Putin’s erratic actions are not those of a secure leader.
By Anne Applebaum
Sept 21, 2022
If an American president announced a major speech, booked the networks for 8 p.m., and then disappeared until the following morning, the analysis would be immediate and damning: chaos, disarray, indecision. The White House must be in crisis.
In the past 24 hours, this is exactly what happened in Moscow. The Russian president really did announce a major speech, alert state television, warn journalists, and then disappear without explanation. Although Vladimir Putin finally gave his speech to the nation this morning, the same conclusions have to apply: chaos, disarray, indecision. The Kremlin must be in crisis.
In fact, no elements of the delayed speech were completely new or unexpected. Russian authorities have long intended to hold sham referenda in the Ukrainian territories they occupy. Putin and his television propagandists have been making subtle and unsubtle nuclear threats since February. Quietly, a creeping mobilization has been going on for many weeks too, as the Russian army has sought to recruit more men to replace the soldiers who it still does not admit have been killed, wounded, or exhausted by the war. But now that Ukraine has successfully recaptured thousands of square miles of Russian-held territory, the sham referenda are being rushed, the nuclear language is being repeated, and the mobilization expanded. These are not the actions of a secure leader assured of his legitimacy and of the outcome of this war.
In part, the crisis stems from Putin’s fears that he will lose whatever counts as his international support. No ideology holds together the global autocrats’ club, and no sentiment does either. As long as they believed Russia really had the second largest army in the world, as long as Putin seemed destined to stay in power indefinitely, then the leaders of China, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, along with the strongmen running India and Turkey, were happy to tolerate his company.
But Putin’s supposedly inevitable military victory is in jeopardy. His army looks weak. Western sanctions make problems not just for him but his trading partners, and their tolerance is receding. At a summit in Uzbekistan last week, he was snubbed by a series of Central Asian leaders. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told him that “today’s era is not an era of war,” and Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed his “concerns” as well. On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told PBS that he had urged Putin to end the war: “The lands which were invaded will be returned to Ukraine.” And those lands, he made clear, should include Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, following a sham referendum much like the ones it now plans to stage in other parts of occupied Ukraine.
But while losing support abroad is bad, losing support at home is worse, and there are some signs of that too. Putin might not care much about the Russian liberals and exiles who oppose the war, but he may worry (and should worry) about people who are supposed to be on his side—people such as Alla Pugacheva, a Soviet-era pop star who has millions of mainstream followers and has
recently proclaimed both her patriotism and her opposition to the war. Putin may also worry about the disappointed, pro-war nationalist bloggers, active on social media, who have been criticizing the conduct of the war for some time. “Mobilization is, let’s put it bluntly, our only chance to avoid a crushing defeat,” one of them recently wrote. No one has stopped or arrested these critics, perhaps because they have protectors high up inside the security services, or perhaps because they are connected to the heavily armed mercenaries who are now doing much of the important fighting in Ukraine. If their loyalty isn’t assured, then Putin isn’t secure either.
At the same time, the Russian president has to balance the discontent of that heavily armed minority against the wishes of the mostly apathetic, mostly silent majority. For the past six months, Putin has been telling the latter that there is no war, just a special military operation; that Russia has suffered no losses, just some temporary setbacks. Given that the army is victorious and everything is fine, most people need not alter their lives in any way. Now events have forced Putin to change his language, but it seems there are limits. Thus he speaks not of a true mass mobilization—which would involve conscripting young men in enormous numbers—but of partial mobilization: no students, no general call-up, just the activation of reservists with past military experience. Supposedly Russia has 300,000 such people, though it’s not clear how many of them are actually fit to fight or whether there are enough weapons and gear for them either. Presumably, if better equipment were available, it would already be on the battlefield.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the speech and a series of legal changes announced yesterday reflect a crisis inside the military. In truth, the Russian army faces not just a logistical emergency or some tactical problems but also a collapse in morale. That’s why Putin needs more soldiers, and that’s why, as in Stalin’s time, the Russian state has now defined “voluntary surrender” as a crime: Under a law approved by the Russian Parliament yesterday, you can be sent to prison for up to 10 years. If you desert your guard post in Donetsk or Kherson (or change into civilian clothes and run away, as some Russian soldiers have done in the past few weeks). The state has also decreed new penalties for mutiny—“using violence against a superior”—and stealing while in uniform. If the Russian army were a reliable, enthusiastic, dedicated fighting force, then the state would not need to declare harsh punishments for deserters, looters, and mutineers. But it is not.
Over the next few days, the bogus referenda will gather headlines, and the nuclear threats will create fear, as they were designed to do. But we should understand these attempts at blackmail and intimidation as a part of the deeper story told by this delayed speech: Support for Putin is eroding—abroad, at home, and in the army. Everything else he says and does right now is nothing more than an attempt to halt that decline.
Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic.