Ukraine’s surprisingly successful counteroffensive against the Russian military has increased pressure on Vladimir Putin. The war the Russian president initially expected to win in a matter of days has now turned against him, perhaps decisively. He has responded by taking a step he had previously avoided—ordering a partial mobilization of the Russian military—and repeating veiled threats to use nuclear weapons.
The mobilization is unlikely to change the facts on the ground anytime soon. It will take time to complete, and winter will probably compel both sides to limit fighting. Beyond that, sending more badly trained soldiers into battle won’t solve Russia’s glaring problems with poor leadership, low morale, and depleted weapons supplies. The mobilization could also expose the vulnerabilities of Putin’s rule, a likely reason he refrained from ordering a general mobilization of Russian society.
So Putin’s primary strategy looks to be what it has been since his “special operation” failed to produce Ukraine’s quick capitulation back in March: hanging tough in expectation that Western support for Ukraine will eventually crumble, leaving Kyiv at Moscow’s mercy. The critical lever here, of course, is cutting gas supplies to the Europe. Putin calculates that as prices skyrocket and temperatures drop, angry European publics will compel their governments to accommodate Moscow.
The pressure on Western unity is real. The euphoria and determination that marked the initial strong reaction to Russia’s invasion was always bound to be tested. Both within and between countries, squabbles over who should bear the burden of making Russia pay for its aggression were inevitable. Worries about “Ukraine fatigue” increased over the summer. In June, former Pentagon official Andrew Exum proclaimed that “Western support for Ukraine has peaked.” The following month, Fareed Zakaria warned that the West’s strategy was in danger of failing because “homes in Europe might not have enough heat” this winter.
Despite such handwringing, or perhaps because of it, the collapse of Western resolve remains unlikely, even if Ukraine’s current counteroffensive stalls. Recognizing Putin’s potential leverage, the West has moved decisively to undercut it. Europeans, perhaps even more than Americans, understand that the price of freedom is high—and that Ukrainians are bearing a far bigger cost than they are. The shock produced by the first major ground war in Europe since World War II is real and lasting—as is the determination to ensure that Russia fails.
As Ivo and wrote earlier this year, Putin, like many failed autocrats before him, underestimates the will and staying power of the West. Democracies can be slow to recognize threats, but once they do they have historically responded with strength and determination. Or as the Financial Times’ Janan Ganesh put it last week, democracy’s critics presume that “free societies have an innate flakiness: a sort of will to impotence.” But democracies are made of sterner stuff. Indeed, Putin’s nuclear threats and his decision to deliberately target Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure will only harden convictions in the West that Russia must be stopped rather than accommodated.
Margaret Gach and Michelle Kurilla assisted in the preparation of this post.