In a speech to the nation, Vladimir Putin doubled down on Ukraine, activated the nuclear card and warned that he is not bluffing. Before the UN General Assembly, Joe Biden described Russia as the main threat to global peace and warned its president not to move forward: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
The Kremlin’s latest actions were seen as a show of weakness in the meeting between British Prime Minister Liz Truss and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, or as desperation, in the words of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The question is: how far can Putin go?
The Russian president shows signs of being cornered, for attesting that his special operation in Ukraine did not go according to plan. And, contrary to what it may seem, this symptom is not at all reassuring.
Seven months after the invasion, Putin announced the mobilization of 300,000 reservists and fictitious referendums in four partially Russian-occupied enclaves in southern and eastern Ukraine – Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia – that would justify their annexation.
Treated as a taboo, the war finally seems to have entered the home of the Russians and takes on a new level with the call of the extra contingent to reinforce the troops. The announcement described as “partial mobilization” proved to be enough to fill out flights from Russia to countries that do not yet require entry visas for their citizens and the border roads with neighboring countries.
Whoever could, fled in time not to be summoned. Anti-war protests intensified in several cities, as did police repression, with the arrest of hundreds of people.
The Russian president enters another war, on the domestic front, haunted by the fantasy that his government has tried to impose on the population since February – that his much-publicized special operation was, in fact, the invasion of Ukrainian territory.
For historian Timothy Snyder, the president’s speech demonstrates that he is losing, as he has done something he clearly did not want to do. “Announcing the mobilization shows that he fears his fascist rivals more than he fears the Russian public,” he summarized on social media.
More than ever, Putin will need to convince the population that the country is threatened by the West and that this will require sacrifices, a good dose of patriotism and motivation. Russian troops fighting in Ukraine face casualties and defections. Withdrawal amounts to humiliation, which, in Putin’s dictionary, makes him even more dangerous.