Putin in a Pickle
As he rattles the nuclear saber, he seems...rattled.
Imagine a poker game where a sour-looking bully — despised by everyone — suddenly announces: “I am not bluffing.” What are the other players thinking? They’re figuring this guy is playing a weak hand and has been thrown off his game.
In the 30 years since he first rose to power in St. Petersburg’s city hall, Vladimir Putin — a quiet, steely killer — has not seemed like the kind of person who would need to say something so unsubtle.
Now, as he again rattles the nuclear saber, he seems…rattled. The result is good news and bad news at the same time.
The good news is that Putin is trapped between hawks (fueled by grim battlefield reports on Telegram) who have been urging escalation for weeks, and a growing number of influential doves, like Russia’s most famous pop star [Alla Pugacheva], once a strong Putin supporter, who is being viewed by smart analysts as a canary in the coal mine for a Kremlin crisis that may already be underway. Even tyrants have to maintain some public support, and the invasion of Ukraine was unpopular before it began. For the first time, it’s possible to envision a post-Putin Russia, though the road there could be long and bumpy.
The other good news is the response of the West, which has been led by Joe Biden with immense diplomatic skill over the last nine months. The world has Putin’s number now. It’s akin to the way we are “shocked but not surprised” by the latest Trump outrage. The two reactions seem contradictory but aren’t. With Putin, we are “frightened but not intimidated” by his threats. He is paradoxically scaring us into being more firm and less likely to bend to his evil will, including his demands that the U.S. and other nations stop sending weapons to Ukraine. If he had played a diplomatic card now—a move the state-backed hardliners reject—he would have had better odds of splitting the West (with the help of an ascendent rightwing Italian party) and making more money off his winter oil and gas. Instead, despite a new Saudi-backed prisoner swap with Ukraine, he has convinced even his allies that he’s a warmonger.
The bad news is that dictators, like feral animals, can lash out irrationally when trapped. With China, India and Turkey backing away and even North Korea suddenly unenthusiastic, Putin might be drifting into nothing-to-lose land, where he uses long-range missiles to destroy Kiev and kill Volodymyr Zelenskyy or drops a tactical nuclear bomb (smaller than the A-bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) over the Black Sea or a remote region of Ukraine. He might figure this would serve as a warning without killing anyone, like the atmospheric testing that both the United States and the Soviet Union did before the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
On 60 Minutes, Biden told Putin “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t” go nuclear, and the unspecified “consequences” now being war-gamed in Washington are chilling to imagine even if they don’t include nuclear retaliation.
Before he goes there, Putin will try sharp escalation. His problem is that the 300,000 conscripts (some say a million) he plans to send into battle will likely end up being even worse soldiers than the 200,000 who are already getting their asses kicked (or, in the case of 70,000 of them, killed) by the Ukrainians. They’re cannon fodder — like the Soviet soldiers Stalin’s commanders forced at gunpoint to move toward the German lines. The difference was that those Russians were fighting for their homeland. These are fighting for nothing but Putin’s imperial ego.
To try to avoid domestic unrest, Putin at first signaled that he wouldn’t be conscripting young college-age men from urban areas, many of whom would flee at the first opportunity, whatever the new punishment for doing so. He thought mercenaries and troops from friendly former Soviet republics would fill the gap. But within 48 hours, The New York Times was reporting that the mobilization was extending well beyond Putin’s red state (sometimes still literally communist) rural base, where support for the war runs higher. After an initial focus on drafting veterans (some in their 40s) who are at least partially trained in important specialities, the authorities are now grabbing anyone they can before they escape the country — including some straight from jail or antiwar rallies.
Russia has little of the Soviet-era standing army infrastructure that would have allowed for better training. And the Russian army still lacks the core of skilled non-commissioned officers that the Ukrainian army — refashioned a few years ago along Western lines — has used for battlefield leadership. In a revealing thread, an analyst named Kamil Galeev (@kamilkazani) explains that almost all of the qualified officers are already in Ukraine.
If troop strength determined the outcome, the Russians would have won the war last winter. Putin’s latest move reminds me of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s, when he sent 500,000 (mostly) draftees to reverse the tide of battle. (Unlike Putin, he refused to call up reservists, fearing it would cause war hysteria in the United States.) LBJ could have sent a million troops and it wouldn’t have broken the will of the North Vietnamese and the VC (When VC stood for Viet Cong guerrillas, not venture capital). The Vietnamese fought off the Americans invading their country — like the French before them, in the early 1950s — with small arms fire and IEDs. The Ukrainians are much better armed and — with their recent military advances — possess sky-high morale. The idea of a Vietnam War-style “pacification” of the Donbas is just another Putin pipe dream.
Yes, winter will be rough on Ukranians. They’ll spend much of it freezing in bombed-out buildings as the Russians intensify their aerial assault. But it could be even worse for dispirited Russian soldiers — in most cases, thousands of miles from home — with nothing to fight for and nothing to drink except the rot-gut alcohol their Afghan War veteran fathers taught them to make from engine fuel.
In the meantime, Putin’s sham referenda, which worked in 2014 in the Crimean peninsula, will likely have a harder time in the Donbas, where armed Russians are already going door-to-door in some areas forcing Ukrainians to “vote.” Russians make up 65 percent of Crimea’s population and a significant percentage of them welcomed annexation. While most residents of the Donbas speak Russian, fewer than half identified themselves as Russian before Putin’s February invasion, and many of them oppose his invasion. This ain’t Austria after the Anschluss. Once Russian civilian officials announce that they are in charge of these separatist republics, watch for many of them to be assassinated.
In the meantime, the Russians are herding tens of thousands of Ukrainians into “filtration camps” where Russian occupiers examine the inmates’ phones and tattoos for signs that they are Ukrainian patriots. For all the comparisons to Nazi concentration camps (or the U.S. internment camps for Japanese-Americans), these facilities — at least those located inside Ukraine — will be harder to sustain. The Russian goons who run them better watch their backs.
As long as Ukrainian forces win on the battlefield, Putin will lose at everything he tries. It isn’t easy being mean.