The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin’s Troop Call-Up Shows That He’s Losing

Vladimir Putin’s decision to declare a partial mobilization of Russian military personnel was intended as a show of strength. Instead, it’s exposed the weak position the Russian president finds himself in, with his forces suffering heavy losses in Ukraine and running short of men and materiel. In response to Putin’s latest threats, the US and Europe should redouble their commitment to help Ukraine defend itself — and warn Putin and those around him that any attempts to escalate the conflict would be a grave mistake.

Putin’s mobilization order came in the wake of stunning Ukrainian battlefield gains that have pushed Russian forces out of areas they had occupied for months. In addition to rushing sham votes in occupied territories as a prelude to annexation, the Kremlin has called up 300,000 reservists and said it will increase weapons production.

While partly aimed at placating nationalist hawks, these policies amount to an admission that Putin’s invasion has been a disaster. No successful “special military operation” requires snap referendums; and while Moscow claims that only 5,937 troops have died over the past seven months, the mobilization order appears to confirm Ukrainian and Western estimates of far bigger Russian losses. It also undermines the Kremlin’s efforts to convince Russians to ignore the war altogether, out of the belief it would be swift and painless. Within hours of Putin’s announcement, thousands scrambled over the border by car or filled up available flights. The largest street protests in months resulted in more than 1,300 arrests — a modest figure by Western standards, but large by Russian ones, due to repression and the threat that detained men will be immediately drafted.

In the short term, simply putting more troops in uniform is unlikely to help Russia much in Ukraine. Russia’s military lacks the infrastructure to deploy the recruits quickly. It remains unclear how these young men will be turned into competent fighters, nor how they will be housed, equipped and added to existing units. Even so, Putin’s moves are evidence of his intention to continue prosecuting the war, regardless of its human and economic costs. In his speech Wednesday, Putin explicitly threatened to use nuclear weapons to defend “the territorial integrity of our country” — which he has broadened to include illegally annexed areas in eastern Ukraine.

In response to such bluster, the US and its NATO allies must remain firm. US President Joe Biden and European leaders should demonstrate to Putin and his cronies that Western unity isn’t fraying and that the Kremlin can’t hope to outlast it. They should sustain the flow of weaponry to Ukraine, which Kyiv’s forces have shown they can use to great effect. Economic sanctions on Russia, which has already seen its oil and gas revenues drop, should be cranked up, along with efforts to help talented Russians leave the country. At the same time, the US should enlist China, India and other ostensibly neutral powers losing patience with Putin to pressure him to back down from his threats of escalation.

Of course, a humiliated autocrat can lash out, and the most hawkish voices around Putin are certainly encouraging that. He could also still turn the course of the war, but that’s looking ever more difficult. Putin’s in a tight spot, and the West should keep him there.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• A Decision Tree for Biden If Putin Goes Nuclear: Andreas Kluth

• Take Putin’s Nuclear Threat Seriously, But Not Too Seriously: Hal Brands

• An Off-Ramp for Putin Is Repugnant But Necessary: Clive Crook

The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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