Ukraine recap: bad news from the battlefield for Putin, renewed nuclear threats from Russia

Vladimir Putin had barely finished his speech last Friday welcoming four new regions into Mother Russia, when his mouthpiece, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov admitted that they didn’t actually know where the borders of these regions were. “We will clarify everything today,” he said, when quizzed as to whether Russia was laying claim to those parts of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions still under Ukrainian control.

But Putin and his advisers are no clearer now as to how much of their neighbour’s land they have claimed than they were a week ago. The stunning success of Ukraine’s counteroffensives in the south and east have pushed Russian troops out of thousands of square kilometres of territory, in the process taking large numbers of prisoners and capturing huge amounts of Russian military equipment.

Precious Chatterje-Doody, who researches politics and international affairs at the Open University, believes the sham referendums and annexations were as much for domestic consumption as anything else. Support for the war in Russia, despite what polling might suggest, appears to be waning – particularly since the Kremlin announced its partial mobilisation last month. You’ve only got to look at the numbers of military-age Russians flooding across the borders of neighbouring countries to see that the urge to risk life and limb for the motherland is not exactly irresistible for many.

Read more: Ukraine war: Putin announces annexation of four regions, but his hold on them may be flimsy

For the Russian president, bad news on the battlefield has been compounded by political pressure from the right wing. There has been growing criticism of the way Putin has been conducting the campaign, which many feel should have long ago been upgraded from “special military operation” to all-out war.

Jules Sergei Fediunin, a political scientist at the Raymond Aron Centre for Sociological and Political Studies in France, has identified some of the prime movers in Russia’s far-right, who range from military veterans, to ultra-nationalists to the increasingly visible military bloggers (milbloggers). These people represent an increasingly powerful tendency in Russian politics, writes Fediunin – and it’s uncertain to what extent Putin will be able to keep them onside.

Read more: Has Vladimir Putin been outflanked by the Russian far right?

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This is our weekly recap of expert analysis of the Ukraine conflict. The Conversation, a not-for-profit newsgroup, works with a wide range of academics across its global network to produce evidence-based analysis. Get these recaps in your inbox every Thursday. Subscribe here.

Nuclear sabre rattling

Another of Putin’s allies who has been urging an escalation in Ukraine is the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who is urging the Russian president to make good on his threat to defend Russia with “all available means” at their disposal, meaning tactical nuclear weapons. The Russian leadership has hinted several times over the past seven months that it might be prepared to resort to its nuclear arsenal if it feels there is an existential threat to Russia. And, since the annexations, fighting is mainly taking place on what the Kremlin considers to be Russian soil.

As Christoph Bluth of the University of Bradford notes here, the US and Nato have taken pains to play down these threats as so much bluster. But the US secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, recently revealed that Washington had “been war-gaming” its response. Bluth has looked into a variety of ways in which Russia might deploy its nuclear arsenal and talks us through the possible US response. We must hope that cool heads prevail on both sides of the Atlantic.

Read more: Ukraine war: how the Biden administration is responding to Putin's threats to go nuclear

Coincidentally, we’re not far off the 60th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, 13 days during which the world stood on the brink of nuclear war after Russia deployed medium-range nuclear missiles to Cuba and the US blockaded the island and demanded their removal. The crisis deepened after Soviet anti-aircraft missiles shot down a US spy plane over Cuba.

The crisis pitted a relatively inexperienced US president, John F. Kennedy, against a hardheaded Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, both of whom were reportedly under pressure to escalate from influential hawks in their respective administrations. Tom Vaughan, who researches nuclear politics at Aberystwyth University, recounts the crisis and draws parallels with today’s situation.

Read more: Nuclear war: does it take luck or reasoning to avoid it? Lessons from the Cuban missile crisis, 60 years on

Away from the battlefield

With his eyes firmly on the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing in about ten days, the last thing Xi Jinping must want is to become embroiled in nuclear brinkmanship in Europe. Xi has consistently backed Putin, but has tempered his position with a degree of ambiguity, simultaneously refusing to condemn Russia’s actions while at the same time restating his firmly held position on the sanctity of the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The University of Birmingham’s Stefan Wolff and Tatyana Malyarenko of the National University Odesa, believe that Xi’s support for Putin is finite, with one of the main red lines being any use of nuclear weapons on Russia’s part. For Xi, the increasing asymmetry of the two countries’ relationship, in which Russia is increasingly the junior partner, is not such an undesirable outcome.

Read more: Ukraine war: China's lukewarm support for Russia is likely to benefit Kyiv – here's why

Meanwhile the perpetrator of what looks likely to have been deliberate sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea remains unclear. But the episode is a sobering pointer for the damage that could be done by a mischievous power bent on wreaking real havoc with vital infrastructure.

As Christian Bueger, a professor of international relations at the University of Copenhagen, points out, this raises the question of the vulnerabilities of European pipelines, electricity and internet cables. This, says Bueger, appears to be what is known as a “grey-zone” attack, so called because it could either have been perpetrated by a rogue state or by a group acting indirectly on behalf of state interests. What makes it all the more tricky is that it’s the first carried out underwater, where at present there is little surveillance in place.

Read more: Nord Stream pipeline sabotage: how an attack could have been carried out and why Europe was defenceless

The trouble with conscription

We mentioned earlier that some of Putin’s right-wing allies want him to double down on the war and call for mass mobilisation, which implies a general conscription of fighting-age men. This has rarely been a popular move, particularly when the cause is not an existential one as it was for many of the allied countries in the second world war.

And it appears that nobody is immune to a degree of cynicism when it comes to making hard political choices as to who to send off to risk life and limb. Kevin Fahey, a political scientist at the University of Nottingham, has analysed archival information about how the US conducted conscription in the second world war. He reveals that the Democratic Roosevelt administration systematically rigged the call up to favour their party at the next election, taking fewer conscripts from swing states where sending people’s boys off to fight might have boosted the chances of their Republican rivals. Plus ça change, you might say.

Read more: Russia: what the history of WWII conscription shows us about who gets sent to the front lines

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