Putin’s Next Move in Ukraine

For the first time in the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin must contend with the serious prospect of losing it. Early setbacks around Kyiv and Chernigov had been balanced by Russian gains in the south and the east; they could be justified as tactical retreats and thus as Russian choices, regardless of whether they truly were. By contrast, the near rout of Russian soldiers in the Kharkiv region on September 10—and the rapid reconquest by Ukrainian forces of territory spanning some 2,000 square miles in the east and south—clearly showed that Ukraine was on top and that Russian troops may continue to fall to future such offensives. Ukraine’s Kharkiv offensive destroyed the illusion of Russian invincibility. It has also heralded a new stage in the West’s expectations. Suddenly, Western leaders and strategists have been able to contemplate Ukraine gaining the upper hand in this war. This shift in perspective seems certain to unleash a new dynamic of military support for Ukraine. The argument that Ukraine should sue for peace, rather than keep fighting, has been refuted.

But the perspective has changed most dramatically for Russia, and this entails significant new risks for both Ukraine and the West. Since the failure of his lightning strike to take Kyiv in February 2022, Putin has been keeping two balls in the air. One is sustaining the war for the long term with a peacetime Russian army, having surmised that Ukraine’s military is weaker and that a prolonged war favors Russia. The other ball is ensuring that Russian society remains insulated from the war, on the assumption that Putin can maintain high levels of domestic support as long as ordinary Russians are not exposed to the war’s costs. Ukraine’s battlefield successes around Kharkiv, however, have dramatically upset these calculations.

Putin is now confronted with a set of harsh choices. He can keep Russia’s military commitment limited, maintaining current troop levels and continuing to insulate Russian society, or he can order a mass mobilization. Either option poses a serious threat to Putin’s legitimacy. In choosing the former, Putin would give up the prospect of Russian victory and run the risk of outright defeat. Already, the nationalist pro-war forces he has released have become more and more dissatisfied with the conduct of the war. They had been promised land and glory in a rapid campaign. Instead, they have received a staggering death toll for minor territorial advances, which now look increasingly precarious. Continuing the status quo could create dangerous new fissures in Putin’s regime.

Mobilization, on the other hand, would radically upset the Kremlin’s careful management of the war at home. Dramatically increasing Russia’s manpower might seem a logical choice for a country with a population that is three times the size of Ukraine’s, but the war’s popularity has depended on it being far away. Even the Russian terminology for the war, the “special military operation,” has been a hedge, an obfuscation. Despite the Kremlin’s rhetoric of “denazification,” for the Russian population the Ukraine war is entirely unlike the direct, existential struggle that Russia endured in World War II. By announcing a mobilization, the Kremlin would risk domestic opposition to a war that most Russians are unprepared to fight.

Of course, Putin may choose neither of these options. He may seek to change the war by finding a middle way between full mobilization and continuing the status quo. Though he is a self-styled man of action, Putin tends to be indecisive when the stakes are high, preferring to step into situations without ever resolving them. In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, Russia moved into eastern Ukraine, signed a diplomatic agreement, and then dithered for years, neither advancing nor retreating. In Syria, Russia made its move in 2015, backing up Bashar al-Assad militarily and turning the tide in his favor. But Syria remains up in the air, with a political solution to the war entirely out of sight.

Putin has damaged his regime not just by opening his military to setbacks around Kharkiv but by matching extravagant political aims in Ukraine to meager and inefficiently marshaled means. In Ukraine, any of the options now confronting Putin will have significant consequences. Whatever his next move, Europe and the United States should continue supplying the Ukrainian army with the tools it needs most to stay on the offensive. But they must also consider more far-reaching implications for a regime that might be facing growing pressure at home while it seeks new ways to inflict maximum pain on Ukraine and its allies. For Putin, desperate times will not call for reasoned measures.

AN IMPERIAL CALL TO BATTLE
A decision by Putin to mobilize the Russian population, to institute a draft and to call hundreds of thousands of new soldiers, would raise stark new challenges for both Russia and the West. Even if only partial, a Kremlin-ordered mobilization would amount to a full recognition that the country is at war. It would also make that war existential for Russia. Until now, the invasion of Ukraine has not even been presented as a war to most of the Russian population. It has been termed a military operation, which has in practice been a war of choice built on delusional overconfidence and false assumptions about Ukraine and about Ukraine’s allies and partners. With mobilization, however, Russia would be publicly investing itself in a major war. Choice would be transformed into necessity and the “special operation” into a war that all Russians would need to fight and win. Such a decision would probably make a defeat unacceptable for the Russian leadership, rendering the prospect of a negotiated outcome even more unlikely.

This course would be risky for Putin. Russia’s military performance to date hardly suggests that throwing more soldiers into the fight would yield better results for Moscow. In addition, training soldiers would take time, and Russia would need to provide a commensurate increase in military equipment. At the same time, by bringing in many Russians who have no interest in fighting, mobilization could exacerbate rather than resolve problems of morale for the Russian army. Above all, whether full or partial, a mobilization does not necessarily mean victory for Russia. Mobilization would need to be tied to achievable strategic ends.

In pursuing mobilization, Putin would have to address these military perils while keeping on board those militarist and nationalist constituencies that have been empowered by the war and that would certainly welcome this move. The military peril is one of timing. In addition to receiving adequate training, new recruits would need to be integrated into fighting units, which would take many months—at a time when Russia’s officer corps is tied up at the front and whose members have already been dying in high numbers. And with each passing month, as a Putin-ordered mobilization gets underway, arms and assistance will be pouring into Ukraine and the Ukrainian military will be consolidating its strength. If Russia tries to wait out the winter and to launch a new offensive in the spring with fresh forces, it would be against a country that is much more prepared and battle hardened than it was in February 2022.

It is better to have a foolish small war than a foolish big war.
For Putin, however, maintaining broad domestic support during mobilization could prove equally difficult. From the Kremlin’s perspective, during the first six months of the war, Putin got his domestic politics right. In the absence of a general mobilization, the Kremlin’s true believers and Russian nationalists could still thrill to a war of conquest, to a settling of scores with the West. As for the many Russians who initially had no animus against Ukraine and were taken aback by the war, many of them, with the Kremlin’s active encouragement, could simply ignore what was happening. For them, it was a special operation that should be left to the specialists. Mobilization, however, would render it impossible to keep the war out of the daily life of urban Russians. Having been schooled in disengagement from politics by the Putin regime, they would now have to be mobilized emotionally. They would have to accept that their fathers, brothers, and sons could die in battle. Demanding such a large-scale shift in attitude from the Russian population could easily backfire for Putin.

Mobilization would not solve the flawed logic of the war. Doubling down on a strategic mistake doubles the mistake. Mobilization as such would do nothing to minimize the essential strategic miscalculation of Putin’s decision to launch the invasion. It would not reverse the many ways in which the war runs counter to Russian economic and security interests. In this regard, the political dilemma Putin faces about mobilization relates directly to the nature of the war. Historically, Russia has proved a formidable adversary when attacked by outside forces: both Napoleon and Hitler underestimated the depth and resolve of Russian forces when they chose to invade Russia. But like the United States and many other countries, Russia has struggled with wars of choice. The Russo-Japanese war of 1905—which began when diplomacy over Korea broke down and which Tsar Nicholas II prolonged for the sake of Russian honor—ended badly for Moscow. So did the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. (And in both cases, the wars unfolded without the added pressures of mass mobilization.) In contrast to rallying the public for a war of national defense, mobilization in the name of an ill-conceived imperial project is a recipe for domestic political unrest. It is better to have a foolish small war than a foolish big war.

For Ukraine and the West, a Russian mobilization would be a psychological shock at first. The weaknesses of the Russian army will continue to benefit Ukraine, but a mobilization would signal a renewed resolve by the Russian leadership to stave off defeat at any cost—even the cost of domestic support. If Putin goes all in, the West will have to once again assess his state of mind and the potential for major military escalation.

PULLING BACK AND PROLONGING
Another option available to Putin is some form of retreat. In choosing this path, he would have to give up on the prospect of a genuine victory. He could seek to keep the war going, reducing commitments to the minimum needed to hold the territory already gained in the east and south. He could return to his 2014 approach to eastern Ukraine—keeping occupied territory under Russian control but without advances, thereby destabilizing the entire country—but with a much greater Russian military presence. Giving up on victory, however, would mean halting offensive operations. Putin would never admit that he was giving up. He would suggest that the war will escalate later, that his designs on Ukraine have not changed, that his claim on success will derive from his strategic patience. He would have to rely on Russians’ desire to go about their lives unperturbed by a continual state of war. For this, Russia would need to maintain enough of a stalemate in eastern Ukraine for Russians to go on ignoring the war. That may or may not be achievable given Ukraine’s recent gains. Going forward, Kyiv will do everything it can not to furnish Russia with a politically convenient stalemate.

For Putin, faced with dramatic Russian military setbacks, it would be no easy task to sell military inaction to the Russian public. Until now, the Kremlin has relied on the myth of his army’s invincibility and the narrative of a defensive war to fuel support for the “special operation.” Over time, however, a stalled venture, much reduced in ambition, might expose the futility of a war that has already resulted in an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 Russian dead and wounded. Even if the current figure is not widely known in Russia, more and more families will be affected by the war. Such a venture would also leave Russia’s military and security apparatus increasingly under attack for their failure to deliver the promised victory. Some of their members would be thirsting for another chance—perhaps with another leader.

At the same time, in seeking to maintain a stalemate, Putin will have to reckon with Ukrainian forces that are not standing still. Ukraine’s prowess will continue to grow with more and better weapon deliveries. Under Zelensky’s leadership, Ukrainians want to win this war. Any serious miscalculation by Russia could lead to another devastating defeat, which might be definitive. Ukraine has every incentive not to allow Russia to dig in, though the slow progress of Ukraine’s counteroffensive around Kherson shows that not every offensive move of Ukraine’s will necessarily be as successful as the recent one around Kharkiv.

DIRTIER AND MORE DANGEROUS
Given the domestic risks associated with both mobilization and retreat, Putin may well try to find a middle way. For Ukraine and the West, this option would be less dangerous than a full mobilization but still a serious challenge in the next months and years. Searching for new ways to prosecute the war without the risks of mobilization, Putin could have several courses of action. He might try to muddle through with covert mobilization—forcibly recruiting volunteers, conscripts, and Wagner mercenaries, such as prisoners from Russian penal colonies. He might unleash new acts of terror against the Ukrainian population, for example by hitting critical infrastructure, such as energy and water supplies, to break the will of the population as winter approaches. He might also increase attacks on essential civilian targets, such as hospitals and schools, and resort to uglier attacks, such as thermobaric weapons, which have a devastating effect on their surroundings. In short, he can try to repeat the extreme tactics that he used in Syria. At the same time, to shore up his support, Putin might find new ways to repress dissent and prosecute “traitors” at home.

Choosing this middle way would be typical of Putin’s indecisiveness in tense situations. Instead of an announced mobilization, he can use modest new resources to achieve small successes against Ukraine in areas where Russia’s position is strongest. He can also wreak havoc in parts of Ukraine that are not directly exposed to fighting, by attacking critical infrastructure, disrupting any sense of normality across Ukraine, and doing what he can to block U.S. and European efforts to assist in reconstruction. In doing so, Putin would attempt to preserve the atmosphere of danger that has haunted Ukraine since February 2022. If he has trouble controlling the narrative at home, since this was once a war that Russia was supposed to win easily, he can use force to crush dissent. For this, his government is well equipped.

This middle way will require resolve and patience from the West. Putin will bet on dwindling support for Ukraine from Europe and the West as they struggle with an energy crisis throughout at least the coming winter. An increasingly brutal war in Ukraine could lead to more calls to end hostilities regardless of the conditions imposed on Ukraine. Even if European countries do not pressure Kyiv explicitly, they might limit the military support with the argument that their own stocks and economic capabilities are overstretched. Ukraine’s successes in the Kharkiv region will postpone this kind of war fatigue for a while. But it is unclear whether Ukraine can repeat its success and the morale boost that it gave to its own population and Western audiences.

WESTERN PATIENCE, A RUSSIAN PRECIPICE
For both Ukraine and its Western allies, it would be preferable for Russia not to mobilize. A better outcome is for Putin to give up on the prospect of victory. But the means for influencing Putin’s choices are limited. One is to maintain the status quo, in which the provision of weapons and intelligence have helped the Ukrainian military prosper. Ukrainians have already proved that their political system is durable enough to sustain the war effort. They have already proved that they have excellent fighting ability and capable military leadership. The coupling of these internal strengths with the sophisticated weaponry the West is increasingly prepared to supply intimidated Russian soldiers around Kharkiv. Whether it has also intimidated the Kremlin is anyone’s guess, but the Kremlin can only ignore Ukraine’s growing military strength for so long. The greater this strength, the less Russia can accomplish in Ukraine. Day by day, Ukraine is acquiring deterrent power.

Given this emerging reality, the West can hope that Putin might internalize the logic of Russia’s limits and of Ukraine’s capacities. In the best case, Putin would accept the tactical and strategic setbacks that began in early September not in apocalyptic terms but as the outcome of military choices that will define the scope and aims of eventual negotiations. Ukraine has significantly improved its negotiation position in recent days and weeks. Russia has not yet acknowledged the changed balance of power and has not yet toned down its demands, but it might benefit from doing so in the future, when confronted with the war’s rapidly diminishing returns. Were Putin to give up on victory by giving up on offensive operations, even if—as is likely—he refuses to negotiate, it would be a partial victory for Ukraine and a partial victory for the West. As such it might seem unsatisfying. Relative to where Ukraine was on February 24, 2022, however, it would be a superb outcome.

If Russia does mobilize, Ukraine and the West must stay calm and build on the successes of the past seven months. Putin’s Russia has been unable to develop a clear concept for its war, unable to learn from its mistakes, and unable to execute many of the functions of a world-class military. Mobilization per se would change none of this. The greatest dangers of mobilization might well relate to Russia more than to Ukraine. Russians might resist mobilization, in which case the regime would start to crumble, as the tsarist government did in 1917. Or Russia might well be defeated after a full mobilization, a debacle Putin would not survive. Beyond the Kremlin walls, this might sound like a happy ending, but a collapsed Russia would also upend the international system as we know it and lead to instability well beyond its borders. Nobody can predict what kind of regime might follow the collapse of a Putinist state in Russia.

Day by day, Ukraine is acquiring deterrent power.
As they wait for Putin’s response to Ukraine’s successes, whatever it will be, the United States and Europe should keep providing Ukraine with the support it needs to stay in the fight and, most of all, to remain on the offensive. At the same time, Germany and France can use telephone diplomacy, despite its awkwardness, to convey to Putin the futility of his war and of his attempts to undermine support for Ukraine by engineering energy crises in Europe and hunger crises globally. In case Putin escalates and resorts to nuclear threats, the West should not be intimidated. It should remind Russia of the invisible rules of the war: that neither side wants to turn this conventional war into a wider NATO-Russian confrontation. A nuclear escalation would violate these rules and could lead to NATO involvement. It would be to everybody’s detriment.

Ukraine’s successes have opened a solid path to constructing a Ukraine too strong for Russia to attack in the future. That is a substantial achievement. The unresolved question is how Putin will attempt to manage Russia’s bleak position, with what military purpose and with what political message. To give up, he would have to reinvent himself politically. To mobilize he would have to reinvent the Russia he has been creating since coming to power in 2000; the Russia saved from the chaos of the 1990s; the Russia that was ushering in a stable, consumption-oriented middle class; the Russia in which a private life, far away from politics, was a pleasant pastime. By invading, Putin thought he would push Zelensky’s Ukraine into the abyss. He may in fact have done this to his own regime.

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