Opinion | Putin’s Desperate Ukraine Escalation

Opinion | Putin’s Desperate Ukraine Escalation


Russian President Vladimir Putin



Photo:

konstantin zavrazhin/sputnik/kre/Shutterstock

Vladimir Putin’s

latest escalation in Ukraine is no show of strength. The military mobilization he announced on Wednesday, along with new nuclear threats, may mollify his hard-line critics in Russia for a while. But this won’t deter Ukraine from continuing its military offensive, and it shouldn’t deter the West from accelerating its military aid to Kyiv’s forces.

Mr. Putin announced what he called a “partial mobilization” that could be up to 300,000 reservists, which sounds impressive. But the call-up is an admission that the Kremlin’s campaign in Ukraine is failing and that its current forces are exhausted and inadequate.

The reservists aren’t battle-hardened troops who can immediately rush to the front-lines. They will need training, as many are former conscripts, not military professionals. The Russian Duma is passing a law to toughen punishment for evading mobilization and desertion, which suggests concern that many won’t show up or won’t fight if they do.

The partial call-up also falls far short of the full war footing, or a military draft, that would enlist the sons of Moscow and St. Petersburg elites. A draft would court more domestic opposition, as it becomes clear that what Mr. Putin calls his “special military operation” has jeopardized far more than the chance to eat at the now shuttered

McDonald’s.

Mr. Putin also renewed his threat from earlier in the war to use nuclear weapons. The Kremlin is underscoring the threat by preparing to hold rushed referenda on whether four occupied regions in Ukraine should join the Russian Federation—Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 with a similar referendum. Mr. Putin uses these rigged votes to lend a veneer of legitimacy to his land grabs in Ukraine.

Mr. Putin’s implicit threat is that, if Ukraine continues to reclaim these territories, he will be justified in using a tactical nuke to defend what will now be the Russian homeland. The referenda will no doubt prevail because millions of pro-Ukraine voters have fled since Russia’s invasion in 2014 and again this year.

But no one other than Russia’s global toadies will recognize the votes as legitimate. Last year only 21% of Kherson residents and 32% of Zaporizhzhia residents described their attitude toward Russia as warm, according to a survey by the nonprofit International Republican Institute. Pluralities in both oblasts favored joining NATO. And that was before Russia began bombing Ukrainian cities.

The annexation also carries risks for Mr. Putin if Ukraine continues to take back territory. He will have to explain why his forces are losing land he has just declared is Russia’s. Perhaps he is prepared to use nuclear weapons, and the threat has to be taken seriously. But such a step would surely lead to even more NATO support for Ukraine and jeopardize what global support his war still has.

India’s Prime Minister gave Mr. Putin a public lecture on the war last week. Chinese support for Russia’s war is increasingly tepid, though it is still happy to buy oil and gas at a considerable discount. Turkey’s strongman Recep

Tayyip Erdogan

said this week Russia needs to leave Ukraine territory, including Crimea. Western Europe seems prepared to endure a cold winter with reduced Russian gas supplies.

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All of this is a credit to Ukraine’s sacrifices and tenacity in resisting Russia far better than Western experts expected. It also vindicates U.S. military support for Kyiv, which was too slow in coming for months but is now making a decisive difference with the longer-range, precision Himars rocket system.

As Mr. Putin’s announcement shows, the war isn’t over. The Russian’s best option at this point would be to seek a negotiated settlement with Ukraine, but Kyiv understands that now is its best chance to drive Russia from its territory. A truce would give Russia time to consolidate its occupation and launch another assault in the future.

An early truce is also less likely the more the world learns about Russian atrocities in areas it occupied that are liberated by Ukraine. The latest evidence comes from the newly liberated town of Izyum, where Ukrainian investigators discovered mass graves. As in Irpin and Bucha outside of Kyiv, some of the corpses bear signs of torture. Ukrainians are justified in demanding war crime tribunals.

A truce is possible if Russia abandons its invasion and cedes the territory it has taken. Short of that, this is a moment to accelerate arms deliveries to Ukraine, including tanks, fighter jets, and the longer-range ATACMS missiles. This is the fastest route to persuading Mr. Putin that his invasion has failed and he needs to cut his losses.

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