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What now for Putin? After Russian retreat, the Kremlin has few good options in Ukraine

The Russian president is left in an "unenviable" position as he contends with domestic pressures after Ukraine's military launched a stunning counteroffensive, one expert said.
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His military is on the retreat, his rivals are increasingly bullish, and even his supporters are voicing rare unease: Russian President Vladimir Putin may be in his weakest position since he launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than 200 days ago. 

In Washington, Europe and even Moscow, the question now is what Putin might be planning to regain an initiative that seems to be slipping away from him with every new battlefield update.

Could the Kremlin order full military mobilization, press harder in its energy war or even countenance a drastic move like a tactical nuclear strike? Western officials and military analysts agreed that Putin appears to have few good options available.

“It’s really unenviable when you look at the war from his position,” said Michael Kimmage, who focused on the Ukraine-Russia issue at the State Department during the Obama administration. “In a way, the whole concept of the war is off, misguided, and that’s a huge burden on Putin as things have gotten considerably worse in the last week.”

Regroup after retreat?

With Ukraine looking to consolidate its gains and advance farther into Russian-held territory, the immediate need for the Kremlin is to stem the tide. Putin can most quickly address the disquiet at home by halting Ukrainian advances and returning to the relative stalemate that proved an effective pressure point on Kyiv and its Western allies.

In the short term, that will mean stabilizing Russian defensive lines in the eastern industrial region of the Donbas — made up of the twin provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, where Russia painstakingly fought to advance in the summer — as well as in the south around the crucial coastal city of Kherson

Stephen Twitty, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and former deputy commander of U.S. European Command, said that Ukraine is some way from victory and that he expects the war to go on longer — “another year or two.”

However, if Russia fails to hold the line in the east and the south, that could spell “game over” for the Kremlin and Putin’s campaign.

“They wanted all of Ukraine; didn’t get it. They wanted the capital of Kyiv; didn’t get it. And so they shifted to the objectives of taking the east and south and establishing that land bridge,” Twitty said, referring to the idea of a land bridge from the occupied territory of Crimea.

“If they do not meet those goals, they failed in this campaign, and right now they own a trend of failing. And so I don’t think Putin is going to give up that easy.”

A Ukrainian soldier helps a wounded fellow soldier on the road in the freed territory in the Kharkiv region on Sept. 12, 2022.
Ukrainian soldiers have been pressing forward to consolidate and build on their gains.Kostiantyn Liberov / AP

Putin’s essential ambition appears to be continued control of Crimea, as well as annexation of the Donbas and the coastal land along the Black Sea. Moscow-installed officials canceled proposed referendums for those areas to break away and join Russia in the wake of the Ukrainian advance.

Some experts speculated that the Kremlin could aim to push farther west along the Black Sea to Odesa to buoy morale and cut off Ukraine’s ports — a key economic pillar and source of grain shipments for the world — or regroup in the Donbas for a counterattack of its own in the east.

Whatever Putin’s next steps are, he has given no indication of scaling back his expansive ambitions in spite of recent events.

Striking a tone of confidence and suggesting he was unbothered by Ukraine’s counteroffensive, the Russian leader vowed Friday to keep going and said “we are not in a rush."

It is unclear, however, what his military can realistically achieve at its current strength.

Full mobilization?

Pro-Kremlin commentators on state TV and nationalist military bloggers have come closer than ever to criticizing Putin, with renewed calls to escalate militarily.

Ramzan Kadyrov, a close Putin ally who leads the Chechen Republic, has expressed increasing frustration with what he called Russia’s “astounding” military failures in Ukraine, saying he would “be forced to speak with the leadership of the Defense Ministry” if there were no changes in strategy. 

Kadyrov went further on his Telegram channel on Thursday, calling for every leader of a Russian province to pull together 1,000 volunteers to join the fight, which he said would amass 85,000 people — “almost an army!”

It is that question of mobilization that Moscow has avoided, although observers have long waited for Putin to make the call.

The Kremlin has insisted on downplaying the war as a “special military operation,” but a general mobilization of Russian soldiers would draw greater attention to the conflict and implicitly concede that the military campaign is going poorly. 

A destroyed Russian MT-LB armored personnel carrier burns in a field on the outskirts of Izyum, Kharkiv Region, eastern Ukraine, on Sept. 14, 2022.
Ukraine's counteroffensive in the east has seen abandoned and destroyed Russian military equipment strewn across areas like Izyum.Juan Barreto / AFP - Getty Images

A general mobilization would enable the military to draw further on Russia’s 2 million reservists, allow it to expand the draft and put the Kremlin in a position to pressure its manufacturing base toward a wartime footing. It would require heavy training and rededicating materials and the economy, however, meaning it could take until at least the spring for it to have an effect on the battlefield.

It could also lead to backlash in major Russian cities, where life has in many ways continued as usual and where residents have not suffered the same numbers of casualties as its rural provinces to this point. 

“If you start taking young men from Moscow and St. Petersburg, who are more politically powerful than those from the provinces, and they start dying in Ukraine while Russia is losing, that’s a very politically risky position for Putin to be in,” said Kristine Berzina, a senior security and defense policy fellow at the German Marshall Fund. 

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said this week that the Kremlin was not considering full mobilization but that the debate was welcome — to a point. 

“Critical points of view can be considered pluralism so long as they remain within the bounds of the law,” he said. “But the line is very, very thin. One must be careful here.”

Sue for peace?

Other voices in Russia have pressed for an end to the invasion and a withdrawal of forces.

Politician Boris Nadezhdin’s comments on Russian television that the Kremlin had no chance to win and that it should emphasize peace talks made waves online this week. 

“We’re now at the point when we have to understand it’s absolutely impossible to defeat Ukraine,” Nadezhdin said Sunday on state-controlled NTV, where he further slammed the Kremlin for its “colonial war methods” and use of contract soldiers and mercenaries without mobilization.

Nadezhdin told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he does not fear arrest and did not believe he violated the Russian legislation that outlawed disparaging the military or spreading “false information” about the conflict.

“There was not a single fake at all, not a single fake in what I said,” he told the news agency “There was a statement of absolutely obvious facts.”

Right Cause party official Boris Nadezhdin attends a party meeting in Moscow on June 25, 2011.
Nadezhdin is a former liberal member of Russia’s parliament.Sergey Ponomarev / AP file

Moscow and Kyiv entered into negotiations early in the war but failed to make substantive progress toward any peace deal. Given Putin’s territorial ambitions and Ukraine’s increasing confidence in its ability to retake lost land, any deal may require concessions neither side is willing to countenance.

The potential damage of the growing criticism for Putin is clear, with pressure both to step up the military campaign and to bring it to an end increasing. Putin even admitted Thursday after a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping that Xi has “questions and concerns” about the war. 

Calls for his resignation, like the one 50 municipal deputies made in a petition this week, could indicate greater threats to Putin’s ability to hold on to power, Kimmage said, and they could mean some in Russian politics are beginning to hedge their bets and seeing cracks in his strongman veneer. 

“That is going to be the most interesting dynamic to watch in Russian politics in the next couple of months,” he said. “They’re doing it at some political risk, but if the Russian army truly loses, I don’t think Putin can survive that defeat.” 

The nuclear option?

With his own position perhaps more vulnerable as the war shifts in Ukraine’s favor, some analysts have warned that a cornered Putin might turn to Russia’s nuclear arsenal

Fears of a nuclear confrontation between Russia and NATO have eased since the start of the war, but analysts said a small-scale tactical strike against Ukraine could remain a possibility — especially if Putin’s prospects continue to sour.

Such a move would most likely provide limited military gains while drawing geopolitical blowback in which the situation could spiral out of the Kremlin’s control. 

Oleksandr Shulga looks at his destroyed house following a missile strike in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on Aug. 29, 2022.
Ukrainian civilians have already bore the brunt of Russia's war.Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP - Getty Images file

Still, Rose Gottemoeller, the former deputy secretary general of NATO, said the world needs to remain vigilant. She said it is possible Putin could pursue a tactical strike as a demonstration of Russia’s nuclear power, perhaps over the Black Sea or on a Ukrainian military facility, “in order to strike terror not only in Ukrainians, but on the global community who would then theoretically push for Ukraine to capitulate.”

“I do think this is the least likely option for Putin, but remember there are other weapons of mass destruction, including causing a nuclear power plant disaster or the use of chemical or biological weapons,” Gottemoeller said. “Everybody must be mindful that this could be a possibility.” 

Although the Kremlin has not threatened to use conventional nuclear weapons for some time, it appears to be using the threat of a radiation disaster at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine as another form of nuclear saber rattling.

Winter is coming

Perhaps Putin’s best option might be to buy time and rely on the changing seasons.

After retreating from the Kharkiv region, Russian troops quickly followed up with strikes against infrastructure targets that temporarily left many residents without electricity.

They were cheered by some of those nationalist voices online. But it is not just Ukraine facing energy pressure from Russia, as spiraling living costs test Europe’s support for Kyiv. 

This form of hybrid warfare may be one of the best levers left at Putin’s disposal, aiming to increase outside political pressure on Ukraine to agree to unfavorable terms as the northern hemisphere heads towards a cold and costly winter. 

A Ukrainian soldier shoots close to Izium, Kharkiv region, on Sept. 13, 2022.
The ground in Ukraine could freeze, making it difficult for either side to advance.Kostiantyn Liberov / AP

A further element of this hybrid war is the expectation that there will be a fresh wave of Ukrainian refugees who are escaping the cold of winter worsened by Russian shelling on power plants, which UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has warned of for months. 

It is necessary for Ukraine to succeed on the battlefield now, said Berzina, to carry support through the frozen frontlines and cold hearths of winter. 

“Politicians have done an okay job communicating, but they’ll have to do more because the middle class is essential for getting through this winter,” said Berzina.“They need to know why they’ll likely be a little bit colder this winter and face more economic instability.”

Above all, it appears that Ukraine and its Western partners will need to establish that support before winter’s low temperatures, ice and snow freeze the battlefield once again.