option – an option once so unthinkable that it seems crazy to commit to print. But that too comes with risks for Putin, beyond the likely NATO military retaliation. A military that cannot fly enough of its planes or fuel enough of its tanks has problems. It might worry that it will not be able to pull off an accurate, limited and effective tactical nuclear strike.
Putin himself might worry that his fraying grip on power cannot hold together a chain of command solid enough to actually obey the order to launch a nuclear weapon. This could even be the moment where the better angels of Russian nature come to the fore. In the five years I lived there, I met a bright, warm, and sparkling people, blighted mostly by centuries of misrule.
Yet in the days ahead, it will be tempting to dismiss Moscow’s broadened claims of sovereignty and saber-rattling as the dying throes of an empire that forgot to look under the hood before it went driving in a storm. This is a win or lose moment for Putin, and he does not see a future in which he loses.