Beyond empty threats, Putin has nothing left

Vladimir Putin’s televised address should be seen not so much as a rallying cry for the Russian people to maintain their support for his so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine, but more as an abject declaration of defeat. These are desperate times for the Russian autocrat, and each and every one of the measures he outlined amounts to little more than a hollow gesture that won’t have much bearing on the conflict’s ultimate outcome.

Take, for example, his announcement that he has authorised a partial mobilisation of military reservists. If, as he has persistently claimed, the Russian campaign was going according to plan, there would be no need for the Kremlin to resort to calling up the reserves, many of whom are specialists and not suited to front-line combat.

The reality, of course, is that after suffering a series of humiliating military defeats, from the botched attempt to capture Kyiv to the loss of large tracts of territory around the north-eastern city of Kharkiv this month, the Russian military is losing the war.

Ukraine’s estimate that Russia has suffered in excess of 50,000 combat casualties during seven months of fighting is disputed by Moscow, which puts the figure at an unconvincing 5,937. What is not in dispute, however, is that Russia’s fighting strength has been decimated, both in terms of men and equipment, so that its ability to hold the territory it occupies is questionable – let alone achieving the territorial objectives Putin set out when he launched the invasion.

If the Russian president wanted to make a decisive intervention to reclaim the initiative, then he would be announcing a nationwide mobilisation. But to do so would mean testing the appetite of the Russian public to back his war aims, a risky proposition given the mounting criticism his handling of the conflict is attracting from all corners of Russian society. Putin’s attempts to conceal the true extent of Russia’s losses in the campaign, for example, certainly haven’t fooled pop star Alla Pugacheva, a national treasure known as the “Russian Dolly Parton”, who has publicly castigated the Russian leader for being responsible for “the death of our boys for illusory aims”.

If a national mobilisation is off the cards, the call for a “partial” mobilisation is not faring much better, with reports yesterday that flights out of the country were selling out as young Russians eligible for the call-up flee the country. Not even Putin’s insistence that Russia was under attack by the West, which apparently “wants to destroy our country”, seems to have made an impression on those who have opted for the safer option of pre-mobilisation desertion.

His backing for the referendums that are due to take place in the Russian-controlled regions in eastern and southern Ukraine must also be seen as the act of a desperate man. These measures would not be needed if Putin had any confidence in his military’s ability to hold the territory under its control. But with the Ukrainians showing no let up in the offensive that has already seen them recapture 3,000sq miles of territory, as well as retaking their first village in Luhansk, the Kremlin has good reason to worry that its long-held ambition of controlling the Donbas will end in failure.

Thus, in holding referendums that Moscow can guarantee provide the desired result, Putin has been forced to seek a political solution because the military options are no longer viable.

Moreover, his constant references to Moscow’s nuclear weapons arsenal are another exercise in meaningless bluster. True, the Russian Federation has the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. But Putin does not exercise exclusive control over their use, which has to be approved by several senior members of Moscow’s security establishment, many of whom served during the Cold War when they were inculcated in the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, a concept that is as valid today as it was in the 1980s.

The primary aim, therefore, of Putin’s latest intervention on the Ukraine crisis, which was cynically timed to coincide with world leaders convening at the annual UN General Assembly, is to intimidate the West into dropping its support for the Ukrainian cause. In the Russian president’s fantasy world, the forthcoming referendums will confirm Russian sovereignty over territory in eastern and southern Ukraine, which will then be covered by Moscow’s nuclear defence umbrella, thereby deterring any future acts of Western-backed aggression by Ukrainian forces.

Fortunately, judging by the initial reactions to his address, Western leaders, far from being cowed, remain unstinting in their dedication to the Ukrainian cause. Liz Truss has pledged billions of pounds of military support for Ukraine next year while US President Joe Biden, in his UN address yesterday, reiterated Washington’s commitment “to defend and strengthen democracy” around the world, including in Ukraine.

For the only way to answer Putin’s blatant bully-boy tactics is not to concede ground, but to ensure he suffers a humiliating defeat.

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