The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin’s gambles lead to chaos and risk of escalation

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Russia is most likely the first and only country in the world,” tweeted the exiled Russian dissident and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, “where people flee not because someone invaded their country, but because they invaded another country.”

That’s not quite true, of course. Some 40,000 American dissenters trying to evade being drafted into the Vietnam War crossed the border to Canada half a century ago. But their flight took place over the span of a decade. What has happened in Russia in less than a week since President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization to bolster a flagging war effort in Ukraine is of an incomparable scale.

When the mobilization was announced last week, the Kremlin hoped to muster an additional 300,000 reservists. Now, perhaps as many as that number of Russian fighting-age men have left the country in a bid to avoid enlisting. They have crammed flights to Turkey, swum over rivers and sat for days at traffic-snarled border crossings. Kazakhstan alone has counted 98,000 Russian arrivals since Sept. 21. Georgian officials say some 10,000 Russians are crossing the border each day. Thousands, too, are arriving in Mongolia.

Social media proliferates with videos that gesture to widespread chaos and confusion within Russia. There are scenes of protest, particularly in impoverished, ethnic minority regions, where locals turn on military recruiters. And there are scenes of despair and incompetence: In one video, an older officer advises newly mobilized recruits to scavenge for their own tourniquets and sleeping bags and to stockpile tampons as improvised bandages. In another, a Russian man is seen deliberately breaking a friend’s leg to help him stay away from the war.

What’s clear is that the mobilization has been handled haphazardly and unevenly. Local governments issued enlistment notices to men who fell far outside the Kremlin’s stated criteria, including the elderly, the medically unfit and many without a shred of military training. In their latest bulletin on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, documented protests against the call-ups in at least 35 settlements in Russia on Sunday and at least 10 settlements on Monday. More than 2,300 Russians have been arrested since Wednesday because of these demonstrations.

The speed and scale of the exodus have led to reports that Russia may close its borders to stop the departures of these men, which understandably prompted more people to drop everything and try to leave.

“There are already so many examples of old and unfit men and students receiving summons,” a Russian man named Alexei, 36, told my colleagues over the phone Sunday from Kazakhstan. “It’s not that I am a coward or anything, but nobody is attacking my motherland. On the contrary, my motherland is an aggressor and I don’t want to be part of this aggression and obviously, I do not want to die.”

Authorities in nearby countries with cordial, if complex, relations with Moscow are handling the situation with what care they can. “Most of [the Russians] have been forced to leave because of a hopeless situation that has arisen,” Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said. “We should show concern for them and assure their security. This is a political and humanitarian matter.”

As Putin seeks to rush reinforcements to the Ukrainian front lines, he’s also trying to change the political facts on the ground. It seems that the Kremlin may soon declare the annexation of four “republics” in Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine that staged sham referendums in recent days to join their territories with Russia. Putin’s critics view both the mobilization and the annexation plans as the gambit of a leader desperate to shift the tide of a battle that he was losing.

“He knew that as soon as he ordered mobilization, there would be some upheaval in the country, and we’re seeing the images and scenes of that right now,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” over the weekend. He also added that the referendums in Ukraine are “a sign that he is struggling very badly in Ukraine.”

Bloomberg Opinion’s Leonid Bershidsky wrote, “Having launched the Ukraine invasion for emotional reasons and suffered predictable failures, Putin is compelled to take greater and greater risks.”

The annexation of the Russian-controlled enclaves in Ukraine could lead to Russia interpreting any strikes on these territories as attacks on Russia itself, widening the scope of the conflict and raising the threat of serious escalation. Ukraine and its allies, of course, reject this interpretation and see the referendums as illegal exercises carried out at gunpoint by Russian-armed separatists.

“People understand that everything has been decided,” said a woman living in the city of Luhansk, speaking to my colleagues on the condition of anonymity for her safety about the “referendum” being pushed through in the region. “They think that this will end something because a ‘republic’ is easy to hit with all of the support of NATO. But people think it’ll be different if it’s Russia. I hear people saying that Ukraine doesn’t have nuclear weapons, and Ukraine won’t shell here anymore if we’re part of a country that does have one.”

Russian officials themselves have spoken bluntly about wielding nuclear weapons. “I have to remind you again — for those deaf who hear only themselves. Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons if necessary,” former president Dmitry Medvedev wrote on his Telegram channel.

“We should believe Putin that ‘this is not a bluff,’” explained Joseph Cirincione, a veteran arms control expert, in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “The first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict is an integral part of Russian military doctrine, as it is in U.S. war plans. Unlike the United States, Russia regularly practices for the use of nuclear weapons and integrates them into its conventional military exercises, most recently just before Putin‘s invasion.”

In backchannels, Western diplomats have issued private warnings to Russian counterparts about the costs of a potential nuclear strike on Ukraine. In Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his allies argue that the dangers of the moment only underscore the urgent need to support his country as it seeks to press its advantage and repel the Russian invasion through conventional force.

“Prevention is the basis for lasting peace — a measure to cut short any aggression, a measure to save many more lives than by reacting to something that already happened, and it will ensure a lasting peace,” Zelensky said during a virtual address to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government on Tuesday.

In separate remarks, the Ukrainian president also described the Russian mobilization as a “frank attempt to give commanders on the ground a constant stream of cannon fodder.”