Russia’s escalation is unwise, yet remains Putin’s only gambit

September 22, 2022 10:08
Ukrainian servicemen (Photo: Reuters)

On September 21, President Vladimir Putin declared that Russia would turn to partial mobilisation of the country’s population over what he had previously dubbed a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. Rumours of flight bans – more precisely, travel bans and restrictions – for able-bodied men, paired with the threat of conscripting any and all individuals found to be involved in anti-war protests and mobilisation in the country, point to a progressive escalation from the Russian state in its ongoing ‘struggle’ to vanquish the Ukrainian army and accomplish its vaguely defined, and even more nebulously conceived-of, geopolitical goals in the region.

Those who defend Putin with all their might may resort to two possible explanations for Putin’s move. The first, is that Putin has been forced to step up military efforts – and potentially deploy nuclear weapons – as a means of self-defense. Those who make this line of argument would cite the secessionist rights and interests of Russian ‘territories’ in Ukraine – occupied zones with heavily stationed pro-Russian troops and ‘civilian governments’. The ongoing shelling and sieging of these areas by the Ukrainian army – and the forces behind it – reflect a fundamental encirclement campaign that is both unnerving and perturbing. The second, is that this has been a part of Putin’s plans all along – that the timing is ‘ripe’ for Russia to progress towards the ‘next stage of the plan’. Per this view, Putin has contemplated long and hard, and come to the conclusion that it is time to end the war once and for all, through shifting towards threats of greater militarisation – even going nuclear.

Neither of these apologist takes, in my view, is particularly convincing.

Towards the second view, it would be bizarre to think that Putin would have planned to launch escalation in military deployment over seven months into a war where Russia had secured, at best, mixed results. Indeed, all signs suggest that the Kremlin had vastly underestimated the strength of the resistance in Ukraine, the extent to which NATO-Europe states viewed this war as an existential threat and wake-up call to mobilise in face of Russian aggression, and the ‘wondrous effects’ of effectively limitless funding – not without its costs, but such costs shall surface only in months, if not years – pumped into the hands of the Ukrainian war machine. In retrospective, it was naïve to assume that the rest of Ukraine would fold easily in whimper – but it is worth remembering that Putin was working off the data points of Crimea and the Donbas regions, where Ukrainian resistance had been largely ineffectual prior to 2020 or so.

Hence the more plausible reading out of these two, is that Putin has been driven to a point where he feels he must indeed step up. Indeed, the counterfactual consequences are stark – economic devastation within Russia, popular disillusionment and anger towards perceived weakness and failings of a hubristic leader, and total dependence upon the whims of the NATO-Europe-Ukraine axis as it proceeds to progressively reclaim territories lost to Russia, and then press further in its advances. Putin has no viable opposition: I have said this many a time. Yet concurrently, there need be no viable opposition in order for Putin to feel fundamentally threatened. All that it takes is sufficient paranoia and doubt over his ability to cling onto power to drive Putin to adopt a more bellicose approach on the battlefield.

Remember, Putin stands seven months into a war that he had internally deemed to be winnable “within weeks, if not days”. Kiev has not been ‘liberated’; Ukraine has not been ‘Russified’, and Russian soldiers are dying – perhaps just as much, if not more so, than their Ukrainian counterparts. Whilst Russia is unlikely to be invaded – with its own territory pried away from its rule, the reclamation of the Donbas and Crimean regions in Ukraine are increasingly likely. And it is in face of these prospects that Putin deems it time to dust off the cloth enshrouding his nuclear deterrent.

So what’s the trajectory, then? Frankly, I am rather pessimistic about the fate of Europe, as it stands. Russia may not resort to nuclear weapons in the near-future, but as its mobilised men struggle to make inroads in Ukraine given the dearth of reasonable equipment, the repertoire available to Putin will inevitably run dry. China and India are unlikely to want to take Russia’s side in this conflict – given the huge economic and financial fallout that would ensue. Putin is, effectively, on his own. Nukes would be a devastating tool to deploy – with mutually assured destruction a not-so-vague possibility looming over the horizons. Yet with domestic threats of overthrow on one hand, and mutually assured destruction that could be framed and spun as ‘sacrifice’ on the other, the weighing of pros and cons to Putin may not be as straightforward as what we’d think. The winter is coming – and it won’t be kind to Europe, or the world, indeed.

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Assistant Professor, HKU