The war news has gone from bad to worse for Vladimir Putin over the past two weeks.
Russia’s recent run of problems began when Ukrainian forces recaptured parts of the country’s northeast in the most successful counterattack of the seven-month war. Since then, Russia’s struggles have grown:
Putin yesterday took a step he had been resisting and called up an additional 300,000 troops, mostly former soldiers. Doing so forced him to acknowledge, at least implicitly, that the war was not going as well as he had hoped. The mobilization was “necessary and urgent,” Putin said in a nationally televised speech, because the West had “crossed all lines” by providing weapons to Ukraine.
As The Times has reported: “After mostly defending for months, Ukraine is now dictating the war, choosing where it wants to press new offensives.” Russia is on defense.
Russia’s setbacks in Ukraine have emboldened a small but growing number of dissidents to speak out. More than 40 local elected officials have signed a petition demanding that Putin resign. A Russian pop star has criticized the war to her 3.4 million Instagram followers. Yesterday, Russian police detained more than 1,200 protesters; in Moscow, crowds shouted, “Send Putin to the trenches!”
Some Putin supporters have also grown frustrated and have called for a more aggressive war effort. My colleague Anton Troianovski, The Times’s Moscow bureau chief, says that some of these hawks were particularly alarmed by the unsolved assassination in a Moscow suburb last month of Daria Dugina, a pro-Putin television commentator, viewing her killing as a sign of Putin’s weakness. These hawks were even more alarmed by the Russian military’s stunning retreat in northeastern Ukraine this month, Anton said.
During a face-to-face meeting last week with Xi Jinping, China’s leader, Putin acknowledged that China had “questions and concerns” about the war. The comment suggested that Russia’s most important global ally had grown less comfortable with the war.
India, which has longstanding military ties with Russia, has also grown more critical. “Today’s era is not of war,” India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, told Putin during another recent meeting. India’s discomfort, in turn, gives China more reason to be concerned about the war: If India moves diplomatically closer to the U.S. and Western Europe, it would create a more powerful bloc to counter China’s rise.
These developments help explain why Putin has chosen to call up additional troops.
For months, he had resisted doing so, partly out of a concern that the move would increase public opposition to the war. Putin calibrated his past public comments to downplay the war at times, and polls suggest that many Russians are not paying much attention to it. He still has declined to institute a full military draft, although yesterday’s order was so broad that he could eventually expand it.
Western officials called the move an act of desperation and noted that Russia may need months to train and equip the troops. But Julian Barnes, who covers intelligence agencies in Washington for The Times, says that the troop mobilization does help address one of Russia’s biggest military problems. “Russia has the equipment but not the manpower,” Julian said. “Ukraine has the manpower but not the equipment.”
Julian added: “The potential countermove for the West is going to be to send more artillery tubes and tanks to Ukraine.”
The U.S., the E.U. and other allies have already sent billions of dollars worth of weapons to Ukraine. Those weapons, especially shoulder-fired and longer-range missiles, have been enormously helpful. President Biden, speaking at the United Nations yesterday, trumpeted this assistance while also warning Putin not to use nuclear weapons.
Still, Ukraine’s leaders say they need additional equipment to force Russian troops out of the country. The Biden administration has requested more funding for Ukraine from Congress.
One question is whether the U.S. would be willing to send longer-range missiles and more modern tanks to Ukraine than allies have previously sent. So far, the West has chosen not to, partly out of a desire to avoid making Putin believe that an invasion of Russia was plausible. In that scenario, Putin might choose to escalate his attacks. Without more tanks, however, Ukraine would likely be at a military disadvantage.
Amid all of Russia’s problems, has anything been going well for Putin lately?
“Militarily, not much has gone right since the summer, when Russia took control of most of the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine,” Julian said. “That said, Russia’s economy is doing better than expected. The sanctions have not totally ground things to a halt. High energy prices mean they can keep the economy going and discontent down. But will the partial mobilization unleash that unrest?”
More on the war
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