Kyiv’s military successes face the Russian president with an election he wanted to avoid
“The genius of the Ukrainian military command,” wrote Canadian analyst Michael McKay on Twitter earlier this week, “is that it was able to move its forces where the Russians are not and thus force them to withdraw from where they are.” . The same thing happened on the home front in Russia. As Russian troops retreated to avoid encirclement, Vladimir Putin found himself under political siege in Moscow.
When the word “war” finally appeared in the government-controlled media (until then the attack on Ukraine was called a “special military operation”), the biggest problem for the Russian president became the hardliners who insisted on full mobilization.
Having failed in its attempt to capture Kyiv and oust Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Kremlin has built a strategy that can be summarized as follows: a drive to conquer as much territory as possible with the military power available; inflicting the worst possible damage on Ukraine’s economy; organizing referendums on the annexation of the occupied territories, in order to create a sense of irreversibility. The Kremlin believed this strategy would weaken Ukraine’s resolve and discourage Kyiv’s Western allies from arming Zelensky’s army.
By freezing the conflict on its own terms, the Kremlin hoped to gain the upper hand and prevent the need for forced military mobilization. Only 64 days before the retreat of the Russian troops, the first deputy head of the Kremlin administration, Sergei Kiriyenko, had stated: “We consider the liberated territories as part of our empire and part of our state.”
For a period of time, this strategy appeared to be profitable. Ukraine was preparing for a war of attrition, and the shock of high fuel prices was softening the effect of Western sanctions on Moscow. Indeed, the Russian economic elite was gloomy, but at least it was docile. And public opinion polls showed that the majority of Russians support Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. Many people feel that even if it is not their war, Russia is still their country.
However, all this carefully constructed strategy was destroyed in a few days. The Ukrainian counteroffensive has emboldened Western political leaders, who are insisting that Kyiv get the weapons it needs and that the Russian military must not only be contained but defeated.
The recent military clashes along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan are a sign that some of Moscow’s neighbors already sense Russia’s weakness and are ready to defuse hitherto intact conflicts in the post-Soviet space. Meanwhile, last Thursday, Putin, sitting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other authoritarian leaders meeting in Uzbekistan, was forced to begin explaining why Russia is not winning.
The mounting pressure on Putin to declare war and launch full mobilization is a major blow to the Kremlin as it confronts the Russian president with an election he has been trying to avoid since the invasion began. In the eyes of reasonable people, the Kremlin’s refusal to call the attack on Ukraine a war is simply a sign of profound cynicism. But for the majority of ordinary Russians, this decision is of great importance. “Special Military Operation” evokes support, while war is something that evokes fear. A “special operation” was Russia’s attack on Georgia in 2008, as well as Moscow’s intervention in the conflict in Syria. But the confrontation with Nazi Germany, on the other hand, was a war.
Special operations are conflicts that can be lost without the population actually feeling the consequences. While losing a war can also mean losing the country. The lesson learned by many Russians after the end of the Cold War, for example, is that even if the country is a nuclear power, its survival cannot be taken for granted.
It is difficult to predict what will happen in Moscow after the humiliation suffered by the Russian troops in Ukraine. But it is safe to say that while Putin is not in danger of losing power, he is losing room for maneuver.
The Kremlin fears that mass mobilization will expose the regime’s internal weakness. And it will show the selfishness of the Russian elites. In the event of mobilization, the sons of Putin’s praetorians will either flee the country or end up in hospital, unfit for military service. Corruption will paralyze the system. And while the people are unlikely to revolt at first, the Russians will do what they do best: start pulling.
Putin opposes calls for mass mobilization for the same reason he opposed mandatory vaccination during the COVID pandemic: out of concern that such a move would reveal a lack of control.
This is the cardinal difference between democracy and autocracy: even weak democratic governments can retain their legitimacy, while the legitimacy of an autocrat depends on whether the public perceives him as strong. Contrary to the claims of Kremlin propaganda, even if most Russians are ready to cheer for their army, few of them are ready willingly to join it.
The only option for Putin, if he continues to oppose the mass sending of subpoenas, is to plunge Ukraine into even greater darkness. In the short term, therefore, Kyiv’s counteroffensive is likely to lead to an escalation of the conflict rather than a ceasefire.
From the “Culture” portal