Putin Wades Deeper into the Quagmire

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s announcement on September 21 of a partial mobilization of up to 300,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine is the clearest evidence yet his regime is in grave danger. Putin is stuck in a quagmire, where the clearest way out is to stop, turn around, and go back out of Ukraine the way he came in. Yet leaders stuck in an unwinnable war often just wade deeper into the muck. Putin is following that well-charted path, and his regime may not survive. 

Ukraine’s military offensive has turned the course of war and put Russia in an incredibly perilous military position. While Putin had failed in his initial objective of toppling democracy in Ukraine, he had an acceptable fallback option: seizing full control of the Donbas region and keeping hold of much of the territory seized since the invasion. After all, the stated purpose of the “special military operation,” as Putin announced on February 21, was simply to defend the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Controlling significant swaths of Ukrainian territory would ensure a perpetual conflict with Ukraine and therefore give Russia leverage and a veto over Ukraine’s future. Ukraine may move closer to the West, but it could never join the European Union or NATO while remaining in an active or frozen war with Russia. And Ukraine would never be politically able to simply write off such significant territorial losses to join the West. Thus, a frozen conflict would set in, giving Russia time to rebuild its forces and then select another time down the road to rectify the situation. 

The latest Ukrainian offensive has threatened Putin’s fallback option. Not only has Russia lost significant territory, but Russia’s ability to hold on to what it has looks incredibly tenuous. Russia must fear that Ukraine’s Kharkiv offensive is repeatable elsewhere. Ukraine’s territorial gains means it can gradually attrite Russian forces and supply lines through long-range precision strikes from Western artillery. Ukraine may then be able to take advantage of gaps in Russia’s weakly defended lines and punch through. Russia is estimated to have lost 70,000–80,000 killed and wounded, which amounts to almost half the total of the original invasion force. Ukraine now has a manpower advantage and increasingly an advantage in equipment due to supplies from the West. Russia is now desperate for manpower and more matériel. 

Thus, Putin’s decision to mobilize is necessary simply to hold the line and prevent collapse. The mobilization order will allow Russia to prevent those currently in the military from leaving even when their terms of service are up. This stop-loss policy should keep forces on the battlefield and stave off a total collapse. Those that signed up to fight on short, temporary contracts are now trapped. Morale could further plummet. Meanwhile, the effort to mobilize 300,000 additional reinforcements will be a huge challenge, as these troops will need to be trained and equipped. It will take time—a luxury that Russia’s beleaguered forces in eastern Ukraine may not have. 

Thus, Putin may hope that holding sham secession referendums in Russian-occupied territories will give Ukraine and the West pause about further advances. If Russia considers occupied provinces to now be part of Russian territory, then Russia could conceivably justify a nuclear response to counter a future Ukrainian offensive. In his address, Putin claimed that his nuclear threats are “not a bluff” and he will likely hope his nuclear threats freeze the conflict in place and buy time for Russia to get more forces to the battlefield. But Putin’s nuclear credibility is wearing thin. Ukraine has been attacking Russian territory, as well as territory Russia considers its own: Crimea. Use of nuclear weapons would only further isolate Russia, causing rifts with India and China and causing shock within Russia. This threat is concerning and should be taken seriously, but it is also a sign that Russia’s military position is quite dire. 

The existential danger for Putin is that his decision will, if it is at all impactful, bring the war home to more Russians. Wars are popular until they suddenly are not. It took two years for the American public to decisively turn against the Iraq war due to the rising death toll, repeated call ups, and sense of bewilderment about what the war was about. Polling has shown the war in Ukraine to be generally supported by the Russian public, but polling has also revealed a general apathy. As long as the war was not felt too acutely at home, the public would likely remain supportive of the Kremlin. But the Ukrainian battlefield offenses have been significant enough to penetrate the Russian media bubble, upending Russian narratives and forcing Kremlin propagandists to scramble. The call up of fathers and uncles will now increasingly bring this war home and, as Sam Greene argues, could turn the tide of “public support for the war.” 

Russians will also increasingly feel the economic cost of the war. As Chris Miller assessed in Foreign Affairs, Russia is “suffering a steeper growth slowdown than was seen during the 2008 financial crisis and one that is unlikely to be followed by a postcrisis rebound. Living standards are being supported by social spending that will be difficult to sustain and that will likely force tough decisions about the government budget over the coming year.”

This highlights what opponents of Russia sanctions miss: their primary objective is not to induce a change in Putin’s behavior—rather, it is to degrade the Russian economy and limit the Kremlin’s capacity to assert itself on the world stage. This is something Western sanctions are well suited to achieve. Of course, this is a disaster for the people of Russia, but economic deprivation will further drive home the cost of this conflict. 

Russia, meanwhile, will have to equip its new forces and recapitalize its military, all while it is being cut off from Western technology. Russia will certainly find some ways around the sanctions, but this will at least disrupt and delay many current production lines and will likely have a huge impact on Russia’s ability to rebuild its forces. Trying to do import substitution while suffering a massive brain drain will be a challenge to say the least. There will no doubt be holes in the West’s sanctions regime, but its cumulative impact will inevitably degrade Russia’s economy, industry, and critically, its military industrial capacity.

Part of the larger unwritten social bargain between Putin and the Russian public is the people stay out of politics in exchange for relative prosperity and stability. That bargain is being totally upended by the war. The economy is beginning to show signs of stress and now the public is being forced to fight and die in a war they have little interest in. Meanwhile, the ineptitude and military malpractice that has been exposed inside the Putin regime, and the broader global isolation and loss of international prestige, will inevitably lead to growing angst inside the Russian state.

Instead of getting out of this quagmire, Putin, by announcing a military mobilization, has bet the future of his regime that he can successfully wade through it. That is a bet he is likely to lose. 

Max Bergmann is director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. 

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Max Bergmann
Director, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program and Stuart Center