The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin is getting desperate. Ukraine and the West must keep the pressure on.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday. (Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/AP)

Though Russian President Vladimir Putin has often asserted that his “special military operation” in Ukraine was proceeding as planned, the facts on the ground have said otherwise for months. The most dramatic recent evidence is the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the northeastern part of the country, in which Kyiv’s forces recaptured more than 3,000 square kilometers this month as many of the Kremlin’s troops broke and ran. So Mr. Putin — albeit without admitting it — has switched tactics.

In an extraordinary televised address Wednesday, he announced a partial mobilization that would call up 300,000 reservists and forcibly extended the contracts of those already in Ukraine — as well as harsh new penalties for anyone who refuses to fight. He set the stage for annexing occupied areas of Ukraine, which would recast those regions as sovereign territory that Moscow is bound to defend. Most ominously, he said that, to counter threats to its “territorial integrity,” Russia “will certainly use all the means at our disposal” — an obvious allusion to its nuclear arsenal — adding, “This is not a bluff.”

President Biden and the leaders of other nations supporting Ukraine must take all of this seriously even as they take none of it at face value. Yes, Mr. Putin appears to be raising the stakes; but at the same time, he implied that Russia was scaling back its war aims — from the erstwhile (and absurd) “denazification” of all Ukraine to the mere protection of purportedly traditional Russian lands in the southeastern Donbas region. Indeed, Mr. Putin sought to recast his aggressive war as a reactive one. “The territorial integrity of our motherland, our independence and freedom will be defended,” he said. These are the hypocritical, backpedaling words of a dictator who badly miscalculated by seeking to destroy Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and who finds himself in need of a new rationale for war.

As his battlefield losses mount, Mr. Putin is taxing the patience both of Russian hard-liners who had supported his war and of major non-Western countries that had indulged it. The latter category includes China and India, whose respective leaders signaled their unhappiness with Mr. Putin at a recent multinational conference in Uzbekistan. Another attendee at that meeting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said there must be peace and a return of Ukrainian territory — including Crimea, seized in 2014. As for Russia’s people, thousands of them responded to Mr. Putin’s new plan by flocking to the Finnish border, lining up for one-way air tickets out and, in several cities, protesting.

The serious part is indeed the call for military reinforcements and the nuclear saber-rattling. It would be negligent to assume that Mr. Putin will not use the former to perpetuate combat as long as he can — or the latter to compensate for the ineptitude of his conventional forces if it comes to that. Cornered, he might be more dangerous. Yet, in practical terms, neither more troops nor nuclear weapons can be brought to bear effectively immediately. The only thing worse than failing to prepare for Mr. Putin to carry out his threats would be to be cowed by them.

There was no sign of that in Mr. Biden’s remarks to the United Nations, in which he decried Mr. Putin’s “irresponsible” language and pledged: “We will stand in solidarity to Russia’s aggression.” That was and is the winning policy, as Mr. Putin’s desperate words and deeds backhandedly — but unmistakably — confirm.

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