Putin’s suicidal gamble

Leonid Ragozin

On September 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the stakes in the Ukrainian conflict to a dangerous new level, as he announced mobilisation and threatened to use nuclear weapons. In a speech aired on national TV, he said: “This is not a bluff. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weather vane can turn and point towards them.”

Following Putin’s speech, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said about 300,000 people would be drafted. However, it seems that the real figure might be much higher. The presidential decree that formalised the draft was not released in full; the part of it made public does not contain an actual target number and defines conditions for mobilisation in rather vague terms. The exiled Russian media outlet Novaya Gazeta cited a Kremlin source who said a classified clause of the decree puts it at one million. The Kremlin dismissed the report.

Simultaneously, Russia has been conducting “referendums” in four partly occupied Ukrainian regions in a move that will likely lead to their annexation. These sham votes will allow the Kremlin to claim that Ukraine is attacking “Russian territory”. That, in turn, will activate Russian defence doctrine which allows the use of nuclear weapons.

The impact of this drastic decision on the course of the war in Ukraine and on Russian domestic politics is extremely hard to predict.

Putin is taking a maddening risk which could result in the collapse of his regime, but – just as likely – could lead to Russia drowning Ukraine in a sea of blood and by extension defeating the US-led West in this conflict.

Russia has not seen a general mobilisation since World War II. For the country’s conformist majority, this is a clear breach of the social contract with Putin’s regime in which they traded their political freedoms for security and economic stability.

Under his rule, they have lived completely disengaged from politics and the regime has made sure politics does not knock on their door. Putin has excelled in precision strikes against his opponents; thus, political repression has affected only a tiny share of the population actively engaged in opposition activism.

On the economic side – even despite crippling Western sanctions – Russians are living through the most affluent period in living memory. They are a long way from the level of desperation they felt during the epoch of liberal reforms in the 1990s.

But if the mobilisation proceeds as announced, millions will be directly and tragically affected by Putin’s suicidal foreign policy, which they only conditionally and half-heartedly endorse.

There is nothing remotely similar to the outbreak of patriotic enthusiasm seen at the start of the two world wars in the 20th century. Instead, there are long queues at the Russian borders and airline tickets reaching exorbitant prices, as men facing the draft try to escape the country.

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