Putin’s Desperation Signals that he has Already Lost

Kash Jain ’24

Opinion Editor

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly instituted a draft to boost his flailing campaign in Ukraine. This drive aims to mobilize 300,000 troops, though some reports indicate that the number of conscripts could be closer to one million. This attempt at bolstering Russia’s numbers has kicked off a new wave of protests across the country. The borders between Russia and several adjacent countries have grown congested as people exit, hoping to avoid the draft by making it to foreign soil. Officials in some nearby countries, including Germany, have expressed willingness to take in Russians fleeing the draft and offered continued condemnation of Putin’s most recent move and the invasion itself.

Putin has turned to a number of claims to justify his aggressive campaign in Ukraine. Twisted truths and outright lies have been used to paint Russia as a hero antagonized by NATO and the United States and forced into invading its neighbor. However, the justification for the invasion has always been muddy and, though polling in the early months of the invasion seemed to suggest that the majority of Russians supported it, the lack of a clear, legitimate reason for the invasion has sparked significant backlash within Russia’s borders. 

The topics of wartime governance and political persuasion are undoubtedly complicated, but an intuitive fact is that war needs fuel and continuous support. Money, weaponry, and manpower are all needed to sustain a conflict, and public support is important in lending legitimacy to the leaders of the conflict and the states involved. Massive backlash can result in immense pressure on governments to change their course of action. In some instances, leaders can be forced out by a barrage of displeasure and outright anger. 

With an autocratic thug leading the state and its crackdown on anti-war protests, Putin being ousted by a revolution among his people has never been especially likely. This isn’t to say that Putin’s removal by ordinary Russians is entirely impossible, but given the political power disparity within Russia and the lack of restraints on Putin’s decision-making, the easiest path to his ousting is a total loss of support among Russia’s elites. Even with them—his backers—Putin is sliding. 

Putin’s desperate move to force people into a war that they want no part of will cut at his remaining support among ordinary people and has quite literally forced Russian civilians to leave the country. Perhaps an even more important product of this desperation is how Putin appears because of it. Ukraine’s resilience to Russia’s invasion and its fairly successful counteroffensive has shown that Putin is in a much weaker position than had been expected; in this war, he has stood virtually friendless, presiding over an ill-equipped and dysfunctional army. Instead of producing decisive victories, he’s crushed Russia’s economy and seen the creation of a united global front against him. Now, he appears weaker than ever, struggling to find the resources to continue his war.

That, fundamentally, is the cost of Putin’s most recent action: he looks weak, something that an autocrat can never appear to be—at least not without consequence. Furthermore, this desperation signals that Putin cannot continue this war forever and is perhaps already reaching the limits of his resources. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the invasion will suddenly turn into a retreat, but it does signal that there is a point at which Putin will simply be unable to continue his attack.

Any victory would be such only by technicality, and it would be a pyrrhic one; Putin has already lost this war, even if he ultimately achieves his aim in conquering Ukraine. His legitimacy is in question, he’s struggling in a war that conventional wisdom would suggest would be a success, and now he’s forcing his people to become soldiers for a cause that many of them don’t even believe in. 

Even if Putin declares victory in Ukraine, he has lost in Russia: he has lost the confidence of his people and whatever legitimacy he retained as head of state; he has lost the support of some of his oligarch backers and could lose the rest. For Putin, who has poured everything he can into the invasion of Ukraine, burning away his support and his country’s resources, there is no true victory ahead.

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