Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Putin’s Choices in Ukraine are Going from Bad to Worse

Russia is testing whether its people have the stomach to fight, but as social media gets flooded with refusals to accept mobilisation, is Vladimir Putin running out of means to cling on to power?

As Britain mourns the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, Putin is facing a different sort of sorrow. Ukrainian gains on several fronts have sent the Russians packing or in many cases, packed in body bags. The casualty rate is no longer possible to keep hidden and the people are beginning to see through the vale of propaganda and realise the implications of Russia’s gargantuan retreat. However, Russian television hasn’t started airing Swan Lake.

Recently, Mikhail Sheremet, a member of the Russian State Duma, and a former Ukrainian politician, in an interview with RIA Novosti, suggested “the nature of the special military operation in Ukraine should be changed. This is no longer just a special, but a counter-terrorist operation.” Sheremet, in the same interview, suggested that Ukraine had “become a stronghold and hotbed of international terrorism,” and called for full mobilisation.

The Washington Post reports that, Sergey Mironov, leader of the A Just Russia party, in a speech to parliament, publicly broke with the Kremlin. “It’s time for a full-scale mobilization! But not a military one but mobilization in our minds,” Mironov told fellow lawmakers. “It cannot be that there is a war going on, and the entire country is dancing and having fun. Enough! Only the truth and an honest assessment of what is happening will help us win.”

Mobilisation would inflate the army with citizen soldiers, many of whom held a gun during their conscript years but have since taken up civilian life. While such an increase in recruits will allow Russia to bolster dwindling numbers of front-line fodder, will it carry favour with the people?

Russian social media has been flooded with messages of discontent. As the only relatively free medium still available in the country, people feel less inclined to hide their feelings. Messaging services such as Telegram, which can hide the identity of the user, have taken off in the isolated state and reflect the mood of the country. This mood is not what the leader behind the red walls of the Kremlin is hoping for, but will he care?

Putin said that no new units will be sent to the front, aiming to appease the people desperate not to get shot. However, this tells nothing of replenishment for the deployed units, such as those wiped out during the Kharkiv counterattack by Ukraine.

One way to keep the front steady would be by relocating soldiers from existing units to depleted husks fighting in Ukraine. This would allow the Russian president to keep his promise of no new units. It would also mean sending in troops who have already undergone basic training but are no elites. These soldiers were passed over on earlier considerations of deployment and are likely to pose little actual threat to Ukraine bar the human waves they represent. Such a tactic also means a larger conscription drive in the Fall. Indicating this approach, Putin already announced a further 130,000 soldiers to be enlisted in the new year.

Another way to keep Putin’s promise is to rely on his beleaguered oligarchs for support in providing mercenaries. Putin has not shied away from paying people to be killed for his misguided geopolitical aims. Russian mercenaries have already fought against Ukraine and new deployments are rumoured, paid for by the few Putin allies allowed to plunder the country in exchange for obedience. While offering a way out for the destitute, this drive is unlikely to gather enough troops to replenish the ever-dwindling numbers facing Ukrainians. What’s more, levying a war tax on the super-rich is unlikely to keep Putin in good stead amongst his wealthy minions. Fearful of a coup, he would think twice before relying on their cash to sustain his doomed vacation in Ukraine.

An even less likely development is a decision to end the war. If one is willing to murder for power, war is the ultimate high. Does it matter if they are Ukrainian or Russian soldiers when the outcome is perceived global influence? Putin relishes the cost-of-living hikes and food and fuel shortages around the world. It is his doing, and one cannot hope for him to stop. In any case, in his own street urchin code of conduct, this would mean showing weakness and a reason for the swarming Kremlin crows to start taking chunks out of his flailing flesh.

The last scenario can be to lie and send in new forces. The Russian president is no stranger to unkept promises and such a move is likely. The ever-relevant Russian military mantra “don’t hold back on the soldiers, women will give birth to more” seems to be a firm favourite of the current Russian autocrat. Certainly, those sent won’t be from the groups he associates with and there is no love lost for the people. Those unfortunates, drinking themselves to death in the Russian provinces, are unlikely to rebel if the drink is cheap and there is a loaf of bread for breakfast. Even those with a hope for a better future, primarily located in the largest cities, have never mounted a worthwhile protest against constant oppressions. This will just be one more in a list of sacrifices for the privilege of life in poverty in the largest and most resource-diverse country on the globe.

No matter the scenario, Putin is doomed to lose his popularity among one of his support groups. While the masses are unlikely to be the priority, he would be keen to keep the support of the wealthy for as long as he can. The 2020 events in Belarus, a state under de facto Russian control for years, show that if the oppressive machine is fed and paid, the masses can be trampled. Putin will do all he can to keep the people who matter to him happy. If it means rule through fear – so be it.