Even before Russian forces poured over the Ukrainian border on February 24, experts on the region were quick to dispute the popular notion that Moscow’s aggression was irrational. Rationality is in the eye of the beholder, after all. The view from the Kremlin likely convinced Russian officials that such a gambit was, while risky and morally fraught, worth it.
The Russians misjudged their adversaries, both in Ukraine and the West. Russian forces are bogged down where they’re not in outright retreat. And now, nearing the point of desperation, Moscow is acting in ways that undermine its stated aims. Vladimir Putin’s regime may still be rational, but rationality implies predictability. Of late, Russia’s behavior has become less predictable and more erratic, which suggests we’re approaching a uniquely dangerous new phase of this conflict.
Not since Russian forces tucked tail and abandoned the pincer movement designed to encircle and capture the city of Kyiv has Moscow suffered a humiliation like the one it endured in early September. Even as Ukrainian forces mounted a methodical but forward-moving counteroffensive in the South around the city of Kherson, they executed a surprise blitz into Russian-held territory near the border and around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. The Russian line folded like an omelet. The Kremlin’s forces abandoned city after city in retreat, eventually ceding the whole of Kharkiv Oblast to Ukrainian forces.
Ukrainian soldiers continue to press their advantage even now, and the Russians are beginning to signal their intention to act in ways that are not explained by even the most generous of cost-benefit analyses.
On the morning of September 21, President Putin confirmed reports that the Russian-occupied regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia would conduct hastily organized referenda that would lead to their formal annexation into the Russian Federation. The votes were announced on Monday, and they’re slated to conclude by Friday. The outcomes of these brazen referenda are not in doubt. Nor is Moscow’s intention especially unclear.
“Encroachment on Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self-defense,” wrote Russian National Security Council vice chairman and Putin puppet, Dmitry Medvedev. After accession into Russia proper, any Ukrainian attack on these territories will justify an escalatory response.
But accession to Russia proper has not dissuaded Ukrainian forces from executing attacks on military targets inside Crimea, which was absorbed into Russia after a similarly illegitimate referendum in 2014. And Ukraine is even responsible for retaliatory strikes on targets in the Belgorod region of Western Russia, though Kyiv has been coyer about its role in the attacks on one area from which the Russian military launched its invasion.
Russia has no good reason to suspect Ukraine will be dissuaded from attacking Russian forces in these Ukrainian regions after the referenda. Indeed, Ukrainian forces are fighting in these Oblasts right now, and a referendum won’t dislodge them any more than Russia’s depleted military might could. At best, the referenda provide some flimsy pretext to justify what the Kremlin has likely already decided it must do.
Vladimir Putin further announced in a speech to his nation that Russia would commit to the “partial” mobilization of the country—a politically destabilizing step the Kremlin had previously resisted. In practical terms, this allows Moscow to draft roughly 300,000 reserve soldiers to fight in the conflict—but only those with previous military experience. Russia, however, had good reasons for previously avoiding this step.
Admitting to the world that the cost of the conflict has been so high—Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s ludicrously low casualty figures notwithstanding—as to justify mobilizing Russian reserves was once the last resort. Angering and humiliating the Russian public with such a maneuver was considered too risky. Burdening Russian commanders with ill-trained, poorly equipped reservists without a functioning corps of non-commissioned officers was considered counterproductive. But then, so, too, was the last-resort emergency measure of taking convicts from Russian prisons and offering them up to the Ukrainian meatgrinder. Either the Kremlin’s calculus has changed or it has rationalized itself into believing the risk of failure in Ukraine is a greater menace.
All this has received less attention in the West than Vladimir Putin’s somewhat routine appeal to nuclear blackmail. “Our country also has various means of destruction and in some components more modern than those of the NATO countries,” Putin stressed, “and if the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.” The Russian president’s nuclear threats are so common they appear casual and rote, but the actions that precede this latest warning lend it new credibility.
Even if the threat was nominal, the demonstrative deployment of an unconventional weapon, or even the use of one in a battlefield context, can never be ruled out. And given Moscow’s current predicament, the use of such a weapon may be an increasingly attractive option.
Russia has engaged in what reporters believe could potentially constitute a “systematic” campaign of murder, repression, and ethnic cleansing inside Ukraine, the evidence of which we were never supposed to see. It has given up even the pretenses and legal fictions it crafted to justify what is now a naked campaign of violent territorial expansionism. It has courted the outrage of its own citizens, more and more of whom now share the civilized world’s contempt for the Russian president.
Unconventional weapons have next to no tactical value and only a limited strategic purpose: to deter their use by a similarly armed adversary. Once deterrence fails, these weapons become more offensive than defensive. If Russia’s plan involves breaking that seal, its objective would be to intimidate the West into abandoning Kyiv. Maybe it would work, but the Kremlin has already seriously misjudged NATO’s resolve to support Ukrainian sovereignty despite the costs it must absorb in the process. Perhaps Russia hasn’t learned any lessons from that miscalculation. If so, God help us.