Putin’s strategic hole keeps getting bigger

By Daniel W. Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

For the last three weeks, Russia has been on the backfoot in Ukraine. The success of Ukraine’s Kharkiv offensive clearly took Russia by surprise. Although it seems the front lines have stabilized for the moment, the fact remains that Ukraine appears to possess the initiative on the battlefield:

Just as Russia has lost territory in Ukraine, it has also lost diplomatic ground as well. As Russian forces get bogged down in Ukraine, other countries are taking advantage of Moscow’s lack of attention elsewhere. Azerbaijan has attacked Armenia and Tajikistan has clashed with Kyrgyzstan in the past two weeks. Russia’s “allies” in the Global South are also making things more uncomfortable for Putin. At the SCO meetings in Samarkand, Vladimir Putin had to fend off reproaches from China and India about the unending nature of the war. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Russia should return all occupied lands, including Crimea to the “rightful owners.”

So it hasn’t been a great few weeks for either Putin or Russia. In response, this week we have seen the emergence of a two-fold response. The first is to press full steam ahead with referenda in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhye for them to join the Russian Federation — even though Russia only partly controls three of those four regions.

The second is the belated announcement of a “partial” mobilization of Russian forces. According to the AP, “Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a televised interview Wednesday that conscripts and students won’t be mobilized — only those with relevant combat and service experience will be.” Shoigu also claimed that only 5,937 Russian soldiers had died in Ukraine, however, so one should take his pronouncements with a grain of salt.

Oh, and one other thing: Putin brandished the nuclear card — again. After projecting accusing NATO representatives of talking up the nuclear threat, Putin declared “when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal…. It’s not a bluff.”

So, the new Russian strategy seems clear:

  1. Expand Russia’s borders;
  2. If Ukraine’s success on the battlefield means encroachment on these new borders, threaten nuclear action;
  3. Scare NATO into easing back its support of Ukraine.

Will it work?

I have my doubts, and I am not the only one.

Most military observers do not think that Russia’s mobilization will change the facts on the ground over the next few months, which means Ukraine still possesses the initiative. As the Economist’Joshi Shashank writes, “Neither mobilisation…nor annexation will solve Mr. Putin’s problems.” Kherson or Donetsk can try to announce the results of a dubious referendum, but if Ukrainian forces retake those oblasts, they are reunited with Ukraine. So the real question is whether Putin will use nuclear forces if Russian troops cannot hold newly-claimed territory.

From the beginning of this conflict, when Putin declared a “nuclear alert” that turned out to be meaningless, Russia has tried to use its nuclear forces as a way to coercively bargain with the West. It yielded limited results. NATO countries have restricted some kinds of arms exports to Ukraine, but as the war has progressed those restrictions have started to melt away.

Russia’s recent, somewhat ham-handed announcements looks like an effort to reset that deterrent. But unlike Russia proper, or even Crimea, not even the most dovish NATO member is going to see these annexations of Ukrainian sovereign territory as credible. This leaves Putin’s nuclear threat, which is a wan refrain of prior nuclear threats. Perhaps the best tell that these moves do not inspire confidence is that (despite being heavily controlled) the Russian stock market is tanking and there has been a surge of Russians trying to leave the country.

In other words, for all his escalatory steps, Vladimir Putin finds himself more diplomatically isolated and in an even deeper strategic hole than he was a month ago.

This piece was republished from Drezner’s World.

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