Putin is under pressure on several fronts. On the long front line in Ukraine, the Russian army lacks soldiers who could withstand another counter-offensive by Ukrainian troops.
Despite long hesitation, the Russian leadership finally decided on partial mobilization in order to strengthen the defenses in Ukraine. The mobilization has so far been disastrous in parts; the military administration shows great incompetence. Contrary to what had been promised, sick men who were no longer fit for military service, but above all men without previous combat experience, were now being recruited in many regions of Russia.
This has led to many local protests; They were and are strongest in Dagestan, a predominantly Muslim republic in the Russian North Caucasus. This region had already suffered greatly from the war, and a disproportionately large number of soldiers who died in Ukraine came from Dagestan.
Gerhard Mangott is a professor of political science with a special focus on international relations and security in the post-Soviet space. He teaches at the Institute for Political Science in Innsbruck and is a lecturer at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna
After all, almost 280,000 Russian men have avoided mobilization by fleeing to neighboring countries. Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia are the main escape destinations. They do not want to fight for the Russian state – because they fear for their lives or because they are against this war that Russia has unleashed. This is a shameful experience for the Russian leadership, since they justified the mobilization by saying that the West was in the process of destroying Russia. This narrative does not seem to catch on with many.
In turn, in the urban centers there are demonstrations against the war and mobilization; a lot of women are involved. As Putin had feared, the mood among the population is slowly beginning to shift. Now that fathers and sons are being ripped from families and taken from their businesses, the long-held semblance of normalcy has faded and war is making itself felt in everyday life. The patriotic mobilization attempted by Putin to go into arms is not working properly.
How will Putin deal with this now? How does he react under this pressure? Even in this dire situation, Putin will not react emotionally or even with fear. Putin is a cool calculator, ready to do anything not to lose this war. After all, he knows that if the Russian army were defeated in Ukraine, he would be held responsible and it is quite possible that Putin would be overthrown.
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Worryingly, in his speech on partial mobilization, Putin said Russia would use any means at its disposal if the country’s “territorial integrity” were violated. With the expected annexations of the regions occupied by the Russian army in Ukraine, the current military front line and some areas beyond would be their own territory from the Russian point of view. But what if Ukraine tries to recapture some of the territories with a counter-offensive? Shouldn’t Putin then be asked whether the Russian army isn’t even capable of protecting its own borders?
But if Ukraine reconquers annexed territory, what are all the means available to Putin to respond. That would probably also include tactical nuclear weapons. Is Putin able to break the nuclear taboo that has been in place since 1945 when he feels cornered? The answer is most likely a “yes”. That doesn’t mean that Putin will do the same if the war turns out to be disastrous for Russia. Putin knows that Russia would have to pay a high diplomatic and military price for this: Conventional attacks on Russian positions in Ukraine and Russia’s global isolation. Even China and India would then distance themselves significantly from Putin.
The bottom line is that a cornered Putin is capable of using nuclear weapons in this conflict. But because he is also a cool calculator, such an escalation is by no means certain.