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Russian President Vladimir Putin last week announced a “partial mobilization” of military reservists to bolster his country’s flagging war effort in Ukraine. The move could send up to 300,000 additional soldiers to the front lines in eastern regions of Ukraine, where Russian forces have lost large swaths of territory to an aggressive Ukrainian offensive over the past several weeks.
In his announcement, Putin also reiterated Russia’s readiness to use “all weapon systems available” in the conflict, a statement widely viewed as a threat that he is willing to use nuclear weapons. “This is not a bluff,” he said.
Seven months into the invasion, which Putin and his allies apparently believed would result in a swift and decisive victory, the Russian military appears to be faltering amid major strategic losses, heavy casualties, equipment shortages and reports of a severe dip in morale among rank-and-file troops. Despite these struggles, or more likely because of them, the Russian regime has escalated its commitment to the war.
On Friday, Putin signed a series of treaties designed to illegally annex four territories in eastern Ukraine and claim them for Russia. The annexation came after Russian forces carried out sham referendums in which they forced local citizens — reportedly at gunpoint in some cases — to vote on whether they would prefer to be part of Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky quickly responded by signing a formal application for Ukraine to join the NATO military alliance.
Why there’s debate
There’s little doubt that the floundering invasion of Ukraine has put Putin in some of the most difficult circumstances he’s faced in his more than two decades in power. But experts disagree strongly over whether these failures pose a legitimate threat to his iron grip over Russia.
Some view the recent series of escalatory moves from Putin as signs of desperation from a ruler who has staked his entire future on a gamble that appears very likely to fall short. They argue that the mobilization of reserve fighters may be especially damaging because it has forced average Russian citizens to confront the realities of the war, which they have thus far been shielded from by the Kremlin’s lies and the state media that perpetuates them. Others believe that Putin has put himself in an impossible position in which the only choices available to him — continuing a bloody and potentially unwinnable war or accepting a humiliating peace agreement — will deal an irreparable blow to the air of invincibility that has helped him remain in power for so long.
But skeptics say Putin is far too entrenched for even the worst-case scenarios in Ukraine to pose a true risk. They argue that the regime's ability to swiftly stifle protests that erupted in response to mobilization shows the incredible ability Putin and his allies have to stomp out dissent through increasingly aggressive means. Others make the case that the war may actually have strengthened Putin’s position by fueling the Russian people’s longstanding us-vs.-them nationalism and prompting many of the citizens who are most critical of his rule to abandon the country.
Putin’s grip is slipping
Even if he’s likely to stay in power, Putin may become much weaker than he once was
“It would be a mistake to foresee a collapse of the regime, ensconced for two decades. But Mr. Putin, like any leader, depends on legitimacy to ensure his rule. And in the weeks and months ahead, he may discover that the ground beneath his feet has started to shift.” — Marlene Laruelle, New York Times
Any regime built on lies will eventually crumble
“ What will the oligarchs do when their fortunes are further depleted? What will the people do if his war of choice turns into a quagmire that demands even more Russian lives? There is a problem with attempting to build and maintain a national edifice based on legions of lies. Multiple falsehoods will eventually prove unsustainable. Facts are stubborn that way. The truth will catch up to Putin, too.” — Robert Bruce Adolph, Tampa Bay Times
The damage of the war is finally being felt by everyday Russian citizens
“Most Russians were willing to acquiesce in the war as long as they didn’t have to sacrifice for it. Now that men are being press-ganged into service, Putin is bringing the war home in ways that are risky for a despot with little legitimacy.” — Max Boot, Washington Post
Putin’s latest aggressive moves show how vulnerable he feels
“Support for Putin is eroding — abroad, at home, and in the army. Everything else he says and does right now is nothing more than an attempt to halt that decline.” — Anne Applebaum, Atlantic
Nuclear threats change the calculus of keeping Putin in charge for the Russian people
“If there’s one thing Russians fear more than Putin, it’s nuclear war — and now he’s the one bringing it closer. For both the elite and the ‘ordinary’ Russians who I’ve spoken to recently, the calculation is about whether the risk of going against Putin is bigger than the risk of sticking with him. So far, rebelling has seemed the bigger risk; does the nuclear topic change that?” — Peter Pomerantsev, Guardian
We’re witnessing the slow, grinding end of Putin’s regime
“Putin’s regime is outwardly stable. Only hairline fractures currently show. … But the more defeats inflicted upon him, the more his military commanders will lose confidence in him — to the extent they have not already. This would be the best outcome — a change of regime from within, not by the hand of the West or even its policies. And it is not beyond reach. This war will bring down Putin.” — James Nixey, CNN
Putin’s power will hold
The war only strengthens Putin’s command
“It would be preposterous to believe that a mishandled war may result in civil unrest that will topple the regime. When people are largely focused on survival, they are very unlikely to turn into revolutionaries.” — Leonid Ragozin, Al Jazeera
Putin’s unwillingness to back down will allow him to cling to power
“Ukraine is the ballgame for him. The whole meaning of his adult life is his war with the West, and this is the battlefield. He is about to turn 70, closer to the end than the beginning. He alone drove this thing and he’ll drive it into the ground because, I believe, he doesn’t care anymore, and he can’t lose.” — Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal
Putin will use every available means to crush dissent
“Putin has available to him an immense architecture of repression. … He has every resource he needs to transform Russia into a brutal police state, far more repressive than it is at the present moment. That will win him no sincere support for the war, and it may give him no new advantage in the war. But it will grant him a means of corralling Russians into the war effort and severely punishing anyone who stands in his way.” — Michael Kimmage and Maria Lipman, Foreign Affairs
Only a leader like Putin can lead a country like Russia
“Putin remains one of the most consequential oligarchs of the post-World War II era. Global uncertainty remains high, an ideal environment for oligarchs like Putin to exploit. The war seems likely to go on for a long time, and Russia, while cowed, is unlikely to give up easily. And that Russia — its hands covered with innocent blood — will likely be led by those who do not fear that blood. Leaders like Putin.” — David Lingelbach and Valentina Rodríguez Guerra, The Hill
The bigger danger to Putin would come if he decided to de-escalate the war effort
“Putin’s resort to partial mobilization suggests that he’s more afraid of regime hardliners than his own public. The growing criticism means the more extreme elements of his supporters could turn against him and threaten his hold on power in a way the public could not because the hardliners have ties to the security services and are more likely to use violence to achieve their aims.” — Anna Borshchevskaya, NBC News
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images, Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images, Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images