Vladimir Putin is confronted with a debacle of his own creation. His troops are in retreat. His citizens are fleeing conscription. His closest friends are bickering. Can he cut his losses and run?
The prospects are not likely, says former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.
“The conventional wisdom out there, including analysts in our country and around the world, is that Putin can’t accept defeat,” he told US media. “He will double down. He’ll fight to the end. He might even use nuclear weapons.”
It’s the classic strongman trap.
Mr Putin fears that the moment he shows weakness, he will be torn down by those closest to him. But backing down may be the best strategic option remaining, Mr McFaul says.
“Tragically — and I say this, I want to emphasise that word tragically — if he did say, ‘OK, I’m done. Let me have Donbas and Crimea, the places I was basically controlling before he invaded again in February,’ I think there’ll be a lot of leaders around the world that might support him,” he told NPR earlier this week.
That, however, depends on whether or not the man who stylises himself as Russia’s “chessmaster” thinks strategically.
Mr Putin is being humiliated.
And he can’t dodge the blame much longer.
Ukrainian forces are driving his troops back in three occupied territories. And several vital strategic cities fell after stage-managed referendums proclaiming them to be sovereign Russian territory.
His bungled attempts to recruit 300,000 conscripts to replace heavy losses have been met with public disdain. A similar number has already fled the country to dodge his draft.
“But the real story of Putin’s latest melodrama is that he has unequivocally bet his political survival on “victory” over Ukraine and the West,” argues ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre fellow Matthew Sussex.
Simply awful’ conditions
The call-up has spawned reams of social media chatter by wives and mothers of the new recruits – those who did not rush for the borders when the mobilisation was announced.
Some of their posts – and videos by the men themselves – reveal grim conditions: poor food, old weapons and a lack of basic medical supplies. The women discuss sending sanitary towels to pad the men’s boots and tampons to pack their wounds.
The Kursk regional governor has described conditions in several military units as “simply awful”, even down to a shortage of uniforms.
Such revelations blow holes in one of Vladimir Putin’s proudest claims: that he has rebuilt the Russian military into a professional fighting force in which patriotic citizens will want to serve.
But for now, most recruits’ wives seem focused on rallying behind their troops.
“We’re at the stage where a significant part of Russian society still believes that ‘Russia is a great power combating Nato in Ukraine’ and sending tampons, socks and toothbrushes to the mobilised is a sign of patriotism,” Anton Barbashin tweeted this week.
President Putin isn’t likely to face an overwhelming public backlash if he abandons his invasion, Mr McFaul argues.
“I think the vast majority of people in Russia are apolitical,” he said. “They don’t care about this war.”
But they do care about their sons, husbands and grandfathers.
“So for him to say, ‘Mission completed – we don’t need your sons to go die in this war,’ my prediction is a vast majority would support that.”
The alternative, Mr McFaul says, is increasing ridicule, humiliation – and betrayal.
“Crucially, there are now definite signs his grip on power is starting to fray, even if Putin’s demise may still be some way off,” Associate Prof Sussex.
In pro-Kremlin circles, that word is now commonplace, though, as is fierce criticism of Russia’s military command.
MP Andrei Kartapolov was the latest this week to urge the defense ministry to “stop lying” about Russian difficulties, because “our people are far from stupid”.
His most potent ally, Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov, publicly attacked a top Russian general.
“Were it up to me, I would have demoted (Russian commander Alexander Lapin) to private, stripped him of his awards, given him an assault rifle and sent him to the front to wash away his shame with blood,” an angry Telegram post by Kadyrov reads.
Another key Putin ally, the Wagner Mercenary Group’s Yevgeny Prigozhin, agreed. Via formal press release.
“The expressive statement by Kadyrov is not entirely in my style. But I can say to it, Ramzan, you’re a star. Say it like it is!”
He also attacked Putin’s personally appointed commander. “Send all these pieces of garbage barefoot with machine guns straight to the front … (Kadyrov should be) “sent to the front to wash his shame off with blood.”
Such public bluster doesn’t directly target Mr Putin. But it is aimed at his war.
“They weren’t talking that way in February,” Mr McFaul says. “If that’s what’s being said in public, I can only imagine what’s being said privately by elites in Moscow today.”
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