And now, Putin?
Russia’s military is in retreat, its rivals are growing more optimistic and even its supporters are expressing a rare unease: the Russian president may be in his weakest position since he launched the invasion of Ukraine more than 200 days.
In Washington, Europe and even Moscow, the question now is what Putin might be planning to recapture an initiative that eludes every new battlefield update.
Can the Kremlin order full military deployment, push harder in its energy war, or even tolerate a drastic move like a tactical nuclear strike? Western officials and military analysts agreed that Putin appears to have few good options available.
“It’s really not unenviable when you look at the war from your position,” pointed out Michael Kimmage, who focused on the Ukraine-Russia issue at the State Department during the Obama Administration. “In a way, the whole concept of war is wrong and this is a huge burden for Putin as things have worsened considerably in the last week.”
So what solutions are there?
Regroup after a withdrawal
With Ukraine looking to consolidate its gains and push further into Russian-controlled territory, the Kremlin’s immediate need is to stem the tide. Putin can deal more quickly with the unrest at home, halting Ukrainian advances and returning to the relative stalemate that has proven to be an effective pressure point on Kiev and its Western allies.
In the short term, that will mean stabilizing Russian defensive lines in the eastern industrial region of Donbass – made up of the twin provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, where Russia fought hard to advance in the summer – as well as in the south around the crucial coastal city of Kherson.
Stephen Twitty, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and former deputy commander of the U.S. European Command, pointed out that Ukraine is far from victory and that he expects the war to continue for longer — “another year or two” . However, if Russia fails to hold the line in the east and south, it could spell “game over” for the Kremlin and Putin.
“They wanted all of Ukraine; I didn’t understand. They wanted the capital Kiev; I didn’t understand. And so they shifted to the goals of taking east and south and establishing that land bridge” to Crimea, Twitty said. “If they don’t achieve those goals, they failed in this campaign and now have a tendency to fail. And so I don’t think Putin will give up so easily.”
Putin’s essential ambition appears to be continued control of Crimea, as well as the annexation of the Donbass and coastal lands along the Black Sea – although the Moscow-installed authorities canceled proposed referendums for those areas after the Ukrainian advance.
Some experts speculated that the Kremlin could aim to move further west to boost morale and cut off Ukraine’s ports – a key economic pillar and source of grain shipments to the world – or regroup in the Donbass for a counterattack. itself in the east.
Whatever Putin’s next steps, he has given no indication of curtailing his expansive ambitions, despite recent events. It is unclear, however, what its military can realistically achieve with its current strength.
Pro-Kremlin commentators on state television, as well as on social media, have raised criticism of Putin, with renewed calls for military escalation. Ramzan Kadyrov, a close Putin ally who leads the Chechnya Republic, expressed his growing frustration with what he called Russia’s “surprising” military failures in Ukraine, saying he “would be forced to speak to the leadership of the Defense Ministry”. if there were no changes in strategy.
Kadyrov went further: on his ‘Telegram’ channel, he asked all the leaders of a Russian province to gather 1,000 volunteers to join the fight, which he said would assemble 85,000 people – “almost an army!” The mobilization that the Kremlin always wanted to avoid, after having played down the war as a “special military operation”. A general mobilization of Russian soldiers would draw attention to the conflict and implicitly admit that the military campaign is not going well.
General mobilization would allow the military to further attract Russia’s 2 million reservists, expand recruitment, and put the Kremlin in a position to push its industry into a warlike position — but it would require heavy training and could lead at least to spring to take effect on the battlefield.
It could lead to an ‘unpleasant’ reaction in major Russian cities, where life has continued as usual despite sanctions, and where residents have not suffered the same number of casualties as in rural provinces so far.
“If you take young people from Moscow and St Petersburg, who are politically more powerful than those from the provinces, and they start dying in Ukraine while Russia is losing, that is a very politically risky position for Putin to be in,” Kristine pointed out. Berzina, senior fellow for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, assured this week that the Kremlin was not considering full mobilization but that the debate was welcome – up to a point. “Critical viewpoints can be considered pluralism as long as they remain within the bounds of the law,” he explained. “But the line is very, very fine. You have to be careful here.”
ask for peace
Finally, although a very small hope, are the peace talks, through which voices in Russia are growing, pressing for an end to the invasion and for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine.