Russia’s war in Ukraine is at a dangerous tipping point

Kramatorsk, Ukraine

The chaos of the past week can be mistakenly comforting. Despite Russia’s continued disastrous management of its war of choice in Ukraine, the most dangerous moment in the conflict may be approaching.

At some point this week, the Kremlin is likely to declare “fake” referendums in four partially occupied areas of Ukraine that have ordered the rapid assimilation of what Moscow calls Russian territory.

Referendums are illegal under international law, and Ukraine, the United States and the rest of NATO have already made it clear that this move will have no legal force and will lead to sanctions.

But it will happen anyway, and Russia is likely to use the moment to escalate the main threat behind this charade, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov making it clear over the weekend that Moscow reserves the right to “absolutely protect” the areas that have become its official territory. .

Moscow’s threat is clearly nuclear. Putin has presented his bellicose rhetoric – warning last week that Russia would “use all available weapons systems” if necessary – as a response to NATO’s nuclear threats.

But his officials have been incredibly clear: they want the use of nuclear weapons to be considered a real option and, as Putin put it, “not a bluff.”

This has led to a dramatic shift in Washington’s messaging.

For months, Western officials dismissed suggestions that a nuclear conflict was even on the mind. Now US President Joe Biden and his cabinet officials are forced to publicly send messages of deterrence and readiness to reassure allies, and everyone else on planet Earth.

It’s really uncomfortable to live in a time when the US government has to publicly warn wartime Russia – which is losing badly and unexpectedly against a neighbor they thought they could necessarily dominate – that using nuclear weapons is bad. idea. The principles of assured mutual destruction that brought a dark calm to the Cold War seem to have expired.

We are facing a Russia that wants to project a crazy image that is ready to lose everything in the face of losing this war.

It’s a binary moment for Putin, with no relegation or soft exit available.

The partial mobilization of Russian civilians has been as disastrous as anyone who has seen conscription in Russia for decades could have expected: the drafting of the “wrong” people, as the rich escape and the poor outnumber the rest.

Rusty rifles, drunken recruit buses, and still no answers as to how those tens of thousands of untrained and perhaps unwilling soldiers will be equipped and equipped on the front lines if Moscow fails to adequately supply its regular army in the last six months. months?

And the crisis in Putin’s Russia has not had to wait for the newly mobilized to return to the coffin. The chaos of the mobilization already has Kremlin propaganda tycoon Margarita Simonian, head of the state-controlled RT network, acting as the agony aunt on Twitter for Russians who have wrongly sent fathers, sons or husbands.

They say that jealous local officials are to blame for the obligatory mistakes, but underneath it all, it is the war and its terrible accusations that have brought Russia here. The acceptance of the disastrous mobilization by the Moscow elite gives the leader himself some criticism, which is rare.

All of this leaves Putin much weaker than when he was losing the war. To add to his woes, he now faces perhaps unprecedented internal dissent. His position depends on strength, which he lacks now, almost entirely. The forced mobilization of old men and unwilling youth is unlikely to change the calculus on the battlefield, where Ukrainian morale is at a low ebb and their equipment is slowly improving.

Don’t look to Putin’s inner circle for change. They are all in the same blood of this war, and behind the slow drum of repression that has turned Russia into a dystopian autocracy for the past 22 years. Putin has no obvious successor; don’t expect anyone who eventually replaces him to reverse his stance and demand peace and economic recovery. Any successor may try to prove it with an exercise more foolhardy than the original invasion of Ukraine.

So we’re left with a losing Putin who can’t afford to lose. Without much conventional power, he could turn to other tools to reverse this disastrous position.

Strategic aircraft may bomb parts of Ukraine, although many of its towns and cities appear to have done so. It could also resort to chemical or biological weapons, although these would be too close to its borders for health or comfort, and would outlaw a vigorous international response.

And then there’s the nuclear option, an option once so unthinkable that it seems insane to commit to print. But that also carries risks for Putin, beyond NATO’s military retaliation. A military that can’t fly enough of its planes or fuel enough of its tanks is in trouble. He may worry that he will not be able to conduct a precise, limited and effective tactical nuclear attack.

Putin himself might worry that his grip on power may not hold a chain of command strong enough to carry out an order to launch a nuclear weapon. This could also be the time when the better angels of Russian nature emerge. In the five years I lived there, I got to know a bright, warm and shining town, mostly tarnished by centuries of misrule.

Yet in the coming days, it will be tempting to dismiss Moscow’s broad claims of sovereignty and sabre-rattling, the dying of an empire that forgot to look under the hood before driving into a storm. This is a win-or-lose moment for Putin, and he sees no future in which he can lose.