Putin’s step toward the abyss

Putin’s step toward the abyss

After weeks of failures – the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in Eastern Ukraine, being snubbed by Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi as well as increasing discontent inside Russia – Vladimir Putin tried to retake the initiative in his war of aggression by imposing a “partial mobilization” and improvised referenda in the regions occupied by Russia.

The Russian Army has lost more than 50,000 soldiers since the beginning of the war and faces massive desertions in the battlefield. The “partial mobilization” aims to punish such behavior, force soldiers to stay on the front after their contract is over and mobilize 300,000 additional reservists. Putin knows it takes time to train the reservists, which is why the referenda in the Donbas and in Kherson have been associated with a nuclear threat: Once those territories are considered Russian, any Ukrainian advances to recover those territories risk nuclear retaliation.

If this threat is taken seriously by Western supporters of Ukraine, they may pressure the Ukrainian government to be cautious before making new advances in their counteroffensive, leaving time to make the mobilized reservists operational. By doing so, Putin has only further tightened the noose around his neck. He had until now resisted calls from extreme-right pundits for mobilization, because this is unlikely to go down well at all inside Russia. It is useful to remember that one of the reasons for the US debacle in Vietnam in the early 1970s was the unpopular draft for an unjust war. Russia is now likely to go down the same path in its unprovoked aggression against Ukraine.

Given the heavy repression against demonstrators inside Russia, we may not see big anti-war marches in Moscow, but people are voting with their feet. It is one thing to cheer for the Russian empire in one’s own living room while soldiers from poor Asian regions of Russia serve as cannon fodder; it is quite another thing to go risk one’s life for Putin’s imperial ambitions. Forcing soldiers to fight under the threat of the bayonet has never been the best way to win a war. 

What then to make of Putin’s nuclear threat? He has made such threats since the beginning of the war (in case Sweden and Finland joined NATO, in case hi-tech weapons were sent to Ukraine, in case of rocket attacks on Russian territory), so the current threat of a nuclear attack in case Ukrainians recover lost territory is not exactly new. One cannot exclude that he will use tactical nuclear weapons in case Russia is forced to retreat from all territories conquered since 2014. This would be a move of desperation. It is unlikely, but one cannot rule it out.

It must be very clear, however, that if this did happen, the whole world would instantly turn against him and the Russian government. Absolute outrage would trump absolute terror. In the meantime, the best response to Putin is to reinforce support for Ukraine to help it end this war of aggression as quickly as possible. 

Gerard Roland is the E. Morris Cox Professor of Economics and professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

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