Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin escalated his threats. The Kremlin mobilized 300,000 reservists, declared it would hold referendums in Donbas to justify annexation and renewed its nuclear blackmail. But what should be a show of strength is an undisguised proof of weakness.
Putin’s bravado is a reaction to the Ukrainian counter-attack that has just regained vast territories. It was Putin’s biggest defeat since he was forced in April to abandon his original plan for a massive occupation that would bring the Ukrainian regime to its knees, focusing efforts on the south and east. On Russia’s borders, armed conflicts erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan and between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In Russia, criticism from the ultranationalists is intensifying.
Scarce international support erodes. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week that Russia must abandon Ukrainian territory, including Crimea. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Putin face-to-face at the Shanghai Cooperation Council that “the times are not wartime”. At the same meeting, Putin publicly admitted to Chinese dictator Xi Jinping that he would respond to his “questions and concerns”.
The last time they met, three weeks before the invasion, Xi declared a “boundless” friendship with Russia. A quick victory would have served China, humiliating the US and setting the global stage for an invasion of Taiwan. Seven months later, the protracted war destabilized Eurasia and reinvigorated the western alliance. Even as Russia’s weakening increases its dependence on Beijing, the “friendship” is proving to be an embarrassment.
The 300 thousand reservists are impressive. But it will be months before they are trained and make a difference in the field. The narrative that the war is just a “special military operation” that the Russians could celebrate without sacrifice is crumbling. Even under the Kremlin’s blatant propaganda and oppression, protests are starting to flare up.
Putin will fabricate his fraudulent referendums to legitimize an annexation and the use of nuclear weapons against an “invasion” of their territories. He also counts on the winter to pressure Europe to force Ukraine to compromise. The war is Ukraine’s, and it’s up to Ukraine to decide if and when to negotiate. But this is not the time.
Undoubtedly a megalomaniac autocrat cornered and armed with nuclear arsenals is a risk to Ukraine, to the world and to its own people. But his terrorism cannot be rewarded. Ukraine’s strategy and its supporters are working. It would be decisive to agree with India and China a cordon sanitaire to dissuade Putin from extrapolating his madness with weapons of mass destruction. In the field, it’s time to accelerate the delivery of weapons and take advantage of the traction of the Ukrainian troops and the low morale of the Russians to conquer positions. Keeping your cool but galvanizing determination is the best way to convince the Russian people that they are losing the war and cannot win it.