Will Ukraine be Putin's downfall?

Vladimir Putin.
Vladimir Putin. Illustrated | Getty Images

Russia this week stepped up its crackdown on protests against President Vladimir Putin's order for a "partial mobilization" to bolster his war effort in Ukraine. Putin last week ordered 300,000 military reserves onto active-duty status, prompting crowds to pour into the streets of Moscow and other cities, with many chanting, "Send Putin to the trenches!" and "Let our children live!" There were 17 attacks on conscription centers, including one in Siberia where a young man who was upset his friend had been drafted allegedly shot and gravely wounded a chief recruiter. Young men desperately trying to avoid conscription rushed to the border or to board planes to get out of the country.

The unpopular mobilization came after a Ukrainian counteroffensive forced Russian troops into an embarrassing retreat from parts of eastern Ukraine they seized early in the war. Western officials say Russia has suffered a staggering 70,000 to 80,000 casualties since invading Ukraine in February. Russian media reports have said young men who have never served in the military, not just reservists, now are being drafted, as are some men beyond draft age, fueling suspicions that Putin is trying to mobilize more than a million new soldiers. The Kremlin denies that, but the draft is even upsetting some Putin allies. "They're infuriating people, as if on purpose, as if out of spite," Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of state-backed RT media outlet, told Radio Free Europe. Has Putin miscalculated so badly that his political survival is at risk?

Putin has put himself at risk

Vladimir Putin's effort "to mobilize Russian men to fight has turned into a debacle," says The Washington Post in an editorial. After managing to keep the Russian public calm about his unprovoked war "through a combination of propaganda, lies, censorship, and harsh punishment of criticism and dissent," Putin has shattered the quiet with his unpopular mobilization, sending young men dashing for the exits and awakening a suddenly angry population.

"Behind the upheaval is a deeper fissure." Putin for years could do what he wanted thanks to an unspoken agreement under which "people agreed to stay out of politics in exchange for the government not interfering in their daily lives." After the war started, most Russians carried on as before, ignoring the invasion as the casualties and economic costs mounted. Now, as sociologist Greg Yudin has noted, "Russians are quickly snapping out of lethargy and asking questions that they hadn't for a long time." This "might weaken" Putin just when he needs the public on his side to pull off his "desperate grab for cannon fodder" as his war effort falters.

Putin has angered allies as well as critics

Putin has provoked increasing pressure from all sides in Russia, say Michael Kimmage and Maria Lipman in Foreign Policy. There are the war opponents, of course, but Putin also getting pushback "from those dismayed by the military's startling incompetence and seeming lack of determination. The first group has almost no political power. The second, however, has the potential to coalesce into a challenge to Putin" from even some of his "most ardent supporters."

To limit the "risk to Putin's power and the threat of large-scale resistance," the Kremlin will have to intensify its crackdown on dissent. The danger for the Kremlin is that the repression, which has already started with the arrests of thousands of antiwar protesters, "can take on a chaotic momentum of its own. It can generate disgust and outrage." It has already provoked unrest at conscription centers. "Such incidents could well multiply and become difficult for the Russian government to manage." The world shouldn't count on "a revolution or a palace coup," but it "should gird itself for a long war" now that the conflict has become "existential" for "Putin and his entourage."

Putin has options, but not good ones

He expected a quick war, but Putin has "blundered" into a conflict with no end in sight, says The Guardian in an editorial. Now he's "making cannon fodder of his own citizens" in "a desperate strategy that relies on a demoralized, poorly coordinated, and corrupt Russian army outlasting Ukraine's will to fight for its survival. That has been a formula for the humbling of bullying powers in the past. So it is proving again."

Ukraine's counteroffensive has forced Putin to "downgrade his ambitions from regime change in Kyiv to 'liberation of the entire territory of Donbas.'" He's hoping that the sham referendums he just held in occupied Ukrainian border regions will let him annex these regions and argue that they belong to Russia. "Rebadging Ukrainian territory as part of Russia is part of a strategy to present the war as self-defense, with Kyiv as a front for the aggressor, NATO. That is a monstrous inversion of reality, but one that has a purchase on the Russian nationalist imagination."

Putin is threatened and more dangerous than ever

Now that Putin is desperate, we all should be worried, says David Sacks at The American Conservative. "Putin has proved himself a ruthless, calculating killer when threatened." Just look at how many of his opponents "have mysteriously died falling down stairs, or out of windows, or by the inadvertent ingestion of rare poisons." Now that he's facing protests and increased pressure from President Biden and the West, "Putin only faces greater threats to his survival."

Russian hardliners argue that "he has fought this war with insufficient troops, weaponry, and ferocity, and consider the partial mobilization of 300,000 troops to be a half-measure." The West now dreams of a total defeat of Putin, sending Russia back to the February 23 borders, and making it give back the previously annexed Crimean Peninsula. But "Putin would likely face a violent coup if he accepted such a defeat," so the danger is that he will "use every weapon at his disposal," even tactical nukes, to ensure his survival now that he's "backed into a corner."

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